Updated: Oct 6
If you want to fix a lack of self-love, you first need to be clear about how it differs from self-esteem. A Google search for self-love will bring up dozens of pages about self-esteem. The two are related but profoundly different, so pay attention.
Self-love is the ability to see ourselves in a positive light and have a genuine appreciation of who and what we are. It’s a very inwardly focused attitude. Self-esteem on the other hand is a very outwardly focused beast, much more to do with our actions and ability to achieve and succeed in the external world and to hold on to things, especially success. These things are not related to happiness, health, or love for ourselves or others and it’s entirely possible to have high self-esteem and low self-love.
Building self-esteem is important, but relatively useless and unsatisfying unless it is paired up with developing self-love or self-worth.
What is Self-Love?
Self-love has nothing to do with our external successes or our bank balance. It’s about our sense of value as a human being. You for you, stripped of external successes, the things you own, the number of Instagram or Facebook followers or likes you have and how much your neighbours like you. It’s about how much you value yourself regardless of your ability to succeed or not in the external world. Self-love is deeply connected to our state of mental health in a way that self-esteem never was. It’s vital to realise this and when our brain mixes up the difference between self-love and self-esteem (and it will), we need to keep pushing back.
Self-love encompasses our health, our sense of humour, our ability to be kind to ourselves and others, all our fears and insecurities and any flaws we might have. Self-love embraces our innate state of imperfection. If we were to use meditation terminology, self-love is the being mode to self-esteem’s doing mode.
As Nestell Bovee said, “Both our first and last love is self-love.” It’s not so hard to love yourself when things are going well in life, but much harder when life gets tough. This, however, is conditional love. Self-love is empathetic and completely okay with our flaws and our failures in life. It appreciates the good within us, unconditionally and takes no note of when we don’t live up to our sense of self-esteem.
The School of Self Love
Practicing self-love is a moment-by-moment decision based on our internal dialogue. This is where we need to begin. What is the state of your internal dialogue? Are you focusing on your fears and insecurities, worries about the future or regrets about the past? Do you feel bad about yourself when negative emotions come up? Do you fight or suppress them when they do, or do you embrace them and try to understand them? When we can learn to accept our emotional state and be okay with how we feel, we can allow those emotions to release and be transformed. We don’t have to be strong and positive all the time. It’s okay to have bad days, to be human.
Too often we are too hard on ourselves. We try to live up to self-limiting ideas about who and what we should be and do. Gaining a sense of self-love out of all of that is tough, especially so when we fail to live up to our expectations for ourselves. I often say to my students that if we were to watch someone treating someone else the way that we routinely treat ourselves, we would be utterly appalled. We are so hard on ourselves, so much of the time. This is a way of relating to ourselves that we need to break, firstly by recognising that our sense of self-worth is not built on what we can do and achieve, but on our own innate goodness as a human being and secondly, it’s perfectly okay to fall short of the ridiculously exacting standards we routinely impose upon ourselves. Can we learn to be as kind to ourselves as we would to our parents or children or a very dear friend?
The Science of Self-Love
The transformative nature of the power of self-love is widely acknowledged by the mental health community. Practicing self-love can lead to making healthier decisions and a happier and more healthy life. Lack of self-love has been linked to depression, stress and anxiety disorders. These terrible emotional states have in turn been linked to the development of autoimmune disease.
Practicing self-love can increase our internal stability and strength. Sometimes it’s appropriate to take it easy on ourselves, take a break and relax, but it can also mean toughening up and taking responsibility when we start to fall into overindulgence or laziness. Self-love is about discovering and maintaining our own equilibrium, our own balance.
Increased productivity and further growth can be manifestations of self-love when we start to see failure as the learning opportunities that they are rather than abject defeat or indicators of incompetence or stupidity. Self-love embraces these moments leading to emotional stability, higher productivity, cognitive flexibility, and overall wellbeing.
Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system (our fight, flight, freeze mechanism) so increasing the flow of stress hormones such as cortisol into the bloodstream. The outcome of this is higher levels of stress. The practice of self-love increases the flow of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ so increasing levels of wellbeing, happiness, and contentment.
Seven tools to fix a lack of self-love
We need to get into the habit of practicing radical self-love. Here are some methods you can apply in your life to start to change how you view yourself.
1/ Imagine that a friend who loves you very dearly, is writing you a letter to tell you about how much they appreciate you and why. Imagine what that friend might say and how they would say it? Write that letter, put it in an envelope and leave it for a few days, or mail it to yourself. Then open it and read it. Does what has been written ring true? Close your eyes and try to feel all those good qualities inside your body. How do you feel? Is there a sense of resistance or acceptance?
2/ Take up the practice of meditation. Mindfulness meditation has a powerful transformative effect on how we view ourselves as it allows us to simply be aware without judgement of who and what we are. We can extend that out to incorporating a meditation on loving kindness which is a classic mindfulness practice. This practice starts with an inner focus before being extended to others, but it's perfectly fine to simply stay with the self-focus aspects of the practice. Meditation is also a proven method of dealing with stress and has many other health supportive characteristics.
3/ Write down all your critical self-talk. Especially note the accusing or judgemental labels that you use. Now bring a friend to mind and in your imagination say all those things to your friend. How does your friend react to such bitter condemnation? Is it okay to talk to your friend or your mother or father in this way? Try to realise that speaking to yourself in this way is not okay also.
4/ Learn Reiki. Reiki is all about love. In fact, the energy of Reiki has often been described as love-energy. Use it to give yourself a hands-on treatment. How does that make you feel? In the more sophisticated branches of the system such as a method called Reiki Jin Kei Do, there is a strong emphasis on supporting the practice through the cultivation of self-love via the practice of meditation.
5/ Make a date with yourself. What really makes you come alive, fills your heart with awe, love, passion, and excitement? What makes your feel relaxed and at peace, filled with an inner serenity? Write down a list of things you can do that cultivate some of these qualities. It can be a walk in nature, going to the beach, sitting in the garden, going for a bike ride or a run or revisiting an old hobby. Now look at your calendar and make a date for yourself to be alone with that activity. When the time comes, make sure you show up for the date and really indulge yourself.
6/ Put on your favourite music and dance. An endorphin-loaded stress-busting dance party for one is a fantastic way to indulge yourself. Really let yourself go and enjoy the vibes.
7/ Create a self-love mantra for yourself. A self-love mantra is not an affirmation but a statement of your actual perspective on a situation as it happens. So, when you are feeling unworthy or lacking in confidence you can say to yourself something like “I am not feeling confident right now and that’s fine. I am not a superhero, just a normal human being and its okay to feel this way. I understand this, so I will give myself kindness and compassion.” You can take a moment to close your eyes and whilst watching your breath going in and out for a brief period, have a sense of loading your breath with kindness. Then breathe this quality out through your whole body and let yourself soften into it. This is an amazing experience, and you can stay in this self-love zone with your breath for as long as you want.
Practicing self-love can be uncomfortable for some and I have known students to burst into tears after going through an intense practice. If this is likely to happen to you, then be kind to yourself. Don’t force anything. Take your time. Little increments are fine. Just keep going. Self-love will transform your life in so many ways.
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