All throughout our early lives, we were taught how to read, how to write, how to manipulate, calculate, build, destroy, theorize, study, and analyze life. We were taught how to say “please” and “thank you,” as well as what was acceptable and unacceptable to others and society at large … but most of us failed to be educated in one essential dimension of life: self-love.
Something that continues to shock me about my own upbringing was the distinct lack of emphasis on respect for oneself and acceptance of one’s flaws and virtues alike.
As a child I can’t ever recall being taught the value of loving oneself; of setting healthy boundaries, knowing how to say “no” and “yes” when you mean it, and learning how to take care of yourself, even at the expense of others.
How about you?
If you were raised in a culture and society similar to my own, you were probably taught to “put others before yourself” and not give much consideration to your own needs.
Self-denial and self-sacrifice were two of the main values taught in our childhoods, and continue to be emphasized as the markers of a “kind, caring and worthy human being” to this very day.
Unfortunately, from what I later learned in life, these two values taught me nothing more than the profound emotional and psychological pain of being a self-imposed martyr with no real understanding of ‘love.’
When we don’t learn how to love ourselves depression, bitterness, anxiety, resentment, isolation, and great unhappiness are the result.
Table of Contents
- What is Self-Love?
- Why Loving Others Requires Self-Seeking (“Selfishness”)
- What Self-Love ISN’T
- 21 Ways to Practice Authentic Self-Love
- Why Practicing Self-Love Can Sometimes Feel Stressful
- Self-Love = Gentleness and Forgiveness
- Toxic Forms of Self-Love
Put simply, self-love is the practice of understanding, embracing, and showing compassion for yourself. Self-love involves nurturing your entire being – that means taking care of yourself on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels. When engaging in self-love, we also work to forgive ourselves, accept our flaws, and embrace our inner demons.
It sounds like a paradox, but you cannot be altruistic, caring, or compassionate unless you’re selfish.
Unless you’re capable of truly loving yourself first (even the darkest side of your being) you can never love somebody else.
Self-seeking is preached in all societies as sinful behavior. We’re encouraged to be self-sacrificers and martyrs for ” the greater good.” History is plagued with stories of the individual hero’s willingness to sacrifice his/her life for the survival of a group or collective of people.
But the truth is that the purpose of our society’s social conditioning is to preserve and develop society as a whole, not to allow individuals to reach their full potential. This is why taking care of yourself first is met with so much resistance from others: it’s against our collective brainwashing.
But here’s the thing: in order to be a positive presence in this world, in order to care for others in an authentically loving way, we must first focus on ourselves. We must first dedicate a large amount of time to our own healing, happiness, and self-fulfillment. We must be self-seeking.
If you can’t love yourself at a deep level – the place where your love originates from in the first place – how will you ever be capable of true altruism or of truly loving anybody else?
You can’t give away that which you don’t actually have.
Think about it for a few moments.
Then, keep reading …
On the surface, it’s understandable how the word ‘self-love’ could be confused with the words ‘egotism,’ ‘self-indulgence’ or ‘narcissism.’ But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Self-love isn’t about self-indulgence; it is about taking care of yourself.
A person who loves themselves wants to become the best they can be, they want to explore themselves, practice inner work, do some soul-searching, work on their flaws, heal their traumas, and find inner peace.
How is this a bad thing?
We are taught to believe that being self-seeking will jeopardize society as a whole – regardless of what you actually do – so it is condemned indiscriminately. This attitude is evident when we describe the behavior of a person who succeeds at the expense of other’s wellbeing with words like ‘selfish.’ But this isn’t selfish, it’s foolish and idiotic!
A person with mindful self-love is aware that they’re actually harming themselves when they harm others. Why? Because they understand that if they hurt others, they will suffering the negative consequences in the long term, which will make life much more difficult for them. They realize that causing suffering to others is actually self-destructive, which is the complete opposite of “selfish” self-love.
On a side note, is there any such thing as Altruism, really? The actual act of helping other people does benefit us: it makes us feel good. Therefore, Altruism itself can also be thought of as a “selfish” act.
If you truly love yourself, you want to take care of yourself. It’s only self-hating egotistical people that harm themselves physically or mentally.
Self-love has nothing to do with egotism or narcissistic self-indulgence. On the contrary, the desire for honest self-exploration requires immense respect and love for yourself. Egotism revolves around the ego, and the ego depends upon the respect of others, not yourself.
Coming to terms with the fact that almost everything which defines a “good and respectable person” is actually false can be hard to accept at first. But as thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti noted:
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
The good news, I discovered, is that with time and persistence, we can learn how to heal ourselves. In essence, we can teach ourselves to become doctors of the soul, healing our wounds, curing our own sicknesses, and maintaining optimum health through the development of self-love.
