Self-love is crucial for surviving and thriving in an oppressive society hellbent on making us feel like we’re wrong or not enough. But precisely because of this society, cultivating self-love can be difficult. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, I know how much energy it can take just to get through the day. When you’re stuck treading water, self-love can feel like an unobtainable luxury.
But none of us were meant to be trapped in a constant state of self-hating inertia. We are more than the struggles we face, the money we don’t have, the dreams we haven’t fulfilled, the people who have failed us, and the unfair expectations we place upon ourselves. In my own self-love journey, I’ve found that practicing the ten following items, while difficult, make all the difference in transforming from someone who wants to feel happy and complete to someone who deeply knows her truth, worth, and personal power.
1. Being a better friend to myself.
If my friend told me they were down on themself, I would first ask them what was wrong and give them ample time to explain what they were going through. Then I’d do my best to provide a judgment-free zone of emotional support. That’s what friends are for, right?
Why, then, is it so hard for us to provide this same level of support for ourselves?
I’ve learned that I deserve to befriend myself. Each of us is worthy of consideration and emotional investment. Treat yourself like a friend: ask yourself where your emotions are coming from. Give yourself space to fully experience your feelings without judgment. Get your insights down on paper. Remind yourself of all your good qualities, and learn more about why you have such a hard time seeing those things in yourself—where did that self-loathing come from?
2. Giving myself permission to accept my own compassion.
Once I realized I was being way too hard on myself, I in turn learned that I’m entitled to the bountiful compassion I extend to others. Each of us is human, with flaws but also strengths, and at our core, we all need support and love. It’s what ties us to each other.
Remember this mantra: “I am worthy of my own compassion.” It may sound silly and easier said than believed, but the more you remind yourself of it, the more you’ll start to internalize it, or at least start to feel less resistance to the idea. Re-train those neural pathways!
3. Deciphering and following the yearnings of my own heart, even if it’s at odds with what others want.
If you, like me, grew up being an emotional caretaker for others, you may have internalized the idea that self-interest (an undeniable component of self-love) is selfish when other people need you.
For example, I had the good fortune of being able to escape the town I grew up in and attend college thousands of miles away. This decision ended up being crucial to the development of my self-love and individuation as an adult. If it had been up to my mom, however, I wouldn’t have gone so far away, as she centered her life around having children and had no plan in place to sustain a fulfilling life upon her kids growing up.
It took me about a decade not to feel a self-critical, racking guilt about the fact that I had become an adult who had the right to a life that made me happiest. I had to learn that caretaking others to your own detriment runs the risk of crossing the line into something called pathological accommodation.
“[Psychological accommodation is when] a person, likely from infancy onward, learns essentially to erase himself or herself (sic) in order to have a relationship with an important other … and thereby survive, but … at the cost of [their] very self and its development,” explains psychoanalyst Steve Graham.
This doesn’t mean you should never consider the impact on your loved ones when planning important life decisions. But self-love requires you to recognize yourself as one of those loved ones.
4. Reviewing how I’m nourishing my body.
As a woman who has been targeted throughout my life, to varying degrees, by a misogynistic, beauty-obsessed, fat-hating culture, it has been difficult to explore what it means to pursue being “healthy” outside a framework that perpetuates body terrorism, fat-shaming, and disordered eating. Then I found the Health At Every Size (HAES) model. HAES declares a simple but underreported truth: healthiness, and for that matter, moral worth, should not be conflated with a small body size.
When you feel in tune with your body and are able to feel like you’re contributing to its overall sense of well-being, this is a way of giving your self-love a mega-boost. For me, this is moving my body in ways that bring it joy. I feel happy doing cardio at my no-frills gym while blasting club music, feeling that rush of endorphins kicking in, and delighting in my body’s increasing physical strength. I’m also a picky eater, but I find the nutrient-dense foods that work best for my taste buds and budget, like avocados and nuts and four-ingredient mango-peach or peanut butter and banana smoothies, and rock them all week! These are ways of providing my body with the self-love of exercise and food-based nourishment that don’t involve self-punishment, counting calories, or further traumatizing myself with toxic body-hating messaging.
5. Asking for help.
Asking for help on our self-love journeys isn’t always easy, but it can be a powerful and humbling experience that reminds us of the ways humans require interconnectedness to thrive. I’ve reached out to friends, family, and therapists to process the crappy things life has thrown my way. During some of these times I’ve realized that I lacked community with people who shared some of my experiences, and I’ve had some important experiences crowdsourcing that community from the Internet and then offline, too!
