There have been periods in my life when I didn’t necessarily like myself, much less love myself. After brutal breakups, when I wasn’t accepted into the college of my choice (or any of the places I had applied to, to be honest), when I lose my temper or am unkind to someone I care about, and when I am just struggling. Showing myself love is easy when I am proud of an accomplishment or feel satisfied with how I cared for a loved one. But learning to love myself when I am disappointed with myself or when I feel ashamed has been more complex and has required intention and practice. It’s something I am still working on daily. And it’s something I’ve found essential while managing my mental health and developing a more beneficial relationship with myself.
Self-love is a critical component of one’s inner life, yet many of us don’t know how to or completely disregard the need to create a loving relationship with ourselves. This is partly due to how self-love is often presented to us. The wellness industry has flooded the market with self-love guides and a seemingly endless variety of tools and accessories designed to help us achieve self-love. Similarly, wellness influencers on social media bombard our feeds with quick tips and advice on attaining self-love overnight. Unfortunately, many of these resources take an oversimplified and one-dimensional view of self-love that can sometimes even veer into toxic positivity. Simply instructing folks to be kind to themselves or offering boilerplate affirmations about self-worth may provide a quick fix but seldom provides a longer-term benefit. The bulk of the self-love guidance that is readily available also tacitly ignores the array of systemic barriers in place that can work to make self-love seem inaccessible to many. For people who struggle with issues of self-worth and already have a hard time connecting with the idea of self-love, having it presented in this manner often further alienates them from the concept.
Is self-love self-care?
It is common for people to hear the term self-love and mistake it for self-care. While there are components of self-love that include engaging in self-care practices, the two concepts have some genuine differences. Self-care describes any activity an individual can participate in to help promote a healthy mind and body. This will look different for different people, but it can involve some sort of mindfulness activity like meditating and journaling or relaxing activities like a soothing bath or reading. Self-care includes the actions one takes to care for themselves and prioritize their own care.
What is self-love?
On the other hand, self-love is a continual practice of learning to treat oneself with kindness, compassion, and unwavering positive regard. To love yourself is to value, care for, and respect yourself. It also involves understanding one’s own needs, wants, and limitations and honoring them. Self-love means trying to understand and accept all of your flaws without allowing them to diminish the way you value yourself.
It’s not an easy mindset to achieve by any means. So much of our society, from the media we consume to the social hierarchies we create, encourages us to be hypercritical of our perceived flaws and constantly compete with those around us. We’re also socialized to believe that we need approval and acceptance from others to really love ourselves. This often leads many people to make unhealthy or harmful decisions like remaining in toxic relationships. There’s so much that can make it challenging to love ourselves, and if this is not something we learned early on, it can be a challenge to create change and begin to do so as adults.
But what could our lives look like if we could block out all of those external forces and focus on cultivating a healthy and loving relationship with ourselves?
What are the benefits of practicing self-love?
While unfortunate, it’s not surprising that we struggle to practice self-love. As a society, we’re conditioned to believe that how others think of us is more significant than how we feel about ourselves. In some instances, that messaging gets taken a step further and leaves people feeling like they can’t love themselves unless others love them. We’ve come to rely so heavily on external validation as a lens through which to value ourselves that, for some, the opinion of others can do more for their self-worth than they think they can achieve on their own.
Many people will try to use social media to fulfill that need, allowing the number of likes and comments they receive to validate them and determine their self-worth. And while social media can be a powerful medium to cultivate what seems like self-confidence, it’s not promoting true self-love. Self-love means accepting the easy, polished, perfect version of ourselves that we present to others and loving ourselves for all of our perceived flaws and shortcomings.
As it turns out, having a healthy and loving self-relationship can significantly impact one’s health. Studies have shown that those who report high self-love have more positive health outcomes. One study found that self-compassionate people reported lower stress, more frequent health behaviors, and better overall physical health. Another study indicated that self-compassion was associated with better sleep quality and fewer symptoms of insomnia and fatigue. And another study found that self-compassion may serve as a protective factor against stress-induced inflammation and inflammation-related disease. These positive health outcomes can be understood as a result of self-love and self-compassion, as self-love and self-compassion can decrease stress and increase positive self-regard. The increase in positive self-regard can lead to more healthful lifestyle choices. It may seem self-explanatory, but someone unable to offer themselves love and compassion will likely struggle to feel worthy or deserving enough of the effort needed to care for their overall well-being.
Self-love also has strong associations with our mental health and may lead to lower levels of anxiety and depression. Studies indicate that people with depression reported lower self-esteem than those with anxiety disorders. Researchers found those with both anxiety and depression have the lowest self-esteem. Additionally, research suggests that self-compassion has the potential to buffer self-coldness related to depression, suggesting that an increase in a self-caring, kind, and forgiving attitude toward oneself can mitigate symptoms of depression.
