How I Learned to Love Myself
As previously seen on Wit & Delight
I pitched this title. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And now I’m staring at my laptop thinking, “Wait. Do I love myself?”
Because I definitely don’t love everything about me. And I don’t walk around with some sort of effortless self-love flowing through my veins. So… WHO AM I TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE?
But, then again, I’ve spent 15 years (and a small fortune on therapy) learning to love myself. My life has transformed because of it. I know what loving myself looks like, I know generally how to do it, and I can honestly say that I show love to myself at least as often as I don’t, which is basically twice as often as I used to. All of that to say, this story is written by a person who’s still on the journey.
But along the way, there are four things I’ve learned about loving myself (so far):
1. I HAVE A SELF.
I know, I know. This might sound annoyingly meta. Or maybe just silly. But, for me, it was a critical thing to learn.
Obviously, I knew I existed. What I didn’t know is where I stopped and someone else started. I knew who I was only in relation to other people—I was a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend; then later, an employee, a wife, etc. Very rarely did I think of myself as just me.
Plus, I was dangerously unaware of what was actually going on in my half of any given relationship. When asked how I felt, or what I wanted, I’d be at a loss to respond. What did the other person want? That’s what I was good at.
It’s understandable how I got to that point.
I’m wired for relationship. It’s one of my highest values and greatest pleasures. I throw myself in, deeply, and I tend to do almost anything to protect it. If I’m not careful, I can lose my “self” in the process.
On top of this, I grew up in a religious setting that emphasized selflessness. I now understand that this is about living a life of sacrifice. It’s about releasing control to a power greater than yourself. But, somehow, the way I heard “Be selfless.” was: “Have no self.” Which fit right in with the way I’m wired and created an endless spiral of self-obliviousness.
For me, the first step to learning to love myself was learning to notice myself. It was a slow process of peeling my identity away from the others I had glued it to. Over time, I learned:
– I am not my family.
– I am not my relationships.
– I am not what people think of me.
– I am not my failures.
– I am not my successes.
I am myself. Regardless.
Which led to my next discovery.
2. MY SELF DESERVES LOVE.
I’ll be honest. My default setting toward myself is, at best, tolerance, and, at worst, merciless judgment. Left unchecked, I talk to myself with a toxic combination of scolding-mother and disdainful-teen. (Why am I so stinkin’ sensitive? Why did I say that dumb thing? How could I possibly lose my cell phone in the house again? Why can’t I keep the bathroom floor clean? Sheesh my hair is ridiculous.)
These voices are so natural and familiar to me that, for a long while, I didn’t realize they existed. But one day, my therapist asked if I would speak to another person the way I talk to myself and I was mortified: Are you kidding?! Never.
It began to dawn on me how damaging it would be for any person to listen to a never-ending monologue about how incapable, frustrating, dense, unattractive, and abnormal she is. Yet this is what I had subjected myself to for years.
I began to wonder what might happen if I changed that voice.
I starting paying attention to how I talk to the people I love, like my friends and my kids. When the healthy, loving people in my life talked to me, I began to listen more closely. I heard kindness and compassion in those voices. I noticed grace for mistakes and a genuine sense of care. And I started trying, as much as possible, to emulate those voices when talking to myself.
This led to my biggest discovery about loving myself.
3. LOVE ISN’T A FEELING.
Just as is true for anyone else I love, loving myself doesn’t mean I always feel like I’m the most amazing person on the planet. It doesn’t mean I’m completely enamored by everything I do, or everything I am.
– Love is the voice I choose to speak to myself with.
– Love is the way I treat myself.
– Love is protecting myself from things and people that aren’t good for me.
– Love is surrounding myself with nourishing things.
– Love is believing in myself.
– Love is never giving up on myself.
Love isn’t a feeling. It’s a choice.
And, miraculously, when that choice is made consistently, sometimes it also becomes a feeling.
4. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT ME.
So why is this even important? Is self-love just a veiled excuse for selfishness? Is it all just a bunch of self-help baloney? All I can tell you is how it’s mattered in my own life:
Loving myself has prevented me from expecting other people to carry that weight for me. It helps protect me from crushing disappointment when they can’t. It keeps me from settling for things/people/habits that are harmful to me. And loving myself allows me to do a relationship from a full place vs. an empty one.
Most of all though, when I am able to love myself – the person that I have been most judgmental of, the person who annoys me more than anyone else – then I truly am able to love others. And I know how to let them love me.
HOW LOVE LOOKED TODAY
As I’ve been writing this piece, it’s been a challenging few days. My mind has been foggy, my heart heavy, and my body drained. I wasn’t sure why, and I found myself feeling frustrated, willing myself to feel “normal.” Which only left me feeling more discouraged, of course.
Finally (sometimes it still takes me a minute), I paid attention to what I might actually be needing. I gave myself a nap, took myself on a walk, got myself some deep breaths of fresh air, fed myself some organic beets, cut myself some slack, talked to a friend, and, eventually, realized I’m grieving some things. I pointed out to myself there are some actual real reasons for feeling a little off this week. And I changed the voices in my head from scolding and impatient to soothing and compassionate.
For me, that’s what loving myself looked like today. And I have to say, it helped.