If you have just started the path of healing and recovery, or need some inspiration, you might benefit from the following advice:
1. Change your diet
Swap processed, fatty and sugary foods, with whole, unprocessed and low-fat foods. So much research has shown the link between food and the mind. Eating the wrong food is a sign of self-neglect and contributes to physical, emotional and even mental illnesses. Try slowly cutting out junk food, and experience the immense benefits! This is a basic form of self-care.
2. Identify your subpersonalities
Within all of us there are subtle and incessant voices that sabotage and paralyze us, and these are the voices of our subpersonalities. I wrote about these a while ago in my subpersonalities article. Awareness is the key to overcoming the negative self-talk of The Worrier, The Critic, The Victim, and The Perfectionist.
3. Start reading
No, I don’t mean the news, or the latest gossip on Facebook, I mean reading books (those funny obsolete things!). Focus on mostly non-fiction books in the self-help category. Reading this type of material helps expand your mind and equips you with inspiring and life-applicable knowledge. My current favorites are “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg and “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman.
4. Practice inner work
Inner work is a path we advocate a lot on this website. When we practice inner work, we are shining the light of consciousness into our hidden, unconscious realms. It is within the deeper layers of our minds where unresolved fears, blockages, wounds, and traumas lurk. Working through these issues is paramount to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Learning how to love yourself, healing your inner child, and delving into shadow work are all the cornerstones of inner work. Click on the links I’ve just mentioned within this point if you’d like to learn more.
5. Experiment with self-hypnosis
I personally found self-hypnosis to be an extremely powerful tool in re-wiring my brain from destructive thought patterns.
6. Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night
Also … ensure you set a stable bedtime! Once upon a time, my bedtime was 1am, and I rose at 6am (that’s a measly average of 5 hours sleep). Getting less than the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep every night, as I found, lowers your immunity, contributes to chronic fatigue, moodiness, depression, anxiety issues, and chronic pain (or fibromyalgia). Aim to go to bed around 10pm and rise at 6am. You will seriously feel the difference!
7. Learn quiet assertiveness
It is not necessary to be an obnoxious jerk about what you do and don’t want out of others and life in general. But it is essential to know how to stand up for yourself and set strong boundaries. Read more about how to set healthy personal boundaries.
8. Explore your mental traps
Low self-esteem is often the result of false and unrealistic thought patterns that are deeply ingrained within us. These are composed of mental traps such as assumptions, beliefs, comparisons, desires, expectations, and ideals about ourselves and others. Read more about mental traps.
9. Treat yourself like you would your best friend
Often, we are our own mortal enemies. To heal ourselves, it is important for us to consciously change our relationships with ourselves, and treat ourselves with compassion and consideration just as we would with a best friend. I wrote more on this topic in my article on how to become your own best friend.
10. Welcome solitude into your life
When we don’t make space in our lives to be alone, it is easy for us to burn out, become disorientated and even ill. Each day, make time for yourself to rewind, relax and reflect, alone. Solitude gives you insight, perspective and reinstates harmony in your life. We wrote a book on the power of solitude if you’re interested.
11. Meditate for self-awareness
Becoming self-aware is a key skill in life, a gift that allows you to identify your self-destructive patterns of thought and behavior, and find more peace and balance in life. Meditation, although frustrating and seemingly meaningless at first, is a silently potent practice with endless benefits. Aim for 10-15 minutes each morning first thing (or whenever you have time!). It’s worth it!
12. Identify toxic people in your life
Toxic people make us feel wretched and significantly lower the quality of our daily lives. Toxic people are often judgmental, manipulative, clingy, backstabbing, ruthless, aggressive, controlling, deceptive, self-pitying, and self-destructive. Learning to cut away those who hinder your self-growth is a difficult, but absolutely necessary step on your journey of healing.
13. Seek supportive companions
Supportive people encourage us, uplift us, and inspire us. These people have often obtained a certain level of self-love, and because of their ability to respect themselves, they are easily able to respect and love others. Often it is not necessary to seek these people out as we naturally gravitate towards them on our paths! However, it always helps to instigate friendships and connections with the supportive people of life as they can really help us out in dreary periods of our journeys.
14. Learn to trust your intuition
Our unconscious minds are oceans of wisdom, understanding, and insight. Intuition, that mysterious inner guide we all have, is a manifestation of this vast untapped world within us. Learning to trust your intuition will help you to live a life true to yourself and your deepest needs.
