“If you don’t love yourself, you’ll always be looking for someone else to fill the void inside you, but no one will ever be able to do it.” ~Lori Deschene
Two years ago, I sat in my basement with tears streaming down my face. I had just found a copy of an old letter I’d written to an old boyfriend years before. In it, I was practically begging for his love, and also complaining and even shaming him for not loving me well.
As I read, I was overcome by three insights, all of which brought up big emotions:
The first was that for well over the first half of my life, I had been so hungry for love, so needy for it, that in this and subsequent relationships, including my first marriage, I created a lot of pain and discord.
I was so desperate to feel loved that I constantly focused on how I wasn’t being cared for enough, how my current romantic partner was not loving me right.
Then I’d try to get him to do better by complaining, criticizing, having multiple-hour long talks explaining what I wanted, and crying to him so he’d see how deeply I needed his love and he’d finally change and give me the adoration I so wanted–which inevitably led to conflict, disconnection, and feeling less loved and connected!
The second insight was that I did all of this because I simply didn’t love myself well. So the only way I could feel the love I needed (because we all need love) was from outside—which made it my partner’s job to fill that emptiness inside me. (I have since learned this is not a job anyone wants to do for too long, as it becomes burdensome, exhausting, and restricting, nor are many people well-equipped to do it!)
My big tears really came from this second insight. And such deep compassion for that old me. Tears of forgiveness, tears of remembering the pain I was in for many years, tears of joy, too, that I no longer suffer the way my old self did.
Because I now have such true love for this woman that I am, with all my human imperfections.
The third insight was that I was now so happy—years into my second marriage—not because my husband was the most adoring of men, but because I loved myself enough that I was able to recognize and receive his love in the natural way he gave it!
In other words, I was able to feel it, to take in his love deeply, because I knew myself to be so lovable. Because I love myself so much. So I was no longer pushing away the love I love. I just enjoyed it deeply!
After I processed all this, and the tears of recognition and forgiveness and love were complete, I walked out of that basement with such a sense of accomplishment. Really in triumph.
Because I had chosen to do the work it takes to learn how to really love myself. And it had paid off in such beautiful ways.
The thing is, we humans don’t come naturally wired to love ourselves. We don’t come into this world feeling all warm and cozy about ourselves. To naturally feel great about who we are, it takes a kind of nurturing in the early days of our lives by caregivers—and then a consistent modeling of self-love as we grow—that is rare in this world.
Many of us don’t get that. And we are never taught how to love and deeply admire ourselves (in large part because our caregivers were not modeled that, themselves!).
It is even harder for highly sensitive people, like myself.
As youngin’s we often get the signal from the world around us that we’re a little weird, a little abnormal—that something’s a bit wrong with us—and this makes it even harder for us to feel good about ourselves.
So, as adults, we need to actually learn how to have deep fondness for the humans that we are.
I am happy to say that loving myself now feels natural to me.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean I smittenly stare at myself in the mirror, or that I think I’m better than anyone. But I truly enjoy who I am. I know I can rely on myself for a sense of security. And I feel truly lovable whether others find me so or not.
This makes it so much easier to love and feel loved in my marriage: to do the work and take the risks it takes to have one of the most ever-evolving, deeply loving, fun, joyful, passionate marriages I know of.
I spend a lot of time simply enjoying the love I feel from my husband, and the love I am easily able to feel for him, because I am so rooted in love for myself.
I want the same for you in your relationship!
I notice that many highly sensitive people know they should love themselves more, but many say they don’t know how.
If you feel the same, I want to help take the mystery out of it for you.
Here are five pieces of the process I used to develop real love for myself.
1. Understand where self-love comes from.
Loving or not loving yourself starts in the thoughts you have about who you are, what you believe about your goodness and worthiness (or lack of it), and ideas you have about what makes a person lovable or not.
Of course, most of the non-loving thoughts you currently think about yourself come from what you were taught to believe about yourself by caregivers, teachers, friends, and acquaintances—even magazines and movies!
As young, impressionable beings, we unconsciously take on other people’s ideas about us, and messages we receive from our society—many of which are simply misperceptions and misunderstandings—and these ideas harden into who we think we are.
For example, many highly sensitive people think they’re “too sensitive” or “too emotional.” We got that message from others! But when we think that about ourselves, we feel self-aversion, not self-love.
The amazing news is that your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are not fixed, and they are not fact. Even though we all have a natural negativity bias (meaning it’s easy for our brains to find fault with ourselves) we do not need to believe what our brains tell us. Nor do we need to continue to regurgitate other people’s critical, judgmental—and frankly wrong—ideas about ourselves, now that we are grown adults.
You can decide what you want to believe about yourself—no matter what others have implied about you, and no matter what you have believed about yourself up until today. The choice is truly yours.
