Self-love could appear more of a luxury than a necessity. However, self-love is far from being a new-age craze for people with too much free time.
There is no unique definition of it, though. In fact, we all might have very different definitions. That is not so surprising, as there are many ways in which humans define both “self” and “love.” So, to understand what self-love means to one, one should first dissect the concepts of self and love. But why are we bothering you with self, love, and self-love? Well, it appears that understanding what self-love looks like for you as an individual is a vital aspect of maintaining your mental health. Now, let’s dive deeper into exploring these concepts.
The concept of self
Self-concept can be described as the entirety of ideas, attitudes, and views one holds about one’s existence.
It is acquired and developed through one’s experiences. It is also rather consistent, meaning we all have an idea of who we are. Yet, it is also resistant to change, meaning that we do not dramatically change our ideas of ourselves every other day. There is some structure and stability in our perception of ourselves. However, our selves are also dynamic, and this feature is their silver lining. Throughout our lives, we constantly absorb new ideas, learn, develop new beliefs and abandon the old ones. Ourselves gradually change, and it is a continuous process.
Also, at different times, we perceive different aspects of ourselves with varying clarity. Self-reflection is a valuable skill here. According to a growing number of studies, self-reflection, not willpower, makes understanding and altering our self-concepts possible.
The concept of love
Rooted in our biology and influenced by our social environment, love can affect both our emotional and physical health. A “broken heart” can have fatal repercussions. It is known that mourning disturbs human physiology and may even hasten mortality. Even when all our basic needs are satisfied, we, humans, cannot thrive without love. As depicted in many works of art, we indeed have a great capacity to love those around us. Yet, it seems that we sometimes struggle with loving ourselves.
Self-love is a relationship we have with our own beings, and like any other relationship, this one, too, requires nurturing affection and trust. Those who love themselves have learned to appreciate their existence. Although self-love usually develops unintentionally through our relationships with those around us, we can also practice it intentionally. However, to understand and practice self-love, we first need to understand what it actually consists of.
The components of self-love:
According to Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion, being self-compassionate means approaching oneself with kindness and understanding, holding one’s own pain with warmth, and leaving judgment and self-criticism aside. It means understanding that we, people, are all equal and are all imperfect in one way or the other. Finally, it means being present, allowing yourself to experience both the good and the bad. It is stopping to experience the pain but not sticking to it. In short, self-compassion means having the same compassion for yourself as you have for your loved ones. Unsurprisingly, self-compassion is thought to be an adaptive manner of responding to adverse life events, personal failures, and deficiencies.
Now, imagine that you have just lost the job you loved. If you are self-compassionate, you will not ruminate and compare yourself with your more fortunate colleagues. You will not declare yourself incapable and allow despair to consume you. You will acknowledge the loss and sit with your difficult emotions. They will come, and they will pass. Self-compassion makes you resilient, so you will be less likely to become depressed and more likely to stand up to your feet again and start considering other jobs that might fit your interest.
The components of self-love:
Self-esteem is a synthesis of self-judgments, typically based on who one is, what one does or has, how one appears and to whom, and what one is attached. In short, it is one’s evaluation of how good and worthy one is. It is widely believed that high self-esteem is a prerequisite for psychological health. Some studies indeed show that those with high self-esteem are happier, less anxious, less depressed, and more motivated than people with low self-esteem. However, one should bear in mind that self-esteem is an evaluative concept.
Let’s consider one example. Imagine that you are a top athlete who has brought many medals to his country in the past few years. Your self-esteem has increased, and you feel good about yourself. Now, imagine that you failed. One older athlete beat you in the last two competitions. Your self-esteem is likely to be shattered, right? With this example, we want to illustrate that self-esteem is strongly dependent on external events and reinforcements and can thus be fragile.
For this reason, Neff suggests that boosting our self-esteem might not be the optimal way of helping ourselves feel good in the long run. Practicing self-compassion might make more sense in this respect as it brings the same psychological advantages as self-esteem but has no drawbacks.
The components of self-love:
self-awareness and self-acceptance
To love yourself means to accept yourself unconditionally. However, you cannot accept what you are unaware of.
Self-awareness is related to mindfulness. When mindful, one pays attention to one’s internal states and the external world. One is aware of one’s physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. But self-awareness also means being aware of our own values, strengths, and weaknesses. Of what sparks our flame and of what extinguishes it. It also refers to our awareness of our influence on those around us and the world. Once we become aware of our own complexity, we understand that we are neither entirely good nor entirely bad. We stop avoiding parts of ourselves and welcome our experiences in their entirety without attempting to evaluate or change them.
