It took me a long time to learn how to love myself. In fact, I’ve learnt to love myself a few times, then forgotten again. At this point someone - usually a good friend - reminds me and I get back to working on that relationship I have with myself again. Because I know it’s important.
But what does learning to love ourselves actually mean and why is it important to hold onto?
For me, real self-love is threefold and has to encompass the following:
Kindness To Self
I don’t talk shit about the people I love. I don’t think of them as unworthy. I don’t use small faults as reasons to dismiss the goodness in them.
Yet, I can when it comes to myself. I can internalise a pretty awful narrative towards myself, but I’m not alone in this. Many of us do it. We speak to ourselves and about ourselves, in a way we would never dream of doing with anyone else.
This is why the first path to self-love is kindness to self.
Cut off that internal voice when it’s scolding or shaming yourself. When it’s telling you you’re not good enough.
This isn't to say we shouldn't be self-reflective and aspire to be the best we can, but we must do this with the kindness and support we offer to others on their journey. This takes practice because it’s habit-breaking, but it’s so worth it. There's enough toxicity out in the world meant to disarm us, we should create homes for this inside of ourselves.
Acts Of Love
When we love other people, we show it. Why? Because we know it makes people stronger to feel looked after and loved. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be doing this for ourselves also.
So what are acts of self-love? I suppose this has become meshed up in the world of wellness. The problem with this, as with wellness, is the concept gets monetized. So now luxury yoga retreats and regular spa days are pitched as acts of self-love. Unfortunately, these are not affordable, both financially and in terms of time, for most people.
Yet, this is a commercialised version of self-care. Acts of love for the self, in its basic form, is to do small things that make us feel loved and looked after.
Acts of love will be different for everyone. Some soothe best with a glass of wine in a steamy bath. I like to snuggle into a blanket with a cup of tea and the latest trashy TV show on because that helps me switch off for a while, which is what I need to refuel. Whereas a friend of mine loves to spend two hours on a Saturday morning reading Russian literature because her self-love is feeding her mind.
Whatever works for you is just fine. What’s important is to pinpoint what you need to feel at peace with yourself and the world and give yourself that regularly. Maybe a little every day, maybe once or twice a week.
Integrity and Dedication
It’s important to recognise that self-love doesn’t always sit well from the outset. I love my kickboxing classes. They help me keep fit and I feel great - after. Despite this, it takes considerable effort for me to get to class each week. Both physically and mentally. Still, doing so is an act of love because ultimately it serves me.
One barrier to self-love is our many other responsibilities. We need to work hard to live (even if we love our work) and most of us are caring for other people in our lives. So we end up placing our own care further and further down the to-do list. What we need to recognise is that this is unnatural and unhealthy. Whilst working and caring for others is important, the idea that we do this at the expense of ourselves is senseless. After all, we wouldn’t want the people around us to do this, would we?
The obstacle to overcome is the idea that looking after ourselves is selfish and/or vain. Looking after ourselves is logical and, perhaps most importantly, it keeps us in love with life itself. Being in love with life is how we achieve, how we thrive and how we find purpose. To get there, we must first have a good relationship with ourselves.
Once you have decided to build a relationship with yourself you need to put on your armour. Arm yourself with the why and shield yourself against the temptation to wander from the path. Embracing a new way of thinking and a new approach to living takes integrity and dedication.
Loving Yourself When You’re In Love
I’ve been single for a while now. Maybe I’ve not met the right person yet and maybe I’m not ready yet. I won’t share the details of my romantic life here. What I will tell you though is that I have lost myself to love several times before.
I've taken on the role of caretaker twice before and prioritised the needs of the relationship over my own needs. In doing so, my relationship with myself suffered. Relying on these other people to love me meant that when the relationships became challenging, there was no one holding me up. Not them and not me.
Many people experience this. One thing I recognised though is that when things started to go wrong in my relationships, my former partners still had themselves and their needs to cling onto. Whereas, I’d severed mine, to commit to them. Isn't that strange?
Yes, love is intoxicating but it's not only that.
In a culture that often sneers at so-called 'feminine' characteristics, one of the few traits people seem to like about women is a tendency to nurture. To put the needs of others first.
Of course, there's an argument that this is more of a nurtured behaviour than a natural one but the media and society tend to punish women who seemingly put anything before their families. They are branded selfish and unfeminine. So is it any wonder many of us end up in bad relationships? Or even in good relationships but still, surrendering our needs and self-care? How do we stop?
I'm still working this out for myself so this article is very much the beginning of a conversation.
I believe we must continue to practise self-love. Whilst a different kind of love might be very welcome, it is just that - a different kind. Therefore, not a replacement and not a substitute.
Keep the hobbies, interests, activities and rituals that centre and fulfil you. Those that fuel you with the energy, patience and strength you need to face the world. You may find you have to rearrange or slightly cut back on things you do when making space for a new relationship. Only, set limitations on this because it's all too easy to chip away at your 'you' time until you have none left.
Often, it's our passions and interests that the person we're trying to make space for was initially attracted to. So abandoning them isn't only a disservice to ourselves but also to the relationship.
Through any relationship with any other person though, we need to keep listening to ourselves. Especially when things don't feel right.
When red flags start to appear or when you're in a relationship but it's not giving you what you need, you can start to feel what I call 'the ache' creeping in. It's a heavy feeling that sits in the gut, gnawing away and hankering for attention. The more that we dismiss the ache the heavier and more uncomfortable it becomes. Until there is no space left inside me. Whether or not the cause of the ache can be resolved, what's most important is that it is recognised and acknowledged because dismissing the ache means dismissing ourselves. Telling ourselves we cannot be trusted - that our feelings are not valid.
Ultimately, ignoring the ache is where we begin to lose ourselves.
The End Goal
Next time I find myself falling in love, I will choose to believe I can hold onto myself too. Not only will I believe, but I'll consciously hold onto that essential time for myself and continue to practise those hobbies and rituals that have empowered me because they will always be needed.
As wonderful as falling in love is, there's no need to transfer the love you have cultivated for yourself onto another. You have love to spare. There is a pool of love inside us all that is abundant and endless.
And if we don’t find romantic love? Well, then we’ll still have enough love. We’ll have it from friends and family. We’ll cultivate purpose and fulfilment through other means and, ultimately, we’ll love ourselves enough to be able to absorb and be nourished by all of it.
Lastly - I wish you all a happy Valentine's Day - celebrate love, in all its complex and soul-fulfilling ways and remember that you can find it within yourself too.