2. Supervise your old thinking.
Start by disbelieving all the crappy things your brain tells you about yourself, like: ”You’re too anti-social, too grouchy, etc.,” or the sneakier first-person version, like: “I’m not smart enough. I’m too reactive. Something’s wrong with me.”
To start “disbelieving” such things, take some time to question the negative beliefs you’ve adopted about yourself that came from others, as well as the ones that come from the flaw-seeking part of your brain.
For example, my parents told me I was the “artistic one” while my brother was the “intellectual one.” Though they didn’t intend any harm, I took that to mean I wasn’t smart. That was something I told myself for thirty-five more years of my life, until I took the time to investigate how true that was. Turns out, I’m both artistic and intellectually smart.
Your turn: Ask yourself, “Whose negative thoughts about me am I believing without questioning?” And “How were they wrong about me?” (I promise, they were wrong! Remember, they had flaw-seeking brains, too, that overlooked so much of your amazingness.)
When those negative thoughts about yourself come up again (and they will, because they’ve been programmed in there), gently keep de-programming them by telling yourself some version of this: “There goes my flaw-seeking brain again in judgment-mode.” Or “That’s an old, outdated, painful thought. But it’s just a thought, not a truth.”
3. Create a “soft landing” inside yourself for the moments when hard feelings flare.
Think of this as a friendly zone in your own head and heart reserved for meeting yourself with the warmth you would give a dear friend when she’s upset or hurting. A metaphoric place you can retreat to comfort yourself. As if you had the coziest snuggly blanket inside your heart you could wrap yourself in when needed.
So then, even when you’ve made a mistake, like we all do, or said something you regret, failed at a goal, been judged by someone—or even yourself!—or you’ve done something you don’t feel good about, you can turn toward yourself and be met with kindness and warmth from within.
To begin to create that for yourself, answer these questions: How would I be there for my best friend or child if they were hurting? What would my attitude be toward them? What would I say? How would I be with them?
Then do and say these exact things to yourself when something’s gone “wrong.” This will help you build a loving relationship with yourself even when you aren’t living up to any of your higher standards. This is the beginning of unconditional self-love.
4. Choose to focus on what you appreciate and enjoy about yourself.
It can be as simple as asking yourself, “In what ways am I likable (or lovable)—to me?” Let your brain go looking for lots of little answers. Nothing is too small.
As you find things to admire about yourself, you will feel more good feelings toward yourself, since emotion follows thought.
You’ll need to be intentional about all this for many weeks or months. Over time, this will rewire your brain so you naturally and effortlessly see your goodness and feel really good about who you are. If you are an HSP like me, this article will give you some great starting places.
5. Set small, achievable goals for yourself that prove it’s possible to become someone you love and admire more and more.
Keep in mind, you do not need to improve yourself to love yourself. You are lovable exactly who and how you are right now.
But, not only is it a gesture of self-love to follow through on your goals for yourself, becoming more of who you want to be grows your confidence and pride in yourself by leaps and bounds, and naturally inspires more self-love.
For example, if you’d feel great about being a more patient person with your loved ones, purposefully grow your patience, perhaps by putting yourself in some situations that gently test and strengthen your patience muscles. (i.e., playing a board game with a four-year-old). I’ve had three of them, so lots of patience-strengthening-practice and now more reason to feel good about myself!
Has learning how to love myself made it so that I never worry or feel awkward? Or that my husband and I never have conflict? Or that we have a perfect sense of love and joy all the time?
Of course not.
But I love myself through all of it. I know I always have my own safe, gentle arms to turn back to for absolute support and love through the good times and the bad.
And I can give my husband love way more freely because I have so much of it inside myself, and I’m not needing to get it from him all the time (like that hurting younger me did.)
I can focus on being the person I want to be, and on loving him as he is fully. So he feels free and safe and happy around me (no shaming criticisms landing on him), which ironically has him loving me all the more obviously day in and day out!
Learning how to love myself has also made a major impact on other areas that deeply matter to me in my life. I can do courageous things in the world that I used to back away from—like hosting my own podcast and helping people in way bigger ways than I ever would have before.
I’ve also genuinely healed relationships with some of the more challenging people in my life, like my father, and old lovers who for so long I’d thought had done me wrong. And instead of feeling sadness, hurt, or longing when I think of these people, I feel love. Which feels so fulfilling and good.
All because I chose to learn self-love, and keep choosing it every day.
This is all possible for you, too, when you put in the intentional effort to learn to love yourself.
About Hannah Brooks
Hannah Brooks is a love and marriage coach for sensitive women (and their partners). She helps them create the supportive, loving, light and connected relationship they really want. Don’t miss her podcast, Highly Sensitive, Happily Married. For further tips and guidance grab her free guide, The 7 Most Powerful Phrases To Deepen Connection in Your Marriage. Find her at lifeisworthloving.com.