What the **** is ‘self-love’ and how do I do it?!

Self-love is a construct – it’s an abstract idea that doesn’t exist in the material world. It is defined however we want to define it. That means it has a lot of definitions that vary based on the context and people who use it.

I asked people on social media how they defined ‘self-love’ and the answers had a common theme – connection to the self, and doing the ‘right thing’ by yourself instead of what you are expected to do or what others want you to do. People also mentioned self-care activities, like massages and taking ‘time out’ for things you enjoy doing. Popular opinion would suggest that self-love seems is acting in a way that regenerates your energy, and aligns with your values.

According to Psychology Today, “self-love” is a “state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions that support our physical, psychological, and spiritual growth”. It is “dynamic”, or consistently changing, as opposed to remaining the same over time. This means that once you feel it, you need to engage in actions that maintain it, so self-love is also a verb: it’s something you do for yourself. These ideas seemed quite similar to the responses from my mini-survey.

Although I agree with the definition of self-love, I found the Psychology Today article too prescriptive to appeal to me. Examples included, “be mindful”, “act on what you need rather than what you want”, and “practice good self-care”. These are all great ideas but they also appear like a  black-and-white to-do list (you’re either doing it, or you’re not). This is problematic for busy people, or people contending with anxiety, depression, stress, and so on, because it can be overwhelming to add “self-love to-do items” to an already demanding routine.

How do I know?

I used to try and follow these directives to help myself. The difficulty was that I had high standards and internal expectations, and I believed that I couldn’t love myself unless I was doing it properly (i.e. 100% 24/7). I knew what I *should* be doing but other things made it to the top of my priority list, and my self-love dropped exponentially – I felt useless because I wasn’t able to do “simple” things like keep a gratitude journal, or get to bed earlier.

I questioned how I could possibly  love myself if I couldn’t prioritise what was ‘best’ for me?

My other challenge with prescriptive advice was that the advice was easy to understand, but complex to enact. It didn’t take into account contextual variables like everyday life, responsibilities, and commitments, and makes the assumption that we are completely self-aware and understand the inner workings of our mind.

(spoiler alert: we don’t)

Take, “act on what you need rather than what you want” as an example: it seems relatively simple, e.g. I need vegetables, but I want chocolate, so I’ll self-love by eating vegetables. BUT why do I want the chocolate? Am I exhausted because work was long and boring and I didn’t get time to have lunch? Well, maybe I need to quit my job and find a new one. But then I need to pay my bills… how will I manage that? If I have a long, boring, unsatisfying job and come home to eat food I seriously dislike, how does that help me live a life I find enjoyable? Maybe the chocolate is the only good thing in my day – it might not be what my body needs, but it’s what my mood needs!

  • We are complex creatures and may need different (sometimes competing) things at exactly the same time! This creates a lot of confusion when we try to determine what we need.
  • Our needs and wants are not always at odds with each other. In the above example, we both need and want chocolate, depending on the perspective from which you are assessing the problem.
  • Our needs are not the same across all contexts – in context x you may need to eat food y, but in context g food y wouldn’t meet your needs, so food z is more appropriate. Humans are complicated and our goals/environment/situation all affect what we need.

  • Our needs are not always ‘right’ and our wants are not always ‘wrong’. Making black-and-white value statements like these help spur on internal conflict and cement beliefs that the world is made up of either/or answers. Sometimes we have learned certain behavioural patterns to satisfy our needs for safety and security that aren’t useful in our present context. For example, we may need to sabotage our personal relationships because we are afraid of abandonment, despite wanting connections with other people. In that situation, should we base our actions on what we need, or what we want? It’s not a clear-cut answer. Often, what we have learned to do to survive in difficult early relationships may actually be detrimental to our relationships in later life. In those situations, following the ‘want’ we are repressing may actually be more self-loving than enacting the behaviour stemming from our need. 

What I’m getting at here is that these ideas about self-love are too black-and-white: You either are, or are not, loving yourself. It puts some things in the ‘good’ basket, and some in the ‘bad’ basket – and if you’re doing the ‘bad’ things, you’re not loving yourself and that’s ‘wrong’. What you end up with is a whole lot of self-judgement, internal conflict, and confusion… which is the exact opposite of what you’re aiming to do!