15. Support the well-being of nature
All of life on earth and the universe is so interconnected, that the harm we do to others always comes back to harm us in one form or another. By supporting the well-being of nature – whether by becoming a vegan or vegetarian, by choosing sustainable food and products or even by replacing our cosmetics with organic “non-animal tested” alternatives – we are promoting the well-being of the earth and thus the well-being of us as individuals. By healing ourselves we heal others, and by healing others we heal ourselves.
16. Take a walk or jog each day
This is not always possible, but regular exercise really does benefit your body, mind, and soul, proving that you are actively taking care of yourself.
17. Stop spending so much time on social networks
Did you know that on average the American adult spends 3.2 hours per day on social networks? Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, or any of the numerous other social networks out there, we waste so much of our time on social media … and what for? Often times we are motivated by the ability to obtain “likes,” “shares,” “followers” and “friends” constructing a feeble cyber alter-ego that craves for acceptance and the esteem of others. For this reason, social media is a sickly environment to constantly expose ourselves to each day, and many studies have shown its detrimental effects on our health, including an increase of depression and low self-esteem. Connect with your friends and family – sure! – but stop using social networks to unconsciously build a false and unstable sense of self-worth.
18. Use color psychology
Colors are said to greatly impact our psychology (hence “color psychology”). I have recently replaced a lot of my black, grey and dull colored clothing with bright shades of various colors. The experience has been surprising: the colors of the clothes I wear actually impact my mood noticeably. Wearing light blue, for instance, stimulates feelings of openness, or yellow stimulates optimism. Dull colors like khaki, granite, and charcoal, on the other hand, are all associated with feelings of apathy, aloofness, pessimism, and despondency.
19. Make time to explore your passion
What drives you? Fires you up? Fills you with joy and a sense of accomplishment? When we learn to forget our needs and smother them with others, we often lose sight of what truly makes us happy in life.
Many of us abandon our dreams at an early age, and so live meaningless lives of drudgery and socially approved pursuits (such as having a “good” career, big house, nice car, perfect family, etc.). It is important, therefore, to ask yourself “What is my passion?” Remember, passions are not static and they can evolve with us. Whether painting, writing, dancing, designing, building or whatever excites you – pursue it – even if on the sidelines!
20. Focus on reducing sources of stress in your life
Prolonged stress contributes to so many illnesses in our lives, so it is important to learn how to reduce, and deal with it when it comes. Often stress can be reduced by dropping our desires and expectations for ourselves, other people and situations in life. Stress can also be reduced by practicing many of the things I have mentioned in this article, e.g. having a good diet, 7-8 hours sleep per night, self-hypnosis, targeting negative thought-patterns, and so forth.
21. Accept your flaws, celebrate your strengths
It is important to come to terms with the fact that you are imperfect – there is NO denying it. As part of my journey, I have dedicated a lot of time to exploring my Shadow Self and accepting the embarrassing and even shameful aspects of my nature. By accepting your flaws, the doorway to self-improvement is opened. Accept them, don’t run away from them. Likewise, learn how to celebrate your strengths! Keep a journal of affirmations and honestly list every little thing you appreciate about yourself each day. Balance is essential.
Like me, you might have read a lot of material all over the place on self-love.
You might have watched videos of gurus explaining the importance of self-respect, you might have read books on people’s journeys of self-love and you might have a spiritual circle of friends that are always emphasizing the importance of taking care of yourself.
You might be bombarded with the overwhelming desire to love yourself – just like all these other awakened people do – but something isn’t quite right. You find that the more you try to love yourself, the more unhappy you are with your efforts.
You might find yourself berating yourself about an old misfortune or a new resentment, and then later repent, telling yourself “I should let this go and move on, I should be more forgiving.” Or you might try to be more confident in yourself, fall into insecurity and anxiety, and later think “If I am to love myself I have to be more confident in the person I am – I’m not doing well enough!” You might even compare some of your habits with others on the same path and feel miserable as a result, realizing that you are not as “self-loving” as they are.
When it comes to the word “should,” there is a very fine line between motivating oneself and sabotaging one’s happiness. On one hand, we motivate ourselves by setting goals and fulfilling them, (e.g. “I should keep up this exercise routine for the next week to see how I feel”), and on the other hand, we can undermine our happiness by imposing unnecessary ideals, expectations, and comparisons onto what we do.
Have you ever thought something along the lines of, “I SHOULD have more self-love! I SHOULDN’T feel so guilty!”? This is a perfect example of falling into the trap of making self-love a duty, a burden and a jail cell that restricts our ability to truly grow. That is the threat of making self-love into a “should”: it actually turns us against ourselves. Ironic don’t you think?
At the start of our journeys, it is all too easy to be ensnared by the external comparisons we make between ourselves and other people who have perhaps advanced more on the spiritual path.
