Shifting the Conversation of Self-Love: A Practical Guide

Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

The key is action.

Self-love is a topic that can take some time to come to terms with. Even for myself, as much as I have done to adopt practices of self-love, it is very much still a work in progress. I expect anyone who has struggled with depression or anxiety could say the same. It can be quite difficult for us to feel worthy of love. Even if we are loved by others, we can be prone to distrusting their love or assuming that they somehow love us despite all of our negative qualities rather than loving us for our positive qualities. But at the very least, those who love us can act upon their love for us, and we can see their caring in these actions. But how can we traverse that great ocean between hating ourselves and loving ourselves?

Part of the difficulty may be in the language, itself. The word “love” has come to be such a weighty expression in modern society. When it’s said, we expect it to come with some deep, heavy emotional investment. The idea of applying such strength of affection to ourselves, which we are constantly on the verge of despising, can be terribly daunting. We are used to experiencing negative, sometimes even repulsive feelings toward our own beings. Even if we want to turn away from these feelings of self-hate and turn, instead, to self-love, how are we supposed to suddenly reverse those feelings, anchored as they are in a lifetime of baggage? It’s like asking someone who smokes 20 cigarettes per day to suddenly quit and take up jogging, instead. Not only is it unlikely, it’s unreasonable. So perhaps it’s time to change our approach to the topic of self-love and remove the emotional weight surrounding it.

There is a little parable about a man who had fallen out of love with his wife. He went to his pastor and asked for advice. The solution, said the pastor, was simple. All the man had to do was to love his wife. The man was confused. “But that’s the problem,” he said, “I don’t love her anymore.”

The difference between the man’s perspective and that of his pastor is that the man was focused on emotion, whereas the pastor was focused on action. The man was struggling because he didn’t “feel” love for his wife any longer. The pastor’s solution was for the man to turn his focus from emotion to action. To “practice” loving his wife.

Every married couple that I’ve spoken to that has expressed the same thing about the “feeling” of love: it’s simply not always there. Sometimes they feel love and affection for their partners, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they feel disdain for their partners. Sometimes they may feel nothing but indifference. They set these feelings aside, however, in order to make the relationship last. They understand that feelings, by nature, are mercurial and unreliable. They understand that if they are to make a relationship last, they must focus, instead, on consistent action and work. Perhaps this isn’t as romantic or as sexy as we would like to believe marriage to be, but it is the reality. (Disclaimer: this is not to say, of course, that all marriages will work as long as these elements are in place. There are always exceptions and extenuating circumstances to be considered.)

What does this have to do with self-love, then? Simply put, everything. Like it or not, we are each in a long-term relationship with ourselves. Not simply a long-term relationship, but a lifelong relationship, and one we can’t quit. If we are to approach marriage with seriousness and commitment, how much more so should we approach our marriage with ourselves? And yet we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves, we engage in consistent negative self-talk, and we disrespect and degrade ourselves on a regular basis. Somewhere along the path from childhood to adulthood, we have fallen out of love with ourselves. Like the man in the story, we find ourselves simply lacking affection for the person closest to us. Not for the person we wake up next to every day, but for the person we wake up as every day. In order to restore this relationship, in order to restore our love for ourselves, we need to get back to the practice.

It’s far too easy for us to put unrealistic expectations on those closest to us, and our own selves no less so. But what if we reframe our expectations of ourselves? If the key to a long-lasting marriage lies not in feeling, but in action, perhaps the key to self-love is the same. If we turn our focus to action instead of emotion, if we accept that, sometimes, we will hate ourselves, or be indifferent to ourselves, or even love ourselves, then the task of self-love becomes a little less daunting. We no longer have to feel worthy of love. In fact, our feelings are relatively unimportant in this matter. Rather, it is important that we act as though we are important and worthy of love, even when we don’t feel this to be true.

One study on marriage determined that respect was the most significant factor in predicting whether a relationship would last. If we can continue to respect an individual, we can continue to have regard for that person and put effort into a relationship with him or her. Perhaps we can apply this to our relationships with ourselves, as well. If we can maintain respect for ourselves, we can put effort into caring for ourselves. If we can put effort into caring for ourselves, we succeed in loving ourselves. How, then, do we foster self-respect, and how do we implement self-care?

