“Love is loving things that sometimes you don’t like.” ~Ajahn Brahm
You’ve probably heard the saying “You can’t find love until you learn to love yourself.” What this really means is that when you love yourself, you’re also fully able to accept another’s love for you because you know that you deserve it.
Unfortunately, some people misunderstand this saying to mean that you’re basically not worthy of love unless you love yourself. And that’s a load of toxic rubbish.
If it were true, any number of people with trauma or certain mental illnesses would never stand a chance of finding love. And that’s simply not true.
However, it’s certainly *nice* to love yourself. It makes you feel at home in your own skin, less dependent on others’ approval, and even happy. It also helps you attract people who treat you with love and respect.
Not loving yourself or respecting your own needs and wishes tends to make you vulnerable to other people who don’t respect you either. From my own experience, I can tell you: it sucks. It hurts like hell, and of course, it also tears your already shaky self-respect down further.
I know because this is an issue I’ve carried around with me for most of my life.
Apart from the pain and humiliation of being disrespected, the worst part is that people kept telling me: “What others think of you shouldn’t concern you. Just ignore them!”, as though I didn’t know, in theory, that my self-worth doesn’t depend on other people’s perception or treatment of me.
The knowledge didn’t make any difference, though, and was as useful as telling someone to stop bleeding after they’d been stabbed with a knife.
The Roots of Missing Self-Love and Self-Respect
Before I continue, I’d like to point out that I’m well aware love and respect aren’t the same thing. But they function in similar ways in this particular context. For some people, the issue is a lack of self-love; others, like me, struggle more with respect.
Lack of self-love or self-respect manifests in all sorts of struggles and behaviors, from eating disorders and addiction to anxiety and depression: You name the dysfunctional behavior, a psychologist can show you how it results from a reduced ability to love and/or respect yourself. In most cases, like mine, it goes back to one’s childhood.
I had a seemingly idyllic childhood in a loving family, but there was dysfunction also, and I’m highly sensitive. I was also the youngest child by a large margin and therefore ended up rather alone when I was very young, without anyone who would take me seriously. At best, they found me cute and silly.
Nobody meant to hurt me, but when they laughed at my “art” and my early attempts at writing, it didn’t exactly build my self-confidence. This left me wide open to being truly hurt by the usual school-years experiences of being mocked or teased by classmates, which most others seemed to simply shrug off.
It took many years for me to realize that even as an adult, even going into middle age, I still had very little respect for myself. I also continued to draw people into my life who didn’t take me seriously. When the connection to my childhood began to dawn on me, I knew something had to change.
“Just Love Her”
There are few things more daunting than trying to heal trauma, overcome a mental illness, or simply shake off the lifelong re-enforcement of unhelpful beliefs and behaviors. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it’s usually a long process that takes years. It’s absolutely worth it, but I’ve found there’s no need to wait for it to be done in order to start loving and respecting oneself.
That’s right: There’s a shortcut.
In his famous book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells a story about a man who came to him and said that he no longer loved his wife. Covey told him to simply “love her.” To which the guy responded, you don’t understand, I just said I don’t anymore.
Covey went on to explain that love is a verb, and instead of waiting for a feeling to appear, he should just act in a loving way toward his wife. The short of the long story is that apparently, this saved the man’s marriage.
And this is where it clicked for me. Maybe I didn’t feel a lot of self-respect, but I could certainly act as though I did! I admit that this is one of those things that sound too simple to be true. I can tell you from my own experience, though, it’s also one of the things that really are as simple as they sound.
Fake It Until You Become It
What you do—what I did—is first brainstorm ways your current behavior doesn’t reflect self-love or self-respect. If this is difficult, imagine another person, like your best friend. Anything you do or say that you wouldn’t do or say to your best friend, is probably not respectful or loving behavior.
- Yelling at yourself (“Stupid me,” “I’m such a clutz,” etc.), either out loud or in your mind
- Not doing what you know is good for you, even if you actually enjoy it (such as going for a walk or eating a yummy, healthy meal, as though you didn’t deserve it)
- Not doing what lights you up (as in, you love playing the piano, but you catch yourself scrolling through social media for two hours instead)
- Staying in jobs and relationships that aren’t nourishing you
- Tolerating disrespectful or toxic behavior by others, even when you have an option of removing yourself from the situation
Watch out for these behaviors, and when you catch yourself at them, say “Stop!” out loud. Then immediately do something that nourishes yourself. This might be any number of things; again, think of what you would do to reassure or nurture someone you love, like your best friend or maybe your child.
From my own experience as well as my work with my clients, I know that kindness and gentleness beat “tough love” any day. Here are a few ways to establish new, loving, and respectful behaviors and habits.
1. Gently ask yourself what you need at this precise moment.
This sounds weird and at first, and you might not get anywhere. Persist, though, and after some days or weeks, you will get an answer. Then, resist the urge to tell yourself you can’t or shouldn’t or don’t deserve it, and do whatever your need is (a nap/cup of tea/hug/bath/etc.).
2. Remember that you are worth the effort to…
…be comfortable where you sit, wear comfortable clothes, be clean and healthy, get plenty of sleep, eat the food you love, do things you enjoy, and take care of yourself. Remind yourself of this every day. And then make the effort.
3. Treat yourself.
Instead of splashing out on expensive luxury items, select a few, meaningful items that make you feel good about yourself, such as a lovingly hand-sewn dress from a tailor on Etsy or an organic home-cooked meal. This is a simple way to reinforce that you deserve your own love and kindness.
Grand gestures might feel good in the moment, but in order to truly change your perception of yourself, you need to perform lots of small, seemingly insignificant acts of love and self-compassion. It works like magic.
These days, I still feel myself slipping sometimes, but I catch it early and course-correct— so that I feel better about myself and attract more people who give me the respect I deserve. The change it has made, in terms of the quality of my life and my levels of happiness, is astonishing.