Self-love is more than a word. It is more than a notion. It is more than an idealistic state of mind. Self love is a practice, a cultivation, an intentional way of nurturing and being.
People come to a therapist for many reasons. One common theme that many (not just those in therapists’ offices) struggle with is self-esteem. “I am not sure why I don’t feel good about myself”, “I struggle with finding worth and value in myself”, “I don’t really like myself” are common statements as well as sentiments. When we begin our work, the therapeutic process aids us in digging deeper into those sentiments. And often, the number one reason people are struggling with how they feel about themselves doesn’t have to do with what happened in their childhood, how much money is in the bank or the promotion they missed - but rather the secret lies within and the answer is in their control.
When we lack self esteem, self-love is low. Conversely (here’s the secret) when we truly and authentically know and love ourselves, self-esteem flourishes. Cultivating self-love, then, is our answer and completely in our control.
In order to cultivate a loving relationship with ourselves, we must consider what we put into this relationship with ourselves. Often when trying to explain a concept, my mind works in pictures, so I drew out how I literally see self love.
Self love is the root. It is the very foundation of our soul. When we have strong unfailing self love, we learn to respect ourselves. And when we respect ourselves, we have healthy self esteem. These three are interdependent. We cannot have one without the other. They do not grow without effort. We have to intentionally cultivate these attributes through specific behaviors personalized to each of us in accordance with our values. In my illustration, the branches include set and maintain healthy boundaries, live with integrity, speak kindly, offer love, and create quiet space. These are still somewhat conceptual. To bring a deeper understanding of how we live these values, we add our leaves. These are the very important yet very subtle choices we make every day. Let’s break it down.
Boundaries: Saying “yes” to everything is easy. It requires no thought or discipline. Boundaries can be challenging: putting definite limits around our time, energy, money, food choices and alcohol choices are all good examples of setting boundaries. Saying “no” when it compromises your self. Treating all of the above as the precious commodity they are. Knowing you are important enough to set these limits.
Living with integrity: It is easy to proclaim how we (want to) live. It is more difficult to do it. Integrity is doing what is right, even when no one is looking. Easy to say, not always easy to do. Having the difficult conversations. Putting in the extra work. Making the unpopular choice for the right reasons. Practicing your professed values.
Speaking kindly: What would happen if you listened to a recorded message of the thoughts you have on any given day? These messages play in the background of our mind but if we hone in on them (ahem...mindful awareness), we can observe them and learn from them. If we are not offering kind words to ourselves, we can notice that and work to change it. It is important to offer yourself encouragement, kindness, and loving statements. Catching and changing that self-talk is a key to learning to love yourself.
Offering (self) love: Offering yourself grace when you make choices or have a reaction that is not in line with your values. This is where practicing self compassion leads directly to self love. When you lovingly own your mistakes but kindly note that you are a human being who makes mistakes and learns from them, you can offer love and compassion to yourself. You’ll do better next time because you’re learning to love yourself too much not to. (Check out Kristin Neff’s work on self compassion at: http://self-compassion.org.)
Creating (quiet) space: This one is a branch off of (or along with) boundaries. The whole world can seem to demand time, energy and space from us. Carving out intentional space for things that fill your soul (here’s where self-care comes in!) can be a way to offer self love. This can be alone time if that’s what you need or time with someone who fills your cup. It is intentional space you have created with the sole purpose of self love. No expectations or demands, no shoulds or have-to’s.
These are examples. Some may be yours too or you may have branches of your own with leaves that fill in the tree of your life. When we nurture each of these leaves, being fully aware of them, making small choices and big decisions based on walking the walk, we cultivate a deep sense of self love. This is done by offering self respect, feeling good about the world we create, cultivating a healthy self esteem. In order to have self love, we have to do things that honor ourselves: our values, beliefs, spirits and souls.
Examine the illustration again. Note this could be values in any healthy relationship. Ahh, because when we offer this kind of love to ourselves and build the frame of the tree, we grow more branches - and branches off of branches - and leaves on those branches - for a life of offering self loving and selfless love. We cannot offer more than we have. And that, friends, is how this believer in love continues to hold hope for our world.