You’ve probably heard that we have to love ourselves before we can truly love another person.
Or even that we have to love ourselves before we can be fully loved by someone else. These ideas have always left me with a lot of questions. I’ve wondered:
How exactly do I love myself?
Do I really have to look myself in the eyes in the mirror and say cheesy phrases from some magazine?
How do I know if I love myself enough? When does it cross the line into selfishness or even narcissism?
Is it is true that I have to learn to love myself first to gain the ability to be in a healthy relationship?
Since I first heard this idea, I have done a lot of exploration. And yes, I’ve even come to love myself more.
1. I’ve discovered the first step to loving myself is to feel myself.
What does this even mean? It’s all about feeling my emotions and how they manifest in my body as sensations. For example, if I feel afraid, I might notice a knot or a dropping sensation in my belly. Or if I feel angry I might notice tightness in the jaw or clenching in my hands.
These physical manifestations of emotions in the body are not inconsequential; in fact, they are so important that if I start to feel them regularly and without judgment, my whole relationship with myself will change. The trick is to consistently be with myself (my emotions and body sensations) with kindness, especially when I’m in pain, suffering or otherwise hate the experience I’m having.
I first really understood this when my husband and I took an hour long bus journey when we were in the middle of an argument. I wanted to continue to tell him about all the ways he was wrong and explain my point of view—again. Instead, we sat next to each other in silence, and it was excruciating.
After some time, I noticed the pointlessness of continuing to go over the argument in my head and started to pay attention to myself instead. I noticed the clenching in my jaw, the lump in my throat, the constriction in my chest and the way my breath hardly entered my body. I turned toward those sensations and actually felt them. I got curious about what they felt like. I noticed my jaw felt hot and stiff in addition to clenched. My throat felt like a lump of coal with sharp edges was lodged in it.
To be honest, this was really unpleasant. Then I started to notice something strange. The more I concentrated and focused my attention on my body and just explored the sensations without judging them or trying to change them, the more I noticed they moved on their own.
After a while some of them even lessened and disappeared. The most surprising thing was, the next time we had a disagreement, I noticed that the body sensations were a little less intense. My jaw was less tight, my throat less blocked, my chest more open and my breathing easier. As I’ve practiced this way over time, this trend has continued.
Now I have a greater tolerance for conflict and don’t get so upset when my relationships with people don’t seem to be going well. This helps me to really listen and understand what would actually help things to go better for the other person.
Rather than being selfish, shifting my focus from the other person to what I feel in my body helps me take responsibility for my own experience. Putting 50 percent or more of my attention on my inner experience is actually the most honest, helpful and productive thing I can do to improve my relationships with others.
2. The second step to loving myself is to change the way that I talk to myself inside my head.
For example, when I have a strong reaction to something, sometimes I tell myself:
“I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m over reacting.”
“I’m too sensitive, I’m going to just pretend this doesn’t bother me.”
“No one else thinks this is a big deal, what’s wrong with me?”
Sound familiar? Loving myself means that I accept myself the way I am and treat my emotions and reactions as valid. This doesn’t mean that I have to act on them. But I do acknowledge my right to feel the way I do (no matter how I feel). This can be confusing sometimes, because different parts of me may feel different things at the same time, yet they all need to be accepted by me.
For example, on that fateful bus ride, part of me wanted to yell at my husband, part of me wanted to cry and be comforted by him and another part wanted to look good in public and not let anyone else know what was going on. I chose to sit quietly and I’m glad I made that decision, but this doesn’t mean that the other two parts of me were wrong. To support the part of me that wanted to yell at my husband, internally I validated my anger by saying to myself “he’s a jerk, yeah, he never listens to me, he always has to be right, I just want him to hear me.”
Do you hear how young this part of me sounds? The use of “always” and “never” is a good clue that this is a younger part of me drawing on memories of earlier relationships. This gives me the opportunity to provide myself with a new experience that I didn’t always get when I was growing up. So I responded from an empathetic adult part of me “I’m here, I’m listening, I hear how mad you are, tell me how hard it is right now, I want to know what this is like for you.”
Then I really listened to that part of me and made sure that I heard how upset and angry I was. This doesn’t mean that I told my husband how mad I was (he knew!) or that I acted out my anger. I just listened to and validated myself in my thoughts and imagination. In the same way, I also turned toward the sad part of me that wanted comfort, listened to myself and provided that support for myself.
One important lesson I’ve learned in this process is that whether we know it or not, we’re always teaching other people how to treat us. If we’re invalidating ourselves internally, other people pick up on that and can begin to treat us the same way we treat ourselves.
3. The third step to loving myself is to act in a way that improves rather than degrades my self-esteem.
Self-esteem is not about thinking positive thoughts to paper over the cracks in my self worth. Rather it’s a deep inner knowing of my own value and a sense of connection to my deeper essence. I can increase my self-esteem by:
Listening to the messages of my body and emotions and sharing them with other people.
Saying what’s true for me and taking responsibility for my experience.
Acting in ways that are consistent with my values.
On the other hand, if I do and say what I think other people want, I end up feeling like a fraud. I erode my self-esteem by:
Constantly monitoring what people think of me and trying to please them.
Behaving in ways that are incongruent with my values so that others will like me.
Saying “yes” when I would rather say “no.”
Acting like a victim and blaming others for my feelings.
Lying to try to avoid conflicts.
Apologizing for having different opinions than people around me.
Not taking care of my own basic needs like food, sleep, or exercise.
Essentially, when I abandon myself, I feel like the kind of person who deserves to be abandoned and my relationships will reflect this. And when I take good care of myself internally, I become the kind of person who attracts more care and love.
Overall, consistently practicing feeling my emotions and body sensations, validating the experience of all the different parts of myself and being authentic in my communication have transformed my relationship with myself and with the whole world.
So yes, gazing at yourself in the mirror is optional, but you will want to learn to love yourself so that you can fully love and be loved!
Author: April Pojman
Editor: Catherine Monkman