The idea of loving ourselves may seem strange, confusing or utterly ridiculous. It may seem selfish, abstract or out of reach.
When psychotherapist Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, talks to her clients about loving themselves, she says it’s similar to how we’d want a parent to love a child: unconditionally with compassion, grace and firm boundaries.
Which is one reason people have a hard time practicing self-love: Many of us didn’t grow up with a healthy attachment to our parents, said Brunner, a perinatal mental health and relationship expert in Austin, Texas.
Maybe your parents didn’t express their love. Maybe they were completely and utterly absent. Maybe they were harsh and shaming.
If this sounds familiar, it’s likely you didn’t hear a loving voice inside your head and didn’t learn how to actually care for yourself, Brunner said. “I truly believe that the way our parents love us gives us our first example of how to love ourselves.”
It’s also hard to be loving toward ourselves when so many of us are our own worst critic. “We are with ourselves all of the time, and paying attention to every detail of our lives in a way that no one else does.”
And, of course, it doesn’t help that we see Photoshopped, filtered images on social media, and all around us all the time, added Brunner, also co-author of the forthcoming book Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads: How to Support Your Partner Through Birth, Breastfeeding & Beyond.
But it’s OK that you didn’t learn how to love yourself. It’s OK that you’re not head-over-heels enamored with who you are and how you look. It’s OK because you can still care for yourself with compassion and grace. You can still be loving toward yourself.
Below are three suggestions from Brunner:
Reparent yourself. Brunner recommended doing this exercise with a trusted therapist, but you could always try it on your own, as well (or with your partner or a trusted friend). Begin by listing how one or both of your parents used to talk to you.
Cross off the negative statements. Look at the positive statements, and add to them by answering the question: How do I wish my parents, or another trusted adult, would have talked to me as a child? When you’re done, read these statement once a day for a week (or as needed).
Speak loving words. Pay attention to your thoughts. How do you speak to yourself? How do you speak to yourself when you wake up, when you make a mistake, when you forget something, when you don’t accomplish everything on your to-do list, when you get into a fight with a friend?
Brunner stressed the importance of replacing critical thoughts with loving ones, which she noted are all about kindness, honesty, fairness and respect. For instance, you might replace “I am a horrible parent,” with “I am a good parent who struggles sometimes, just like most parents.” You might replace “I never get anything right,” with “I’m human and I mess up sometimes, but I also get a lot of things right.”
Prioritize loving actions. Make a list of five actions that feel loving to you. “It might be adding something to your schedule or agenda, or subtracting something,” Brunner said. “It might mean making your self-care a priority for the first time in a long time.”
For instance, this might mean anything from working with a therapist to uncover self-sabotaging habits to asking for a raise at work to taking a restorative yoga class to not blaming yourself anymore for your partner’s addiction (and refocusing your energy on caring for yourself). (Some of these are examples of actions that Brunner’s clients have taken.)
If you’re not sure what a loving action really looks like, ask yourself these questions, which I mentioned in this piece: What would I do if I loved myself? What would I do if I believed wholeheartedly that I deserved good things?
Loving yourself also means being honest about behaviors and relationships that aren’t serving you, Brunner said. It means setting boundaries that protect your time and energy. It means having a sense of humor and forgiving yourself.
“OK, so you messed up and forgot to pack your kid’s lunch in his backpack or you scratched your car on the side of the garage. Being loving with yourself means that you acknowledge your mistake, figure out how to rectify the situation, figure out what you would do differently next time and then make the decision to let go and move forward.”
And if “self-love” or “loving yourself” sounds too woo-woo or odd or annoying, then forget those terms. But do remember to engage in activities and habits and relationships and self-talk that nurture, serve and support you.
It doesn’t matter so much what you call how you relate to yourself. What matters more is that you relate to yourself with compassion, fairness and respect, infusing your actions with these words—the way perhaps a good enough parent would do.