Is time passing by quickly? How do you spend your time? Is your time spent with self-kindness and love or beating yourself up? How-to-love-yourself advice is everywhere these days. Step into your favourite local gift shop, and you’ll likely find self-love candles topped with rose quartz, affirmation card decks, and pillows embossed with Tony Robbins motivational quotes. Scroll through Instagram or even TikTok, and you’ll probably encounter influencers sharing self-love advice that often ignores the many complex reasons why someone might struggle with self-worth—a barrage of “you just have to love yourself” or some might call it toxic positivity. I even do it and speak on stage about the importance of self-kindness and compassion! I believe great humans make great leaders, and great leaders make great humans. Imagine a world with more kindness, compassion and leadership. Thing is there is more to this than just a pillow, quote and candle.
This “Self-Love” thing sells. Are we really buying it, though? While it may seem cheesy or oversimplified, most mental health professionals will tell you, in one way or another, that being kinder to and more accepting of yourself is crucial for both mental well-being and healthy relationships. It is vital to being a great leader, too! However, various factors (trauma, negative thinking, years of self-criticism, and systemic discrimination, to name a few) can make this simple-sounding practice way more complicated—and much easier said than done.
If you’ve clicked on this blog, you could use some support in the self-compassion area. Most of us do! I have researched, worked in this space for 16 years and spoken to several people in this area.
Please read on for practical tips on how to (actually) love yourself—no inspirational quotes required (but no shame if those help you, either).
- Think of self-love as a practice, not a destination—and define it for yourself.
There is no finish line you cross when you officially love yourself. Self-love is neither constant nor permanent. It’s also not the same as being “in love” with yourself, so consider working toward acceptance if the word “love” doesn’t feel right. “We often define love in this fairy-tale sense where everything needs to be perfect and then apply that same pressure to self-love, which isn’t realistic,” Whitney Goodman, LMFT, author of Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, tells SELF. We don’t have to love everything about ourselves; certain days will be easier than others. Just like with other long-term relationships, sometimes loving ourselves is “just commitment, perseverance, acceptance, or general neutrality,” licensed clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD, assistant professor at Northwestern University and author of Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want, tells SELF. And don’t expect to cultivate new thought patterns overnight: Like any habit, accepting and being kinder to yourself takes practice. It also takes Courage.
2. Know that you don’t have to love your reality in order to love (or accept or forgive) yourself.
Imagine your closest friends and family members who show up with love for you when you’re at your worst, least successful, not-so-perfect self. Now, ask yourself if you’d treat yourself the same way. We love our friends and family despite their faults, but it’s so hard for many of us to love our faulty selves. “When we realise that perfection is not the prerequisite to being loved by other people or loving yourself, we can begin to practice self-acceptance and, maybe eventually, self-love,” Adia Gooden, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist whose TED Talk on “unconditional self-worth” has been viewed nearly 1 million times, tells SELF.
If woulds, shoulds, and coulds have weighed you down, know that accepting your mistakes and imperfections can feel near impossible. “When I work with clients, I see the majority of their suffering coming from a longing for things to be different from how they are,” Goodman says. She uses a dialectical behaviour therapy practice called “radical acceptance” to help people accept the reality of their lives while having hope for the future. We also practice this fantastic technique in our coaching.
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This practice is rooted in the theory that to accept our imperfect selves, we must first acknowledge our reality. “What we resist persists,” Dr. Gooden says. In other words, if you deny what’s happening, you’re more likely to get stuck in negative self-talk (“It shouldn’t be this way” or “I shouldn’t have done that”). Conversely, if you practice acknowledging your reality in non-judgmental terms (“This is my situation” or “This is what happened”), you’ll be better able to accept and move past the things you can’t control. The word “accept” is critical here—Dr. Gooden emphasises that you don’t have to like what’s happening. For example, it’s okay and natural to feel disappointed that you didn’t get called back for a second interview, but accepting the facts of the situation (“They didn’t call me back, and I’m disappointed”) can prevent you from feeling like you are a disappointment. The idea is to avoid getting stuck in a self-blame spiral by validating your thoughts and feelings and practising self-acceptance instead of repeatedly berating yourself for what you should’ve done differently (yes, even if you mispronounced the interviewer’s name).
Self-forgiveness (we love this) is another practice that can foster self-love and acceptance, Dr. Gooden says. Again, forgiving yourself is often much easier in theory than in practice. Still, one way she recommends letting yourself off the hook is to identify the wisdom you gained from a discouraging situation. If, for example, a relationship doesn’t work out, try not to be hard on yourself for the five months you invested in the other person or a way you acted that you’re not proud of. Instead, ask yourself what you learned during those months that might benefit you in the future. Self-love doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes; it supports us in taking responsibility when we do something we’re not happy about so we can more easily move forward, Dr. Gooden says.
It is also important to note that learning to accept and forgive yourself may bring deep sadness. “When you think about how much time you’ve spent beating yourself up, comparing yourself to others, or convincing that you were bad or broken, there can be quite a bit of grief,” Dr. Solomon says. It’s normal and even healthy to grant yourself time to feel that loss, she says, so long as you eventually work on accepting whatever happened in the past so you can move forward—and embrace your future as an opportunity to live differently.