Sometimes we get messages from society that asking for help is weak. People expected to “act like a man,” for example, are particularly targeted by these messages. The preponderance of white therapists and systemic reality of racist microaggressions in the therapist’s office can also promote the idea that therapy is a “white person thing.” But all of us deserve access to quality, culturally competent psychological support, regardless of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, or any other factor.
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The takeaway: emotional vulnerability in the act of seeking outside help for your problems is in fact an extraordinary sign of strength, emotional intelligence, and evidence that you’re on the path to a more expansive self-love.
6. Understanding myself as a physical embodiment of the universe.
Each and every one of us is composed of energy made flesh, stardust miraculously transformed into our living, breathing souls and minds and hearts. Taking a pause to truly consider the unfathomable depths of the universe and the incalculable odds that have placed me here, at this time in history, in this body, living this life helps me to re-frame how I think about myself as a being with a purpose to promote justice, healing, and love on this planet.
And some days, when I’m deep in a spiral of nihilistic depression and all I can do is watch CNN to follow the latest political outrages with an anxiously palpitating tenderqueer heart, all this talk of stardust and cosmic purpose feels quaint if not utterly pointless. But even at my most jaded and atheist, it’s just true that the universe still has innumerable mysteries. Get to know and treasure this dazzling self of yours that exists, here and now.
7. Creatively exorcising my emotional demons.
In 2017 I left the career path I was on, and it was a really big deal. I had to deal with the fact that I’d spent years of my life working my butt off to get a Ph.D and making poverty-level wages only to realize that higher education is crumbling and it’s not a sustainable career path for me for numerous reasons. On the last day of class that I’d ever have as a college professor, I came home, took a hot shower, and collapsed on the bathtub floor, sobbing over everything I had sacrificed and how it had turned out. Then I picked myself off the floor, put on Frozen’s “Let It Go” on repeat, and belted out that Disney children’s tune like it was a magical anthem. (It was.)
The point is, I’ve found great power in creative mediums as ways of exorcising my emotional demons and restoring me back to the vivaciousness that awaits us all after we shed our traumatized skins. Create a musical playlist that embodies the life you wish to grow into. Write about the person you were before self-love became so much harder and what it would be like to regain that self’s wisdom and inner knowledge. Paint, draw, garden, dance, make love—remember who you are, and who you can be.
8. Uncovering and healing the structural sources of my self-loathing.
For those of you who have studied second-wave feminism, you may be aware of Betty Friedan’s famous 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. While Friedan’s analysis was certainly limited to her particular vantage point as a white, economically secure, college-educated heterosexual housewife, she contributed the important insight that the women like her weren’t depressed because they sucked at being wives and mothers; they were depressed because as women, they were given only these options in society, and they were punished if they wanted anything else.
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In short, some of the things you might think are reasons to hate yourself are actually functions of a system meant to keep you down. Once you realize that, you’ll become just a little bit freer.
9. Putting my hang-ups into perspective.
When I turned 30, I was disappointed. I thought I’d be financially stable in my career by then. I hoped to own a house. I wanted to have traveled through Europe. Why does my life suck so much? I lamented, comparing my life as someone who started out working-class to the lives of those I knew who grew up wealthy. It was easy for my negative self-talk to take over.
The older I get, however, the more I realize that I’m not alone. Millennials as a generation are screwed (for now—let’s take to the streets, shall we?). I’m not the only one whose life doesn’t match up to what I expected the future to look like when I was 10 (based on what I saw in the movies, which, by the way, are usually about rich white people). And even those who seem to have perfect lives are probably struggling with their own self-love journeys. Being a human is hard, but we don’t have to struggle through it alone.
10. Recognizing that self-love isn’t a linear process.
Some days you will feel on top of the world, in tune with yourself and believing every word you sing along with Lizzo: “I don’t need a crown to know that I’m a queen!”
Other days, you’ll be chilling on the couch, obsessing over something you can’t stand about yourself or replaying a conversation you had with someone ten years ago over and over in your mind.
Self-love isn’t something you “figure out” once and then possess, like a shiny object you can purchase. It’s a relationship with yourself, and like any good relationship, it has to be consensually worked at, respectfully reworked, compassionately tweaked, and lovingly embraced despite its idiosyncrasies.
Self-love isn’t easy. But I promise you this: it—like you—is always worth it.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person looking in a large mirror at their reflection and smiling. They have light skin, long dark hair, and are wearing a yellow shirt. Behind them is a window. Source: Pexels]