HOW TO LOVE ONESELF
(Let me count the ways!)
I feel like writing about how to love oneself. At 48, this is something I've really only learned to do in the last fifteen years or so, and I'm still learning. I definitely got some of my ability from growing up in a loving family with wise parents. Yet self-loving is not something I was explicitly taught at school or at home, even though it is arguably one of the most important things we can do. We hear often that we can't truly love others until we love ourselves, and I'm sure there are tons of self-help books on the subject, yet there doesn't seem to be a common agreement about how to do self-love, or that it's a skill that can and should be taught.
I cobbled my understanding together from many different sources, particularly a men's therapy group I was in from 2000-2004, guided by the holistic physician Ross Laing. I also learned a lot through my own trial and error. I don't know how unique, complete, or applicable to others my methods of self-loving are, but I feel like sharing.
It's been on my mind lately because of conversations with my mom and brother, in which they both said, "The concept of loving oneself doesn't make any sense to me. Love seems by definition something you can only feel for an external person or thing." I get that viewpoint, it makes perfect sense, and I understand why people would hold it. Yet I think there's a real case to be made that one can love oneself, there are specific ways to do it, and there are lots of benefits. If self-love is totally foreign to a person, I think they're missing something really important, or at least really great. Something I'd like to see people, especially the ones I love, have.
As I've been thinking about it, I've realized that self-love is for me a quite multi-faceted practice. It's not just something you either do or don't do, know or don't know. Self-love has many forms, aspects, methods, definitions, and reasons. And the idea of trying to describe and organize some of them is intriguing to me.
why love oneself?
Let's start with some of the reasons. It is my belief, and my experience, that failing to love myself makes it hard for me to be loving towards other people. It also makes it hard to be happy. And healthy. And to get stuff done. I'd even go so far as to say that it turns me into somewhat of a menace to myself and others. Much of my suffering, judgemental-ness, and hurtfulness towards people can be traced to not loving myself in one way or another. On the other hand, loving myself makes me happier, healthier, more productive, and more kind and generous towards others. It helps me be a person who's at least safe to be around, and at most a truly uplifting presence in the world.
I don't think self-love is the ONLY necessary ingredient in a happy and productive life. Optimism, courage, openness, self-confidence, and a commitment to following one's inspirations, are also key. But self-love is very important, and all these qualities are related.
what is self-love?
What do I mean by self-love? A lot of things. It's all the ways we love others, just aimed at ourselves. I think these ways can be sloppily organized into eight categories:
1) feeling positively towards yourself: appreciation, affection, warmth, gratitude, care, and liking.
2) thinking positively about yourself; or approval.
3) declaring you have the right to do something you want; or permission.
4) ways to relieve your own suffering: nurturing, compassion, reassurance, care taking, healing, and providing comfort.
5) introspection: openness, attention, and listening.
6) removing your unkindness toward yourself: forgiveness, acceptance, letting be, and cutting slack.
7) being with yourself as if you were two people: friendliness, companionship, and playfulness.
8) treating yourself well: kindness, sweetness, respect, generosity, indulgence, prioritizing, receiving, getting help, and giving yourself pleasure. Treating yourself well includes both on your own (masturbation, e.g.), and in relationships (such as asking for what you want).9) taking good care of your health: sleep, exercise, good eating, stress management, down-time, etc.
10) being your own advocate: maintaining good boundaries, self-motivation, bolstering self-confidence
Now here's two distinctions that I think are useful and important, and can be applied to most forms of self-love. One is passive/active, and the other is conditional/unconditional.
passive and active
Passive/active refers to how much willpower or intention is involved in a given kind of self-loving. Some people think love is simply a pure, involuntary feeling you either have or don't have. Others think it's an action, something you do. Others think it can be a deed, but it has to be based on a feeling, or it's not honest and real. Others think it can be something you actively do whether you're feeling it or not, because a) it benefits the beloved even if you're not in a generous mood, and b) just doing something loving will often lead you to feeling loving. And still others think love is a sacrifice, something you should make yourself do whether or not you want to on any level, and whether or not it ends up making you feel loving. Whether we're talking about loving someone else, or loving oneself, I think love is all of the above things, except possibly the last.
At first glance, the items in categories three to eight above are active, things we intentionally do. We can choose to forgive ourselves for messing up a meal, indulge in a more expensive and comfortable bed, or care for our headache by leaving the loud party. Yet many of these things can also just occur, without effort. We can find ourselves feeling kind, compassionate, generous, nurturing, open, or forgiving towards ourselves, and it's great when that happens.
Category two, "thinking positively about oneself, or approval," can seem either passive or active. We may naturally and reflexively approve of ourselves if we do a really good job at something. Yet we can also actively choose to extend approval, acceptance, and appreciation in our own direction.
