What is self-love? Is it being selfish, always putting your own needs before those of others? Is it feeling entitled, catering and making everybody else cater to your needs, whims and desires? Of course, it isn’t! Nothing could be further from the truth. People who engage in this sort of behaviour are more likely to suffer from a deficiency in self-love, needing other people to spoon-feed them the love and acceptance they’re withholding from themselves.
So what is it? Before you get impatient, I’ll just answer as simply as possible: when I talk about self-love, I don’t mean taking care of yourself as in pampering yourself: grooming, relaxing, holidaying etc. These are all good things to cultivate to nurture your self-love, but they do not constitute self-love. Borrowing in part from Nathaniel Branden, I’d like to define what self-love really is:
Self-love is the confidence in our ability to cope with whatever life throws our way. It is the conviction that what we think, feel and need are valid and should be respected. It takes for granted our right to be happy and successful.
You might think that this is rather overdoing it. You would perhaps settle for less. A right to be happy? Your feelings valid? Come on, this is la la land! Let me just assure you that it isn’t. It’s not because we’ve been brought up in a culture that sometimes glorifies self-sacrifice and tells us that our needs are unreasonable that we should believe it. Think of rationing your love for your children! Would you expect them to sacrifice themselves? Would you think that a crying baby had invalid needs? Of course not. And so it is with you. You as an adult. In the same way that we extend unconditional love to a baby, we have to bestow unconditional love on ourselves.
“Unconditional” means that you love yourself as you are, warts and all, not once you’ve lost 20 pounds, not once you’ve got a promotion, not once somebody else has said that they love you. Once you’ve accepted that you’re lovable just as you are, it’s time to cultivate this new-found self-love.
When self-love is solid, others can lean on it too. The good thing about self-love is that it’s an unlimited resource. And it sometimes turns out that the more we give, the more we have to give from. It’s like the proverbial empty or full cup: you can’t give any if you haven’t got it.
It’s not enough to DECIDE that you love yourself. The process by which you begin to love yourself is more like growing plants, trees or flowers: you might start out with a seedling but if you water it, it’ll grow into a bigger plant. This is what we must all do to cultivate self-love: we must nurture it, taking care to “water” it when it needs it. This way, we’ll end up with gigantic, flowering plants that will be the cornerstones of our lives and the rock upon which we can build.
You not only have to get your conscious mind on board; you have to persuade your subconscious mind that you’re in fact totally lovable. We are swayed between our own idea of our self-worth and what the world shows us is our self-worth. That is, it is difficult to maintain an idea of high self-worth if the world shows us we’re incompetent. Imagine you thought you were absolutely fabulous at organising. Organising your daughter’s wedding, organising colleagues’ workload and even organising an occasional seminar. This idea would be difficult to maintain if at your daughter’s wedding there wasn’t enough food for the guests, you forgot about the flowers and some of the couple’s closest friends never got an invitation in the first place! It would be difficult to keep in place a belief that organisation was your strong point if half of your colleagues were off on sick-leave all the time, blaming too much pressure and work, and a seminar where the venue was inadequate, where there was nothing planned in the way of meals and where speakers were not informed of the times of their interventions. Your input from reality would match your conviction and your only option would be to either accept that you had some progress to make in the way of organisation or go into denial! I recommend the first option. The challenge is to love yourself ANYWAY! Despite messing up at times, your love for yourself is UNCONDITIONAL, remember? So you are allowed to get it wrong sometimes and still be lovable. This is called being human.
If however, overwhelmed by the evidence that your organisational skills weren’t up to scratch in these instances, you’d condemn yourself, think you were worthless because you would always mess things up, this could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy because you would be looking only at signs and evidence that you weren’t for the life of you able to organise anything. As Aaron T. Beck says:
“Because of the way our brain works, we all have an automatic selective filtering system that will look for evidence in our environment that matches up with whatever we believe to be true about ourselves. We will then disregard other evidence to the contrary.”
You can see how important it is to think well of yourself. If you don’t, this will manifest in your life as self-sabotage in the form of procrastination, fear, envy, neediness, guilt or extreme passivity.
So let’s turn this around. Here are some ways in which you can start nurturing your seedling or your healthy plant, for that matter.
To start off with, try out a Louise Hay exercise. She called it mirror work. It consists of looking at yourself in the mirror, not the way you’d look in the mirror for a grooming session, to check if your hair was in place and your clothes crease- and crinkle-free. The idea is that you look yourself in the eyes as if you were another person. And then that you connect with this person. And lastly, that you say: “I love you, + first name”. This of course can seem extremely awkward to you the first time you try it out, but if you can say it to somebody else, why not to yourself? If you look at a person you love, it’s not to find fault with them, is it? So why would you look at yourself to find fault with yourself? Why not notice your lovely skin-tone or beautiful hair? Why notice only the wrinkles or spots?
So I challenge you to look yourself in the mirror and say: “I love you,” and then add your first name. It might feel clumsy and silly the first few times, but it’ll get easier. If it’s really impossible for you to tell yourself that you love you, then say: “I’m willing to begin to love you, +first name”. It’s a start. The advantage of starting off this way is that you don’t start telling yourself something that your subconscious won’t or can’t believe. If you’re a far cry from self-love, your subconscious can’t just shift from self-loathing to self-love in a sentence. Give it time. Keep reminding it that you’re willing to begin loving yourself and see what happens.
Self-love is really all about nurturing and protecting. To protect yourself, you could make a list of the behaviours or actions you’re no longer willing to tolerate, from other people or from yourself. Cheryl Richardson calls this an Absolute NO List. We’ve started one in our Choosing Happiness Facebook Group and here are some ideas:
- indulging in emotional eating
- indulging in negative self-talk
- stressing about work and bills
- feeling guilty about not being good enough or not giving enough
- maintaining toxic friendships
- sacrificing sleep
- wearing clothes that don’t look good on us
- eating sugar or carbs
- pushing ourselves to do everything in one day
- receiving advertising in my mail
The list could go on. The important part is that these items will protect you and reinforce the care you give to yourself by no longer accepting such behaviours or actions in your life. Over time, your subconscious will cheer up and feel supported! Who wouldn’t? If you no longer had to put up with things that were getting on your nerves.
There are many other things that you could do to reinforce self-love in your daily life. If you’d like some more exercises, please send me a line. I’ve come to be quite expert 😉 You can write to me at email@example.com
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