Chances are you’ve heard about this magical thing called self-love and have been trying to get some. Self-love is supposed to give us all good stuff: the confidence to set boundaries at work, the motivation to find our life’s purpose, the ability to feel fulfilled and happy alone, and the guts to give our Mr. Wrong the final kick out the door.
Seriously, who wouldn’t want some of that?
Understandably, self-love is compelling. But even when we know we need it sometimes it’s hard to figure out just what it means, how to do it, or how to fit it in.
Ever catch yourself thinking like this?
‘What the hell is self-love anyway? I wish someone would tell me what I need to DO!’
‘Everybody says I need to love myself but I don’t want to be alone.’
If these thoughts and feelings ring true, you’re probably frustrated. And that’s because you’re using the concept of self-love to beat yourself up in the same familiar ways. Which, ironically, is not self-loving at all.
When we try to apply self-love as an activity without a deeper shift in the way we relate to ourselves it can actually increase our unhappiness.
But don’t give up on this self-love thing. I can tell you from personal experience that there’s something to it.
Here are some traps we can fall into and ways we can practice a more truly self-loving relationship.
TRAP: Self-love means I shouldn’t want a relationship or need my partner very much.
TRUTH: Self-love is not the same as trying not to need people. Wanting connection and closeness is human, not weak.
You can be single, married or anywhere in between and practice self-love. Being in relationship is complex dance between needing another and staying with yourself. True intimacy and closeness actually develop when you let yourself need your partner but can still stand on your own two feet. This is healthy interdependence, which feels different than being needy.
We may have a hard time understanding how it feels to let ourselves need someone in a healthy way without feeling needy – anxious, panicky, or scared that someone will abandon us – when we’ve grown up without a model for this experience.
In order to try to avoid feeling needy, we may tend towards independence – trying to be more self-reliant – without realizing how that strategy keeps us feeling alone.
TRAP: Self love is something I need to make more time for.
TRUTH: Maybe. But self-love is not another action item to add to your already crammed to-do list.
Because this message hits home for many women at a very deep level, it’s often packaged and marketed as the newest life hack or self-help solution for happiness.
This drives me nuts because it sells short the power of true self-love, and it just keeps us beating ourselves up in the same old cycles. Our inner critic picks up the self-love message and inserts it into the ‘I’m not good enough’ tape loop: I’m not doing self-love right. It’s my fault because I don’t love myself. I have to make more time for X.
Self love is not a task. It’s a relationship with yourself that needs attention, attunement, and tender care.
TRAP: I’m weak or pathetic because I can’t just do this self-love thing.
TRUTH: It’s not self-love to blame or shame yourself. This is what you’re doing when you say this to yourself.
It’s frustrating when you can see that you need to make a change but can’t force yourself to do it. This cycle is common when trying to get out of relationships, particularly romantic relationships but also workplace or family dynamics.
Our inner parts sometimes want different things – our adult part sees this isn’t good for us, while our young part clings to the hope that we can work hard enough to win the love of someone who’s unavailable.
This is not weakness, it’s survival. Don’t underestimate the power of your emotional or young part! You can’t out think it with your rational mind because it’s like a fight or flight response.
In a misguided attempt to keep you safe, it’s programmed to set you up for constant do-overs so that you can try to get it right.
Your young part runs the show of your life, creating relationships that play out your childhood experience of closeness and love, the very place where we’ve often been deeply hurt.
The problem is, no matter how hard you work at it, you can’t make someone love you, and you shouldn’t have to.
But you can turn and face it, you can relate to it with care and acceptance, and you can learn to love this part of you so that this cycle begins to change.
I can almost hear your next question: so, what can I do?
While we may not DO self-love in the normal task-related sense of that word, there is a path to follow. This type of doing requires a combination of four ingredients:
Action, Inner Awareness, Curiosity, and Feeling.
Sometimes we may be able to hold these on our own, but often when we’re first starting we need the help of another person or a structure to help us develop these skills. A great first step is to find a therapist who focuses on early attachment work, sign up for a personal growth workshop or talk, join a group that focuses on inner awareness skills, or read an attachment focused self-help book.
Here are some practices that you can do on your own or with your therapist that may help you start your journey.
- Commit to observe your negative thoughts or ‘inner critic’ for a week. Notice the content of these thoughts. Do they get triggered around certain people, in certain places, or during specific activities? Do they remind you of anything that was actually said to you during your life?
- Journal for 30 minutes about memories of your life when you were 4-6 years old. Who were your friends, your teachers, what was your day’s routine like? What worries did you have? What felt good in your life? Who were you close to? Who was there for you when you had needs or feelings? What’s the feeling tone of your life at that time? Relate to child-you as you would an actual kid this age.
- Make a list of all your significant romantic partners. Think or journal about the different roles you had with each. Were you the sidekick, letting them take center stage? The Leader, the Responsible One, the Rebel, the Mess. Did you feel needy, strong, secure, afraid, on edge, anxious? Focus on how you felt, even if your partner’s qualities are very different. What are the positives and the costs of your role(s)?
- Practice tuning in to what you want for an entire day. You may not be able to actually do it, but give yourself full permission to become aware of it. You might ask yourself the question: what do I want right now? Notice how it feels.
- Practice saying yes to all forms of support that are offered to you for an entire day. Even if you don’t feel like you actually need it. Let the grocery store clerk take your bags to the car, let your yoga teacher get you an extra blanket, let your friend call you – you get the idea. Notice what comes up.
These practices should feel a little scary, but not too much for you to handle. This tells you you’re on the right track.
Practicing self-love is a living, evolving process. It happens little by little. To do it you’ll need to be vulnerable. You’ll need to heal and that often means feeling difficult feelings.
I’m a different person than when I began my own self-love journey about 20 years ago, and I’m still doing this work and finding new edges. I can tell you that it’s so worth it that it still brings me to tears. I want that feeling for you. I know you can do it.