Find reasons to respect yourself. Think of your positive traits, traits that you respect in yourself, and write them down. If you find it difficult to come up with any, consider what others have complimented you on in the past. If you still can’t think of anything, try asking a trusted friend for your positive qualities. You can even come up with qualities you don’t think you have, but would like to have. Remind yourself of these things on a regular basis. Put them on your wall or write them on your mirror. Take time to imagine yourself as a person with these traits. Don’t shy away from this exercise if you find it daunting, as that is only fear. If you practice this consistently, even with traits you don’t think you possess, you will find yourself inching toward the person you would like to be and someone whom you can respect.

Recognize and shift negative self-talk. This may come as a surprise to some, but self-talk is self-indulgent and unproductive. It is self-indulgent because, by engaging in negative self-talk, we are indulging the dark side of our ego. There is some part of our ego that perversely lavishes in abusing ourselves. Not only this, but engaging in negative self-talk is unproductive. Some people may say that their self-hatred fuels them to do better, but this is simply not true. Engaging in negative self-talk as a means of giving oneself motivation is like smoking a cigarette to calm down (sorry, smokers). What it’s really doing is relying on an unhealthy habit to receive a short-lived benefit, meanwhile reinforcing dependency on said unhealthy habit. Fostering a negative mindset has even been proven to negatively impact our health. Understanding and accepting these truths will help motivate us to shift our negative self-talk into positive self-talk.

Note: Don’t be intimidated by this exercise. If you don’t feel ready to make an immediate shift from negative to positive self-talk, consider the use of “bridge statements” to gradually recondition your behaviors. There is a great article on bridge statements here.

Determine what you need to be healthy and positive and make this part of your daily routine. This one may require some trial and error. What one needs to maintain one’s mental and physical health, especially mental, can depend heavily on one’s personality. I am an introvert with a love-language based heavily on physical touch. As such, the best things I can do for myself are making sure I have restorative alone time (introvert) as well as time exercising and getting restorative physical therapy such as sports massage (touch love language). That said, there are certain things that will make a huge difference no matter who you are. Eating a consistently healthy diet, if you have had a tendency not to do so, will have a great positive impact on your mental health. Making time to do any kind of exercise, as well, will make a big impact. Especially if you normally have a sedentary lifestyle. Not only will these habits affect you biologically, but by making them a priority, you are further demonstrating to yourself that you are a person worth consistent effort.

I highly recommend taking the time to consider how your love language may inform how you implement self-care. Check out this article for more information on that topic.

Accept negative emotions without feeding them energy. Remember that the goal is not to eliminate negative emotions, but to accept them. We often make the mistake of labeling negative emotions as bad, or of trying to avoid negative emotions altogether. This is not only futile, but is actually a destructive goal. Negative emotions are intended to serve a purpose, they are not in and of themselves “bad” things. When we fall into habits of self-help, however, we begin to invest too much energy into our negative emotions and we fall out of balance. Rather than continuing this pattern, we need to learn to look at our negative emotions with impassivity. When we experience shame or anger, for instance, we should first ask why we are feeling this. Have we or someone else actually done anything wrong? If yes, is this something we can rectify or control? If the answer is yes, we can look at proactive steps to solving the problem. If the answer to either question is no, however, we must practice releasing the negative emotion we feel. Learning to accept our negative emotions without allowing them to control us is critical in our self care and in forming healthy relationships with the world and people around us.

Note: releasing negative emotions and eliminating negative emotions are not the same thing. Trying to forcefully remove an emotion will only lead to frustration. Releasing it, however, is simply realizing that it has no control over our actions and allowing the emotion to run its course without dictating the rest of our day.

Recognize that self-respect and self-care are also critical to maintaining healthy relationships with others. Learning to love oneself takes work — consistent, dedicated work. When we are coming from a place of self-help, it can feel overwhelming and sometimes may not seem to be worth the effort. We may find ourselves asking what the point is. However, all of those closest to us will benefit from our improved ability to love ourselves. When we form a good and healthy relationship with ourselves, we lay the groundwork for healthy relationships with those around us, as well. By doing this work, we positively impact our existing relationships and even attract more positive relationships into our lives. If you have a difficult time keeping taking these steps, remind yourself that it isn’t just for you, but for all of those you love, as well. It may be painful at first, but don’t worry.

It will get easier.

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Jojo Lee

Jojo Lee

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An (often nude) model/writer/performer/creator based in Tokyo, Japan. I write fiction and nonfiction about love, relationships, depression, culture, and stuff.