So, I’ll put forward my alternative: Self-love is self-acceptance. To me, self-acceptance means:

  1. Forgiveness for every time you take a step away from your goal because something else has become a bigger priority
  2. Recognition of your fallibility and error-proneness and lack of perfection
  3. Owning your faults, without bravado, or using them as a shield (“if I say I’m selfish then so-and-so can’t use it against me!”)
  4. Forgiveness for falling back into old habits and patterns because you’re low on energy, or life is throwing you curveballs, or you’re not keeping yourself accountable
  5. Honest recognition of those backward/sideways steps without self-judgement
  6. Owning your path to healing and your journey of self-improvement
  7. Being responsible for your emotional experiences; accepting them as yours, not anyone else’s

Self-acceptance is allowing yourself to exist as a whole being – flawed, successful, imperfect, hilarious, conscientious, selfish, compassionate, obnoxious, rude, lazy, smart, etc. – where all the parts of your personality co-exist without being judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, you see yourself as having characteristics that are useful in some contexts and less/not useful in others. It’s about accepting everything about yourself that you’ve learned to fight against or fix, because all of those things make you, you, and every single person on this earth matters – whether you matter to many or whether you matter to one, you matter because you’re uniquely you.

It’s similar to how we love our kids (or how I try to love my kids!). I love them fiercely with all my heart and soul. I also find them to be the most irritating creatures I’ve ever come into contact with. They’re loud and demanding and stubborn and messy – but without those characteristics they wouldn’t be who they are. I wouldn’t trade them in for quieter kids because those kids wouldn’t be mine (and for some reason I’m drawn to the difficult ones… I always choose the energetic pets with selective hearing too). I accept them in their entirety, without judgement or a desire to fix them, and allow them to fail on their various journeys.

That’s how I choose to love myself. I don’t see myself positively all the time. Far from it. But I accept that my whole is greater than the sum of my parts; every bit of me serves a purpose in creating my unique self. It doesn’t mean that I have to use every part in every situation – I can make choices about which parts of myself I want to bring forward and which parts I want to set aside in different contexts.

I spent a lot of my life trying to ‘fix’ myself and be ‘normal’ by trying to rid myself of all negative emotion and “being happy”. Needless to say, I wasn’t very self-loving, or self-accepting. In the past 5 or so years, I’ve refocused my goals: I’m no longer trying to fix myself, because I’m not (nor was I ever) broken. My mental disruption was an example of the wonderfully adaptive capacity of my brain to some very inconsistent and problematic mothering, so what I believed was broken was actually working perfectly – it’s just that the responses I’d learned weren’t useful in maintaining relationships with people who weren’t narcissists.

I’m also no longer trying to rid myself of negative emotions, because I have learned that negative emotions are the most useful survival tools we have at our disposal – those instincts warn us about potential dangers. Instead of fighting those emotions (because they, and I, are not ‘wrong’), I learned to listen to them, to accept their existence, and trust that they weren’t there to do me harm – they’re actually on my side!

Happiness is a great thing, but having it as the ultimate goal narrowed my focus and reduced my ability to appreciate parts of life that aren’t ‘happy’ but have deeper meaning and bring enduring satisfaction. So I stopped aiming for it, and instead set my sights on self-development, compassion, generosity, professional development, family, commitment to another person (especially during the bad times)… things that are hard and effortful, but bring depth and purpose to life beyond anything else. Goals that mean something to me. Goals that enhance my life in the long-term, even if they destroy ‘happiness’ in the short term (hey kids!).

Cultivating self-love, I believe, is not as easy as completing a checklist of the current trendy items. Those things help, yes, but cultivating self-love that will endure goes deeper.

  • It comes from self-acceptance (so that when life gets in the way and you fail to do your meditation or mindfulness or gratitude journal you don’t hate yourself or feel useless)
  • It comes from acceptance of the inevitability of suffering (so that when you feel sad, angry, or anxious you don’t feel defective because you’re not living up to an expectation of being happy)
  • It comes from articulating and understanding your values (so that you know what goals are meaningful to you, and why they are so)
  • It comes from persistent, purposeful practice

So, self-love is everything that people described in their answers: acting from a place of appreciation of self, to better oneself, and behave in alignment with core values. It is also more than that – the acceptance and appreciation of oneself as a complex multifaceted human being, who is simultaneously flawed, fabulous, failing, and flying (well, succeeding, but I couldn’t think of another ‘f’ word!).

Sophie Gray

eBook “Dealing with your Sh*t: The Art of Thinking Gray” available here