Love is in the air! We’re surrounded by commercial expressions of love at Valentine’s Day – flowers, chocolates, jewelry. All these things are ideal for those whose primary love language is gift-giving/receiving, but even so, the societal love hierarchy favors romantic love, while self-love goes overlooked. In reality, this time of year is often when people need self-love the most: we may neglect ourselves to express love for others, compare our relationships to what we see on social media, and even experience resentment and shame when our love life doesn't measure up.
One way to move through these difficult emotions? Practicing self-love.
What is self-love?
Self-love in its simplest form is being kind and compassionate towards yourself. It’s recognizing your inherent value and acting in ways that are aligned with your authentic self. Practicing self-love means turning inward and tuning into your needs and wants. It encourages self-care beyond the indulgent; while there is always room for pampering, self-love also means holding yourself accountable and investing in self-growth, which can be uncomfortable or unpleasant.
What makes self-love so difficult?
We often have no problem extending compassion and understanding toward others, yet hold ourselves to a higher (often unrealistic) standard. Negative self-talk has become the norm and it is seen as selfish or self-centered to express self-love. Our capitalist society further pushes people to be achievement-oriented, defining value and worth through productivity. Yes, meeting goals and receiving recognition is rewarding, but this mindset relies heavily on external validation. While external validation is a great motivator, it is not sustainable to rely solely on the feedback of others. How we see and treat ourselves significantly impacts how we interact with the world.
Why practice self-love?
Self-love leads to more fulfilling lives. It encourages authenticity and pursuits that align with our values. Embracing self-love means rejecting self-deprecation and developing a gentle and compassionate relationship with yourself. Of course, thoughts and feelings towards yourself will fluctuate, but consistently cultivating self-love can help you move through difficulties with more ease.
A big piece of loving yourself is practicing acceptance – not just acknowledging your strengths, but also embracing your shortcomings and imperfections. Letting go of perfectionism and unrealistic expectations creates the space to be fully present for life’s experiences and with others.
How do you practice self-love?
There are endless ways to practice self-love! Some good places to start:
Consistent meditation and mindfulness practices can increase self-esteem and happiness, and decrease anxiety. Meditation encourages you to withhold judgment towards thoughts and feelings that may arise. This enhances self-acceptance and your ability to self-regulate through difficult thoughts and emotions.
One form of meditation that may be particularly useful for cultivating self-love is the loving-kindness meditation. You begin by grounding yourself in a comfortable seat and tuning into your breath and body. Next, repeat the following as many times as needed: “May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be well. May I know happiness and the routes of all happiness.” The word “I” may also be replaced with physical or metaphorical parts of yourself that need extra love.
- Mindful self-compassion
Mindful self-compassion is a combination of mindfulness (being aware of the moment to moment) and building self-compassion (becoming an inner ally). Talking to yourself as you would a friend is a mindful self-compassion exercise that encourages self-love. This starts with reflecting on a time you helped a friend through a difficult situation and writing out how you provided support (responses, tone, etc.). The next step is to reflect on a difficult situation that you find yourself in and write out your initial response. From there, you reflect on the differences between the two responses. Often, our response to a loved one is delivered with more gentleness and compassion. You are encouraged to then curate a response to yourself that embodies that same loving awareness.
Boundaries are an important part of any relationship, including your relationship with yourself! Boundary setting means recognizing your limits and adjusting your actions accordingly. This might look like saying “no'' to plans, asking a loved one to communicate more respectfully, or deciding not to take on an extra task when your plate is full. Maintaining healthy boundaries with yourself and others can decrease the resentment and shame that arise when you overextend yourself. Boundaries are expressions of self-love because they illustrate validation and respect for your needs and wants.
Acknowledging your strengths and achievements is an effective way to combat that loud inner critic and cultivate self-love. This can be as simple as sharing a success with a loved one and allowing yourself to be celebrated. Accepting praise with gratitude acknowledges the effort and growth that you’ve put forth. Rewarding yourself is another example of self-acknowledgment. This might look like giving yourself an incentive to work towards and reach your goals and then employing positive reinforcement when you reach milestones along the way.
- Ditch self-comparison
Comparison is rampant in today's society. We compare ourselves to others on social media constantly, assuming we get the complete picture rather than the highlights. We’re swamped with photos of couples smiling, career milestones, and exotic vacations which create the illusion that life should always be eventful and exciting. The truth is there’s a whole lot of mundanity behind the scenes.
A good way to circumvent self-comparison is to become more intentional with your social media interactions versus mindlessly scrolling. This might look like culling your feed and choosing to only follow accounts that add value to your life.
- Adjust expectations
Most of us hold ourselves to a higher standard than others. This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s harmful. If we expect perfection from ourselves, mistakes can hurt our self-image and keep us from growing as failure is necessary for self-improvement. It’s important to remember that a person’s character is not black and white and does not come solely from their achievements or shortcomings. We are a compilation of our positive and negative attributes. This is the nuance of life. So while setting intentions for yourself, it’s beneficial to approach expectations and goals realistically and flexibly.
One last note…
Be mindful that consistency and patience maximize the benefits of these self-love practices. In terms of brain neuroplasticity, creating new habits and thought patterns means starting from scratch. If the brain is wired to think or behave a certain way (like talking negatively about yourself) it can feel unnatural and clunky to flip the script. The trick is to stick with the practices. It is comparable to learning new choreography. At first, you may feel off rhythm or miss some steps. After months of consistent practice, you find you’re gliding through movement as if your body was born knowing each step. Practice often and challenge the resistance, trusting that self-love is not far off.