Category one, I called "feeling positively towards oneself: appreciation, affection, warmth, gratitude, care, and liking." Normally, these are passive states. They're things that just happen, not things we make happen. In a certain moment we may find that we like ourselves, appreciate something about ourselves, feel grateful for aspects of ourselves, care about ourselves, or even feel affection for ourselves. And it's lovely when this just happens. Yet I think there are also simple practices we can do that will evoke these feelings.
Active self-love is not better than passive. They're both good. But the more you do the active kind, the more you'll find yourself feeling the passive kind.
In the men's group, Ross taught us a technique called Stroking, one of his Four Tools for Self-Healing. It's very simple. It really just means taking a moment to extend some love, compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance to yourself, until you feel some warmth or wellbeing inside. It involves doing something active, like putting a hand on your heart and giving a little physical stroke there, while saying some sweet words silently to yourself like "I'm okay. It's okay to be just how I am." Or calling up an image of a place you love, or a person who loves you. Exactly how you do it is not the point, and may change over time. Stroking can involve any of the items I categorized above, as long as they are done actively. The point is to do whatever seems to produce some positive feelings toward yourself. Or at least to try.
This stroking may not work every time, but it seems to work most times. It's definitely something that anyone can do, that can be quite easy, and that improves with practice. I've found it to be an immeasurably wonderful and useful life-skill. It may not fix every problem, but it can help a great deal. It's not something I'd want to do every minute of the day, but it can be great to do a few times a day, particularly when going through something rough.Try it right now – give yourself some small, gentle chest-strokes and some kind words. You might be surprised how it makes you feel.
The challenge isn't in how to do it. It's in remembering to do it, giving yourself the permission to do it, and stopping for a few moments to actually do it. Unfortunately, the times I need stroking the most are when I'm so engrossed in stressful situations or negative feelings, that I often don't do it. But when I do, it can really help turn things around.
Like self-love in general, stroking is so simple, we overlook it, we don't believe in it. We've been trained to think life can't be simple. Yet the simplest things are sometimes the most effective, and the most important.
Besides active and passive, another useful distinction is between conditional and unconditional self-love. Again, one is not better than the other; both are good, both are important. Conditional love is something we offer ourselves based on something good we've done, or some good quality we have. Unconditional love is given simply for being ourselves, not for being or doing anything in particular.
Conditional self-love can be passive or active. If we discover a talent for drawing, we may feel a natural appreciation for ourselves, yet we can also proactively choose to recognize or indulge in that talent. It can also be either external or internal, which is another good distinction. Rewarding ourselves with a favourite food when we finish a big job is an external, physical act of conditional self-love. Silently saying "wow, I really did good!" is a mental, internal act. Both are valid.
I can think of two good reasons for conditional self-love. One is to reinforce behaviours and qualities we want to grow in ourselves. Many people give themselves rewards in order to see difficult things through, or to improve their performance. If I give myself a stroke every time I remember to check for my belongings before getting off a bus, there's more chance I'll remember in the future. If I tell myself I'm a good performer after I've put on a great show, it will help build my self-confidence.
Another reason is that it's sometimes easier to do than unconditional self-love. If I'm feeling depressed, guilty, ashamed, or angry at myself, I could probably really benefit from some stroking, from a shot of self-love. But because I'm in such a negative state, it may be really hard to give myself any of the pure, unconditional love a parent might give their child. I can't approve of myself "just for being me," because me is a person I really don't like right now. On the other hand, if I look, I might be able to find something about me I can appreciate. "Well, I really did just act like a complete jerk to my partner. But I am always really good to our daughter. And I'm still a great shopkeeper." Finding something specific to hang our self-love on can help us turn around a foul mood, which is often necessary before we can do anything good. In the example above, the little bit of conditional self-love the person was able to muster might give them the strength they need to go and apologize to their partner.
Unconditional self-love can also be passive or active, and physical/external or mental/internal. And it's necessary. If we only approved of ourselves when we did good things, we would always feel pressure to achieve, we'd never feel comfortable just to exist and be as we are, and we wouldn't have the important ability to love ourselves even when we've failed or acted badly. And if we only appreciated ourselves for our talents, skills, or qualities, we wouldn't be fully loving ourselves. A human being is more than just their positive and negative traits. They, we, are also consciousness, sentience, emotion, life, and existence, and we all deserve to be loved fully, by others and by ourselves, regardless of our deeds and characteristics.
