What is self-love?
There’s a lot of talk these days about self-love. It sounds great, but what does it actually mean? How do we love ourselves – and why does it matter?
Self-love means that you accept yourself fully, treat yourself with kindness and respect, and nurture your growth and wellbeing.
Self-love encompasses not only how you treat yourself but also your thoughts and feelings about yourself. So, when you conceptualize self-love, you can try to imagine what you would do for yourself, how you’d talk to yourself, and how you’d feel about yourself that reflects love and concern.
When you love yourself, you have an overall positive view of yourself. This doesn’t mean you feel positive about yourself all the time. That would be unrealistic! For example, I can temporarily feel upset, angry, or disappointed with myself and still love myself. If this is confusing, think about how this works in other relationships. I can love my son even though I sometimes feel angry or disappointed with him. Even in the midst of my anger and disappointment, my love for him informs how I relate to him. It allows me to forgive him, consider his feelings, meet his needs, and make decisions that will support his wellbeing. Self-love is very much the same. Which means, if you know how to love others, you know how to love yourself!
What does self-love look like?
The following are examples of what self-love can look like in action.
- Saying positive things to yourself
- Forgiving yourself when you mess up
- Meeting your own needs
- Being assertive
- Not letting others take advantage of or abuse you
- Prioritizing your health and wellbeing
- Spending time around people who support you and build you up (and avoiding people who don’t)
- Asking for help
- Letting go of grudges or anger that holds you back
- Recognizing your strengths
- Valuing your feelings
- Making healthy choices most of the time
- Living in accordance with your values
- Pursuing your interests and goals
- Challenging yourself
- Holding yourself accountable
- Giving yourself healthy treats
- Accepting your imperfections
- Setting realistic expectations
- Noticing your progress and effort
Why do we need to love ourselves?
If you grew up without any models for self-love or anyone who talked to you about the importance of being good to yourself, you might question its value.
Well, without self-love, you’re likely to be highly self-critical and fall into people-pleasing and perfectionism. You’re more likely to tolerate abuse or mistreatment from others. You may neglect your own needs and feelings because you don’t value yourself. And you may self-sabotage or make decisions that aren’t in your own best interest.
Self-love is the foundation that allows us to be assertive, set boundaries and create healthy relationships with others, practice self-care, pursue our interests and goals, and feel proud of who we are.
Self-love vs. narcissism
In addition to questioning whether self-love is really necessary, another big barrier to self-love is the belief that it’s narcissistic or selfish.
When psychologists and therapists encourage self-love, they aren’t talking about putting yourself on a pedestal above everyone else. Narcissists believe they’re better than others and won’t acknowledge or take responsibility for their mistakes and flaws. They also seek extraneous amounts of external validation and recognition. Narcissists also lack empathy for others.
Self-love, on the other hand, isn’t about showing off how great you are. People who love themselves in a healthy way know that they are flawed and make mistakes – and they accept and care about themselves despite their imperfections. Self-love doesn’t prevent you from caring about others; it simply means you can give yourself the same kindness that you give to others.
Putting self-love into practice
Often, when things are hard to do, we avoid them. You might notice that you have thoughts like these:
I’ll take a break and focus on myself after I’ve taken care of my family.
Noticing my feelings and journaling sounds like a lot of work.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to change.
I want to be less self-critical, but I don’t know how.
Self-care seems self-indulgent.
I have too much to do.
I know this relationship isn’t good for me, but I don’t want to be alone.
I’ve been surviving on five hours of sleep for years, so it can’t be that bad.
It’s normal to be ambivalent about self-love – or making any change. However, loving yourself doesn’t mean you have to change everything about your life. Just try to treat yourself a little better than you did yesterday.
To get started, I suggest that you identify one loving thing you can do for yourself today. It could be a supportive thought or action. Next, write down what you’re going to do and when you’ll do it. Writing it down increases accountability and makes it more likely that you’ll follow through. As you add more and more loving thoughts and actions to your daily life, they’ll begin to crowd out some of your self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. With practice, self-love will become second nature.