Self-love leads to better mental and physical health. It can also improve relationships and allow for a greater sense of overall well-being. When individuals practice self-love, ideally, they can better set healthy boundaries, which in turn helps their relationships. Studies indicate that social connections, support, and acceptance help shape the development of self-esteem and that self-esteem also allows for stronger and more fulfilling relationships. Finally, through connecting with themselves and loving themselves, many find that they can make decisions that align with their values and build resilience in the face of adversity.
Why is it hard for me to love myself?
It’s clear that self-love has many benefits and is worthwhile, but if it’s hard for you to access, you may wonder why. Self-love can be challenging to practice. Being kind and compassionate towards oneself can be difficult, especially when dealing with past traumas or negative self-talk. Many people struggle with self-doubt and self-criticism, making it challenging to practice self-love. And just as social connections and relationships can improve self-love and self-esteem, the lack of such relationships and support can cause harm. Early childhood relationships and insecure attachments can inform how we relate to ourselves and how we feel about ourselves. Finally, society often reinforces negative self-image and self-talk, making it even more challenging to practice self-love.
It would be a disservice not to also acknowledge the impact that systemic forms of oppression and discrimination can have on the ability of those within marginalized groups to access self-love. The challenge of loving oneself becomes that much more difficult when it is glaringly apparent that, at best, society at large doesn’t like people like you and, at worst, that society is designed to actively destroy people like you simply for existing. Evidence suggests that even before they stop believing that the world is generally fair and everyone will be given equal opportunities, adolescent children of marginalized groups begin developing lower self-esteem, exhibiting signs of depression, and engaging in harmful behaviors. Researchers theorized that this occurs because, at around this age, children start to identify as part of their demographic group more solidly and begin to recognize the various forms of oppression people within their group are forced to navigate (low-wage jobs, poor health outcomes and lower life expectancy, high levels of abuse and incarceration). They don’t yet understand the larger context; instead, they can sometimes start to internalize these examples and believe that there must be something inherently wrong with them.
How can I love myself?
Self-love is a practice. It’s not something you achieve once and never revisit. Instead, it has to become a habit and a way of life. If you’re reading this, take a moment to acknowledge that you’ve decided that it’s time to develop a more loving relationship with yourself and celebrate this. It is a worthwhile endeavor, and we hope the suggestions below help. Just remember that self-compassion (one of the keys to self-love) means understanding and embracing imperfection, including imperfection when practicing self-love and making these changes.
- Engage in self-reflection:
Self-reflection is the process of examining one’s own thoughts and feelings, and understanding how they influence one’s actions and behaviors. When individuals engage in self-reflection, they can better understand themselves and their needs, which can help them practice self-love. What feels like self-love for one person isn’t necessarily going to resonate with the next, and what you need will be different from what your friend, partner, or neighbor needs. Take some time to think about what makes you feel like the best version of yourself and what needs, if any, you have been neglecting.
- Practice self-compassion:
Self-compassion involves treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding that one would offer to a friend. When individuals practice self-compassion, they can better accept their flaws and mistakes and are kind and compassionate toward themselves. Take inventory, and consider how you treat yourself, how you speak to yourself, and how you would treat and talk to someone you love. Are they in alignment?
- Challenge your negative self-perceptions:
For many people, the most significant barrier to self-love is their harmful self-perception and how that informs the way they speak to or describe themselves. And while it’s unrealistic to suggest that one can overhaul years-long habits of negative self-talk, it’s possible to develop an additional habit of challenging those thoughts when they arise. The next time you are hard on yourself about something, take a step back and try to be objective. Would you be this critical with another person? Are you exaggerating? Do you have evidence to challenge your negative statements about yourself? With time, after making this a regular practice, you may find that you’ve built up your instinct to be a self-ally, making the practice of self-love feel much more accessible.
- Process the trauma:
Processing and working through trauma is such a challenging endeavor. Revisiting the hurt and suffering that led to your current struggles will be painful and likely exhausting, and finding resolution is a tall order. As we previously mentioned, many external factors can contribute to a person’s inability to form a loving self-relationship, and prior experiences of trauma and abuse are no exception. Trauma and PTSD can distort a person’s perception of reality and break down their self-esteem. There are many ways to process and work through trauma and come out the other side. Psychotherapy with a trauma-informed, licensed therapist is one such method.
If you’ve read this article and are ready to approach yourself differently but know that you’ll need support, this is a reminder that you don’t have to do it alone. We are here and would be glad to help you develop this practice and help you finally create the relationship with yourself that you deserve: a loving one.