I used to do this a lot until I realized one day that the very essence of self-love is about being gentle and forgiving with yourself.
Thanks to some much-needed guidance, I learned that it was (and still is) completely fine to take my time, to go slowly and to learn little by little. I learned that it was OK to be flawed, to continue making mistakes … just as long as I tried, persisted, and pushed through little by little.
So if you haven’t yet reached the pinnacle of what you consider to be self-love yet, don’t worry. It’s not necessary that you push yourself, and it’s not necessary to be hard on yourself – the precise opposite of what self-love is. Rather, know that self-love, at its core, is the ability to embrace your wrongdoings and imperfections, knowing that you are innately worthy of all the love life has to offer.
We’ll now move onto the ‘dark side’ of self-love.
How many times have you listened to people talk about self-love, read articles/books on self-love, and seen self-love memes post everywhere on the internet that sound like: “Love yourself first!” “Accept yourself unconditionally!” “It’s not selfish to love yourself,” “Make your happiness a priority,” “Self-love is the best way to find true love,” “I’m awesome – what’s your superpower?” … and so forth.
While all of these enthusiastic statements are completely true and very beneficial for our well-being they are limited in their ability to truly help us “love ourselves.”
In fact, sometimes, the vibrant catchcries of the self-love movement are simply superficial masks that obscure the real truth: you still hate yourself deep down.
This is a strange topic that not many people shine the light on when discussing self-love. But YES it is possible to use so-called self-loving practices as a way to band-aid our deeper wounds. YES it is possible to unintentionally deceive ourselves as a self-protection mechanism.
With that being said, let’s explore some of the most common forms of toxic self-love out there:
1. Cultivating extreme “positive thinking” habits
Replacing the negative cycles of inner talk within us is very helpful. However, not only is optimism often a polarized reaction to pessimism, but it can also be used as a form of avoidance by dismissing the reality of our own pain and other’s pain. It is common to use positive thinking as a way to spiritually bypass our own deeper issues. Bottom line: be careful when approaching positive thinking communities and teachings. Positive thinking becomes toxic when it is used to hide the pain, shame, and fear we carry inside.
2. Thinking that you are perfect the way you are
Yes, it is beneficial for us to fully embrace the people we are and to love our strengths and weaknesses. However the affirmation “I am perfect the way I am” can be destructive. The truth is that you are not perfect the way you are because there is no such thing as perfection. Thinking that you are already perfect the way you are can also be a toxic form of avoiding the hard path of true inner work and healing. In other words, it is the perfect fearful cop out under the guise of “self-love.”
3. Excessive indulgence
Rewarding ourselves every now and then simply for the sake of it is a healthy, self-nurturing habit. It’s nice to relax with that mini-series, spend an hour in a bubble bath and lavish ourselves with nice food, clothing, and other gifts whenever we feel the need. However, this habit can be taken to the extreme and used to justify unnecessary greed and indulgence that covers up and overcompensates for deeper issues such as the fear of aloneness, worthlessness, and social insignificance. There is a time to reward ourselves and a time not to.
4. Over-the-top affirmations
“You are SENSATIONAL,” “You’re f***ing beautiful!!!” “You are the best!” “You’re a BOMBASTIC babe!”
Reminding ourselves of how innately wonderful we are is important. But the many over-the-top affirmations out there paraded in the name of self-love are not only nauseating (in my opinion) but are also often reactions to the self-hatred we have inside.
Anything of an extremist nature, such as the examples of affirmations above, are usually ways to overcompensate for the deep and unresolved misery of self-hatred we feel inside.
Also, I’ve often heard over-the-top affirmations used to justify selfish and self-destructive behavior (and I’ve done so myself) sort of like: “F**k you! I don’t care what you think because I’m beautiful and I love the person I am!” Sound convincing? Not really. When it comes to affirmations it is good to find balance; to realize that no, you aren’t the best thing in the world, but yes, you are an exquisite reflection of Oneness; of the mystery of life.
To genuinely and authentically heal we must be willing to face our shadows as well as practice self-love. The two paths go hand-in-hand. We must truly be able to fathom the depths of our self-hatred in order to heal from the inside out. If you’d like more guidance on how to face your shadow read our Shadow Work article.
Cultivating self-love is essential if you desire to live a life of joy, love, peace, and fulfillment.
Although it’s usually missed in our early life education, self-love is as vital to daily life as any other fundamental human need. Without learning how to love ourselves, our lives are filled with self-sabotage, self-loathing, toxic and heartbreaking relationships, emptiness, and a profound lack of connection with life.
I hope that this article has inspired you to re-educate yourself. And please, if you feel that someone else in your life could benefit from self-love, please share this resource with them!