Your relationship with yourself is one of the most important ones you’ll ever have. Here’s how to nurture it.
When someone says the word “relationship,” chances are you think of your interactions and behavior toward someone else, like a family member, romantic partner, or friend.
But the truth is, we also have one other very important relationship: the one with ourselves.
How we think about ourselves — and treat ourselves — is one of the very first relationships we’ll ever have. As it turns out, this relationship is extremely important because it can influence all our other ones.
If you aren’t sure how to develop a healthy relationship with yourself, try these self-help tips or consider speaking with a therapist.
In its simplest terms, a self-relationship is exactly what it sounds like: a relationship you have with yourself.
“It encompasses your feelings about yourself, the way you treat yourself, and the decisions you make for yourself,” explains Kate O’Brien, a licensed therapist in New York that focuses on codependency, grief, and emotional trauma.
In other words: it’s how we view, understand, talk with, and respond to ourselves and our needs. It’s how we feel about all the different parts of ourselves — our bodies, moods, mindsets, and behavior.
And it’s how we treat those parts of ourselves, whether that’s with support, love, encouragement, and compassion or criticism and disgust.
“It can sound funny to have a ‘self-relationship’ because society does not teach us to have one,” explains Simone Koger, a licensed marriage and family therapist, grief counselor, and owner of Koger Counseling.
“[But] it is important to constantly be thoughtful toward your self-relationship because it affects all other aspects of your life.”
For example, being critical of yourself can affect your self-esteem, causing you to feel bad about yourself regularly. A lack of self-esteem can make you retreat or avoid family and friends. Alternatively, it could cause you to develop a lack of boundaries with other people, allowing toxic relationships into your life.
Over time, this can affect your relationships and friendships, as well as sabotage your confidence at work or your desire to go after your goals in life.
“A negative self-relationship can hold people back even from pursuing goals that are within their reach because they stop themselves from trying,” says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor from Austin, Texas.
Over time, this negative self-relationship — and its impact on your self-esteem and behavior can have a lasting impact on your mental health, leading to increased stress, depression, anxiety, and social anxiety.
Conversely, a positive self-relationship can make you more resilient to depression and anxiety.
“Beginning to see yourself as a person who needs compassion and care can often help you move through challenging emotions more smoothly,” says O’Brien. “You may notice an increase in energy, less depression, and more capacity to connect with others.”
There are several ways you can work towards having a healthier relationship with yourself. Here are some tips.
Check-in with yourself
Consider taking a minute to see how you really feel in the moment and trying to name the feelings you’re having. How do you feel? What are you thinking?
“If that feels foreign to you, you can start by noticing sensations in your body,” says O’Brien. “A gentle entry into noticing sensations might include finding a texture that you like to touch and taking that feeling in.”
Validate all your feelings
Validating your feelings means accepting your feelings without judgment. This includes unpleasant emotions like anger and shame.
“Even the most difficult parts of yourself — such as those that cause you to do things that hurt yourself or others — are motivated by some genuine, deep human need,” explains Stephani Jahn, a licensed mental health counselor.
“When you can give your struggling inner parts some credit by validating their needs and feelings — while still maintaining boundaries about any potentially harmful actions — you will be able to move toward self-understanding and self-collaboration to support greater well-being.”
When you validate your feelings and understand why you’re having them, you’ll be able to maybe address the core need you’re having that’s leading to these unpleasant feelings.
Remember that it’s OK to say “no”
“Sometimes having this strong self-relationship means that you’re saying ‘no’ to certain activities that don’t align with your needs and choosing different options,” says Elspeth Robertson, registered clinical counselor and professional art therapist in Vancouver.
For example, if your friends ask you to go out every day after work and you’re exhausted from work, it’s OK not to immediately agree with their request. Instead, take a minute and consider your time, energy levels, and interest in their plans, then decide if you want to go out.
If you really just need some time to rest, it’s OK to say that. If you prefer to not be alone, that’s OK too.
Ultimately, checking in with yourself first and letting your needs take priority can make you a better friend in the long term because you aren’t allowing your unmet needs to turn to resentment.
“[It] allows for you to show up completely in your other relationships, set boundaries around your time and energy, tend to your needs, and cultivate self-acceptance,” Robertson says.
Make time for yourself and the things you enjoy
Like any good relationship, it helps to set time aside to nurture it. So try making some time for yourself and your needs.
“When you have some time in your week, take yourself out on a date/playdate,” suggests Robertson. “Block out time — anywhere between 2 hours and a full day — and allow yourself to lean into curiosity and joy, just like you would on a date with a partner or a gathering with friends.”
Having a good self-relationship also means sticking up for yourself when you need to and you can do that by setting clear, fair boundaries with other people.
True, setting boundaries might feel awkward at first, especially if you’re not used to it, but over time, it will accomplish two things: attending to your needs and becoming more predictable to others. Both will ultimately allow you to develop better relationships with yourself and others.
Remind yourself that it’s not ‘selfish’ to take care of yourself
If you’ve been neglecting your relationship with yourself, it might feel selfish to try to change that now. Sometimes the way we were raised by our parents has also conditioned us to put ourselves last and cater to other people first.
“Having healthy self-relationships is likely to reduce selfish behavior because instead of taking out your needs and problems on others, you will have an increased ability to work through them internally and interpersonally in healthy ways,” Jahn says.
“When your inner world is more harmonious, you’ll be more able to bring your best strengths, such as compassion, to your relationships with others.”
If you’re having trouble understanding yourself or figuring out what your needs truly are, journaling might help.
“Journaling is an excellent way to learn more about ourselves and build a relationship with ourselves,” says Dr. Kimber Shelton, licensed psychologist.
She recommends experimenting with free writing (i.e., writing down whatever comes to mind at the moment) or, if that’s too difficult, finding journal prompts to help you explore your thoughts and better understand yourself.
Try to think of positive affirmations about yourself each day
It can feel weird to compliment yourself or talk about what you like about yourself when engaging in self-affirmations. But when you focus on what you do like, each day, it can positively impact your self-esteem and your feelings of self-worth.
So, recommends Nassour, “try to name something you did well or something you’re proud of each day. Doing this regularly trains your brain to see your strengths, not just your weaknesses.”
Reach out to a therapist
If you’re struggling to improve your relationship with yourself, remember that you can always reach out to a therapist to ask for help.
“A professional therapist can help you pinpoint the areas where you might be stuck in your relationship with yourself,” says Robertson.
A therapist can also help you learn to think about yourself and talk to yourself in a more kind and compassionate way and help you redefine your relationship with yourself in a more positive way.
At the end of the day, your relationship with yourself is incredibly important for maintaining your mental health and your interpersonal relationships.
Your self-relationship impacts how you see yourself, talk to yourself, and interact with others — meaning it can help or hurt you in every other aspect of your life.
That’s why it can be important to work on improving this relationship through self-care, acknowledging and validating your own feelings, and maybe even seeing a therapist.