When you think of self-love, is the idea warm, pleasant and comfortable? Do you feel at ease with the idea of loving yourself wholly and unconditionally, or is there a level of discomfort? Do you tense up, feel anxious and veer toward self-doubt?
This is common. For whatever reason, it’s more common than the alternative. Though we’re around ourselves 24/7, most people lack a consistent sense of self-love and therefore foster less than stellar self-care.
An online search for “self-love” turns up countless articles on “# of quick things to do to love yourself today.” All are valid, but few top results explain or even address why so many of us struggle with the concept, let alone how to get to the root of the issue.
So, let’s start there. Why do so many people struggle with a lack of self-love?
We rely so heavily on the external for our validation and positivity. When someone compliments us or approves of our work, we get a mental high. Sometimes it feels like enough of these moments will equate to self-love. That isn’t the case. The same goes for results and achievements. Once again, each success provides a boost of positive feeling, but it’s not the same as self-love.
All of these things are external factors, and self-love is an entirely internal, mental thing. It’s not about being successful. It’s about loving who you are at the deepest and most fundamental levels. It is about knowing your personal pains and struggles, and nurturing yourself through them. It’s about seeing your flaws and loving yourself for working past them and becoming better. If anyone knows who you are in a deep, foundational way, it’s you.
We struggle with self-love because we often have false ideas about ourselves. This typically comes into play due to the expectations our families, friends, religious leaders, society, and so on–have placed on us. If we can’t meet these (often completely unrealistic) expectations about who we should be (our careers, sexuality, appearance, education, mental health, relationship status, finances, and so on), we build a wall between ourselves and self-love.
Some of us have spent a lifetime giving and caring for other people, never taking the time or mental energy to care for ourselves. We can become so used to worrying about the needs of others that we don’t ever learn how to love and tend to our own needs.
We may be held back by fear that we aren’t good enough to be loved, including by ourselves. It’s easy for negative experiences and words to result in poor self-esteem. Sometimes we fear letting others in because we assume we’ll get hurt. Other times, we also think we won’t be good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, or worthy enough of their love. This mindset is so detrimental to your mental health, and it certainly keeps you from self-love.
How has the current moment made this worse?
The past six months of pandemic life, or the past nine months of 2020 chaos and nightmare, have made self-love even more fickle. Reports of mental illness spiked massively this year, and the percentage of people struggling were already high.
Our recent issues likely still tie into that desire for external rather than internal validation. With our social interactions cut and limited, we’ve lost some of that “replacement” self-love, so we feel even more depleted.
“In 2020, with many of our relationships disconnected from COVID-19 social distancing, it’s time to dig deeper,” says Rev. Connie L. Habash, LMFT. “We need to be willing to find what is lovable within us, and choose to care for and nurture self-love. It is the foundation of our mental and emotional well-being; in order to have it, we choose to practice it. Self-love is an action, practiced every day, not just a feeling or state of mind.”
How can we improve self-love?
Ask a dozen psychologists, experts and friends, and you’ll get a dozen different suggestions. There is no one specific way to truly love yourself and heal the bond you have with mental well-being. A lot of the work is internal and psychological.
It’s about determining what barriers are keeping you from loving yourself. Is it fear? Other peoples’ expectations? A reliance on external validation? There are plenty of possibilities. If you can isolate the reasons you’re struggling to care for yourself, it will be easier to note your negative self-talk or self-esteem and reframe those thoughts into something more positive.
Mindfulness is a big component. Becoming more aware of your thoughts and understanding your control over them is important. It’s crucial to be open-minded and relaxed about the process. It’s not a rush. You’ll be with yourself your whole life; it can take time to build more self-love.
When you have a negative thought about yourself, challenge it. Why do you feel this way? Because it’s true, or because of an underlying factor that gives you a false sense of self? Adjust the way you talk to and about yourself.
There are physical ways to care for yourself as well.
“One of the best things you can do for yourself right now is to create a calm, quiet space in your home for a mental health break,” says Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC, coach and author. “Our living spaces have become classrooms, offices and gyms. They need to regain their status as refuge, too. This doesn’t need to involve buying anything. Gather your favorite calming elements (plant, cozy throw, lavender sachet, etc.) into a quiet spot — a patio, deck, or balcony are ideal for a bonus nature fix — and engage in 10 minutes or so of deep breathing and prayer or meditation.”
Julia Broglie, founder of a Broglie Box self-care care packages, believes “the ultimate act of self-love is to prioritize your own mental health.” She recommends practicing mindfulness, keeping a gratitude journal dedicated to yourself, moving your body, eating nutritious meals, building in moments of daily relaxation, and getting into a healthy sleep routine.
No matter how you do it, realize that every step you take toward a little more self-love is a step toward better mental health and a better outlook on life. Loving yourself is a key element to loving the life and people around you, and as the Beatles famously sang “the love you make is equal to the love you take.”