3. Challenge your negative mental narrative by sticking to the facts.
Buddhists explain suffering as two arrows. The first arrow is the unfortunate event that happened to us—a painful arrow outside our control. The second arrow is the story we tell ourselves about that event—this suffering is self-inflicted. Dr Solomon says self-love means not shooting ourselves with that second arrow. For example, the first arrow could be that a loved one dies from the flu. The second arrow could be you telling yourself that they wouldn’t have died if you’d convinced them to go to the doctor sooner. Or it might be you telling yourself that you should have spent the holidays with them even if they were unwell. In other words, a situation can be emotionally painful, but the story we tell ourselves about it is often the primary source of our suffering. The good news is, we can work on not adding to our pain with this negative narrative, Dr. Solomon says.
If regrets or other negative thoughts start creeping in about a painful event, Goodman suggests we look at the facts. “Is there any evidence against these thoughts? Is there anything you can identify that makes things seem less negative? You’re not denying reality, but instead pointing out all the things that exist at once,” Goodman says. So you were made redundant from your job—does that mean you’re bad at what you do? Is there evidence that proves it had nothing to do with your performance? Or perhaps your performance at work has suffered due to challenges outside of your control. Or maybe you weren’t great at your job because it was a bad match for your skills and strengths, but that doesn’t mean you’re terrible. By identifying all the facts, you can better recognise what you are and aren’t in control of—and avoid letting a challenging event define your self-worth.
Dr. Gooden says another way to challenge our inner negative narrative is to ask ourselves where those thoughts are coming from. For example, social media posts that trigger comparison can fuel negative self-talk. Consider those filtered Instagram pics from someone you haven’t seen since high school that make you feel your life pales compared to theirs or that you’re somehow less worthy. Dr. Gooden suggests asking yourself, “Where is that story coming from?” and “Is it actually true?” Those questions help you realise that negative thoughts about yourself often aren’t facts but results of cultural or childhood conditioning.
Sometimes, we internalise the voice of a hyper-critical parent, for example, Dr. Solomon says: The mother with low self-esteem who berated herself when she made mistakes. Or the father who was quick to point out his perceived physical flaws. Breaking intergenerational patterns is hard, but it can also be an empowering step in cultivating self-love. “It’s exciting to realise that negative patterns can stop with you,” Dr. Solomon says.
Self-love isn’t about blaming our parents or guardians. Maybe they did the best they could at the time they were raising you, and you didn’t get what you needed when you were little. “We are not responsible for how we were hurt, misunderstood, or neglected by caregivers when we were children,” Dr. Solomon says. “But it is our responsibility, as adults, to address and adjust the coping strategies we developed to deal with that pain.” Again, she says that learning to accept what happened in the past so you can move through it—maybe with a therapist or a life coach if you’re struggling alone—can help you grow closer to self-love.
4. Acknowledge that oppression and trauma can make self-love even more challenging.
If you belong to a marginalised or historically oppressed group, you may internalise societal messages telling you you’re not valuable. And even if you don’t believe those messages about your particular group are true about you, says Dr. Gooden, there can be pressure to overperform to disprove them. “Some people start to neglect their physical, emotional, and mental needs in the process of trying to prove, on an outward level, that they’re worthy and deserve respect,” she says.
It can also be harder for survivors of trauma, who often struggle with shame and self-blame, to believe they are worthy of love. With interpersonal trauma or something else that violates boundaries, the implicit message is that you’re not worthy of respect. “It’s widespread for survivors of trauma to internalise that message and think, There must be something wrong with me that this person did this to me,” Dr. Gooden says.
Working through oppression and trauma can be incredibly challenging on your own, so Dr Gooden and Dr. Solomon recommend unpacking these issues with a therapist if you can—here’s some advice for finding a culturally competent therapist. But trying to be kinder to our bodies can be one small step toward healing. “When we honour our bodies, we can shift our relationship with them away from judgment and acknowledge that they—and we—are worthy of love and care,” Dr Gooden says. What does honouring your body look like? She recommends soothing self-care classics like taking a warm bath with essential oils or queueing up some of your favourite songs and dancing it out in your living room. But your body-centred kindness doesn’t have to look like that. For example, going for a walk or wearing comfortable pants might be more appealing to you.
5. Practice setting boundaries—in real life and online—to build self-worth.
Setting safe boundaries in relationships is an essential step in cultivating self-love. Dr Solomon advises avoiding giving your time and energy to people—parents, friends, or partners—who trigger feelings of unworthiness. “Part of practising self-love is not seeking water from an empty well,” she says. “I recommend making relational and sexual choices that centre around pleasure, comfort, safety, and communication.” For example, you might have to end a relationship with someone who makes you feel bad about yourself. And if you can’t necessarily stop all communication right away or at all (in the case of a demanding boss, say, or a critical parent), try practising radical acceptance (as outlined above) and setting even small boundaries, Dr. Solomon says—like ending a phone conversation with a loved one who’s bringing you down, or not checking your work email after a particular time in the evening.
6. Remind yourself that loving—or at least accepting—yourself is worthwhile.
I always inspire, teach and speak about the power of self-kindness and self-compassion in our work and when I am on stage. Why? When we are kinder and more compassionate to ourselves, we are more understanding and more forgiving to others. How powerful is this? Don’t you think you deserve kindness? Do we need more kind humans and leaders?
As I mentioned earlier, influencers may make self-love seem superficial or even toxic (using “self-love” to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions or attributing success to self-love instead of privilege). But, self-love has the potential to profoundly impact your life if you define it as an acceptance of who you are and a commitment to personal growth. “Self-love isn’t navel-gazing and never contributing to the world. It’s the best foundation to have a loving, healthy partnership with someone else. It’s the best foundation to be a parent. It’s the best foundation to share your gifts as you work in the world,” Dr. Gooden says.