I can think of two good reasons for unconditional self-love. One is because it nourishes, grows, and heals us in deep ways. Raising children with unconditional love strengthens their mental and physical health, a process that can continue in adulthood, even when the love comes from ourselves. Paradoxically, when we feel accepted as we are, independent of achievement, we also become more free and likely to achieve. I think this is because we all deeply long to be loved unconditionally, even by ourselves, and if love is only granted when we achieve, then we are going to begin to resent those achievements. We may unconsciously avoid achievement, to see if we can somehow be loved without it. Also, the best achievements come not from seeking love and approval from self or others, but from following one's callings and inspirations. As I said above, intentional doses of self-approval can be good motivators when the going gets rough. But they should not become the main reason we do things. We should do things because we're inspired to do them, for their own sakes. If I made my self-love contingent on writing good music, then music would become fraught for me. I should do music because it's something I'm naturally drawn to, not in order to feel good about myself.
Another reason for unconditional love is just because it feels good, it makes us happy. And as sentient beings, we all deserve to be happy. I think this is the simplest, yet also the most profound reason for loving ourselves. I stroke not just because I've done something good, or in order to help myself do good things in the future. I stroke when I'm blue, simply because it will help me to feel good again. And I sometimes stroke when I'm already feeling good, because it will help me feel even better.
removing unkindness to oneself
So in addition to the general "forgiveness, acceptance, letting be, and cutting slack." I mentioned in item six above, it really is possible to reduce toxic self-talk and self-beat-ups. There is a very specific approach I have had a lot of success with, mostly learned in the men's group. Here's how it unfolded for me:
1. Realizing that negative self-talk hurts, it makes me a less-happy and less effective person.
2. Wanting to do something about it.
3. Taking an inventory of it. spending a day or two trying to write down everything negative I say to myself, or at least keeping a running tab of how many times I put myself down.
4. Feeling horrified by how pervasive it is. Feeling almost hopeless that I could ever stop. Yet also realizing even more than before how unhappy it is making me, so resolving to keep looking for a solution.
5. Actually setting the personal goal of reducing the put-downs, even if I don't know how to accomplish it. Being willing to patiently look for the means, try different things until I find something that works, keeping the goal alive.
6. This came as a suggestion from one of the facilitators of the men's group: "revoke my personal license to beat myself up." This doesn't mean that I will never beat myself up again. It just means that I'm adopting a firm policy against it. Of course I will slip up and beat myself up sometimes. But it is against the rules, from now on. Whenever I notice myself doing it, my intention is to stop, and say something nice instead. My intention is to practice stopping whenever I notice it happening. And although it might not be easy at first, I will grow that ability over time with practice. I will grow a stronger boundary against my own habit of putting myself down. Once I have this basic plan in place, all I have to do is practice, knowing that I will improve over time. And I DID improve. Self-beat-up is so much less of a problem than it was a few years ago when I set the goal of reducing it.
7. If it's too hard at first to stop the beat-ups or replace them with something nice, then a very helpful (and perhaps even necessary) intermediate step is to simply give myself a few points / a little congratulation / a "stroke" every time I just NOTICE myself doing the beat-up. Because the NOTICING of it when it happens is so important, and if we pat ourselves on the back when we accomplish the noticing of ever smaller and subtler instances of self-beat-up, then we are essentially giving positive reinforcement to the faculty of self-awareness. That helps self-awareness to grow. It also sneaks in a little self-love and good feeling at a moment when we are beating ourselves up! And that little bit of good feeling MIGHT just be the thing it takes to turn things around, and actually feel strong enough to stop the beat-up itself!
other specific suggestions
Most of what I've written so far is rather abstract and general. But I've thought about self-love a lot, and have concrete suggestions to offer on all the topics listed below. Leave a comment if you'd like more instalments, and I'll write them sooner rather than later!
– the permission to follow inspiration; enlightened selfishness; techniques for inspiration
– dealing with beat-ups
– analyzing attachments, mishaps, illnesses, and judgements toward others, to uncover particular lacks of self-love
– issues in granting oneself pleasure, including food and sexuality
– distinguishing self-love from hedonism and selfishness
– self-love in relationships, and in being single
– honouring one's "no," having boundaries
– loving, caring for, and obeying one's body
– being present with oneself, feeling one's feelings, self-compassion
– allowing success and pride
– ensured and targeted stroking
– acceptance and awareness-stroking, as necessary parts of a technique for making changes
– symbol and ritual in self-love
– self-approval in the face of failure and others' disapproval
– introspection, solitude, meditation, me-time, and journaling
– mindfulness as a route to self-love
– how knowing and accepting oneself makes it easier to please oneself
– embracing one's yin and yang elements
– peace and stress reduction in self-love
– self-love and asking for help
– liberation from martyrdom, pressure, heaviness, and over-focus on others
P.S.: I can't actually "count the ways." Like loving others, the ways to love oneself are infinite, and the journey never ends. Enjoy it!