Identifying obstacles to developing a healthy relationship with oneself
At this point, you probably understand that it takes more than putting on great clothes and pricey make-up to declare that you love yourself. You now surely understand that “self-love” is much more sophisticated than that.
Before you embark on your journey towards self-love, one more thing is worth mentioning. Developing self-love might require time, persistence, and effort. To start loving yourself, you must first identify what is standing in the way. Beliefs such as “I am not good enough” and “My needs are not important” can make self-love rather challenging.
We described some of the most common obstacles to self-love, but the list is not limited to these. Do some self-reflection and identify what interferes with self-love in your particular case.
Obstacle 1: Self-criticism
There is a plethora of evidence to suggest that whether we blame and criticize or accept ourselves significantly influences how well we cope with life. Unsurprisingly, self-criticism plays a role in the onset of depression. At an early stage of depression, people form negative self-cognitions, making them more susceptible to future adverse situations. Low self-criticism, on the other hand, emerged as the most pertinent predictor of a lower risk for relapse and a positive 1-year outcome in those suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD). Moreover, those who reduced their self-criticism during their therapy also had better post-discharge results.
And yet, some people believe self-criticism has a constructive purpose and criticize themselves in the hope that it will motivate them to become better and succeed. But self-criticism is hardly ever truly constructive. Thus, if possible, leave it aside. And if you need to motivate yourself, we encourage you to consider using means other than self-flagellation.
Obstacle 2: Perfectionism
Perfectionism is often accompanied by a lack of self-esteem and pronounced self-criticism. During childhood and adolescence, the perfectionist most likely received overt or covert messages of conditional acceptance from a caretaker, most likely a parent. Examples are numerous, but the prototypical message is: “You matter for as long as you do well.”
Often out of best intentions, parents set high standards for their children, expecting academic, athletic, or any other kind of excellence. Intentionally or not, they often put their children under much pressure. With time, children no longer feel the pressure to perform to be externally. Their parents’ expectations are now also their own. As their parents did, these people focus on their mistakes and failures, and imperfections. Paradoxically, they strive for excellence but hardly know how to enjoy excellent results once they achieve them.
It is not rare for people to perceive perfectionism as responsible for their success. After all, perfectionism pushes you to give your best at all times. But we are humans and not robots. We are not programmed to “give our best at all times.” It drains our energy until we no longer have any. Besides, perfectionism can also be related to psychopathology.
By now, you have probably understood what self-love is for you and what prevents you from loving yourself unconditionally. You are now ready to start practicing! Here are some brief guidelines and exercises that might serve you on your journey to developing a loving relationship with yourself. Note that various components of self-love are intertwined and that improvement in one will thus translate to improvement in the others. However, addressing different components is recommended for genuine and lasting contentment.
How do we begin?
You may begin by listening to yourself! Listen and understand your inner monologue and hear your needs and preferences. Start from the basics! For example, check what kind of food your body asks for at a particular moment. Does it need rest or exercise? Do you need mental stimulation? Or do you already have too much of it?
Then proceed to identify your triggers. Listen to and identify the harsh language you use while conversing with yourself. Then alter it. Make it more compassionate using techniques described in the following “Practicing self-compassion” section.
When facing difficulties, try to distinguish between the thoughts that benefit you and those that do not. Paying attention to beneficial thoughts might help you gain a clearer understanding of the issue. If the issue can be solved, this understanding will be valuable. But even if it cannot be solved, not entering a spiral of unhelpful thoughts will help you not to make things worse for yourself. Dr. Neff advises thinking of your friend going through a difficult moment. In times of difficulty, treat yourself as you would treat a friend.
Several mindfulness techniques may also help you build self-compassion. Prof. Neff suggests reminding yourself of the following three phrases in times of distress:
We all struggle
May I be kind to myself?
Although you know that beating yourself for every tiny mistake will not do you any good, after years of training your inner bully, you almost automatically criticize yourself for every little thing, no matter how ludicrous or foolish. Recognizing and becoming aware of perfectionistic ideas is the first step toward getting rid of them. When these ideas emerge, breathe and allow them to pass. Be mindful! We experience less invasive and obsessive thinking when we are fully present. Mindfulness-related books and courses might help you, but some techniques work well for those aiming to reduce their perfectionism. Burns describes several such techniques.
For the next 30 days, “dare to be average!”
Take a piece of paper and list the benefits and drawbacks of your perfectionism.
Practice becoming more “process-focused” instead of “results-oriented.”
Consider mistakes as chances for progress rather than indicators of failure.
Finally, you cannot improve your connection to yourself unless you commit to it.
Just as interpersonal commitment is essential for building a healthy relationship with others, self-commitment can help nurture a bond of trust with oneself.
Now, we find it convenient to end this article by suggesting that you make a simple promise and a commitment to yourself: