How To Start Practicing Complete Self-Love

How To Start Practicing Complete Self-Love

Headshot of one of our sex and intimacy therapy clinicians smiling at the camera

With Valentine’s Day closely approaching, the theme of love is in the air and although it’s generally romantic love we associate with this time, self-love has gained increasing attention as our collective awareness of psychology and self-care has grown. We commonly hear people laud the benefits of self-love, making statements like “if you can’t love yourself, how can you love someone else” or “stop looking for love; instead, focus on loving yourself and you will find love.” These tidbits are wise and true, however, there is a lesser-discussed shadow aspect that has emerged alongside the current self-love culture.

The Shadow of Self-Love Culture

That shadow is the underlying shame that can come with statements about whether or not someone loves themselves enough. For example, it’s a statement we often make about ourselves when we have been hurt by someone: we say something like “I just didn’t love myself enough; that’s why I let myself get treated that way” or we criticize another person’s actions, saying, “oh, they must not love themselves enough.” Although these statements could be true (sometimes they aren’t), it’s the undertone of shame that often accompanies them that I would like to focus on because this shame stems from a misunderstanding of what complete self-love truly entails.  

Beneath these statements there often exists a sentiment that there is something wrong, bad or broken about a person who “doesn’t love themselves” and commonly accompanying this idea is a big misconception that self-love is a one-time decision we make when we are “brave,” “strong,” or “good” enough. It’s from this misconception that a lot of this shame stems: we blame ourselves and others for not making that decision, or for making it but then continuing with the same self-destructive behaviors later on. 

We struggle to understand why we keep playing out patterns that appear to demonstrate a lack of self-love, that is, patterns that are not in our highest interest. To know why it can be so difficult to develop self-love we first need to learn what complete self-love actually looks like and how we were trained out of it.  

 “I just need to love myself” — it often comes from a place that is rejecting the parts of self that are having a hard time with self-love, and any act or attitude of self-rejection is categorically not self-love. 

What Is Self-Love?

True self-love is total; it is total self-acceptance. It’s embracing all that you are and that includes the darkest, most vulnerable aspects of yourself — and that ain’t easy! That doesn’t mean making excuses for destructive behavior, it just means understanding that every impulse within you is there for a reason, and that reason is not that you are somehow “bad” or “broken.” 

Often, when we see self-help coaches and TV specials about self-love there is a soft, whimsical texture to the way self-love is portrayed or it’s shown as a very empowering, kick-ass experience. A common trope of the self-love concept as portrayed by Hollywood is the woman who gets dumped by an emotionally abusive ex, feels miserable, realizes she didn’t love herself, then decides to take herself out on a date, give herself a luxurious bath with petals, and then emerges like a queen ready to own her power and never let another man hurt her again.  

In of themselves, there is nothing wrong with these kinds of positive-focused portrayals of self-love. They are, however, somewhat limited in scope. What they don’t show is this character learning to love the part of herself that, whether consciously or unconsciously, let the relationship go too far and didn’t uphold her boundaries. 

Herein lies the paradox about the statement “I just need to love myself” — it often comes from a place that is rejecting the parts of self that are having a hard time with self-love, and any act or attitude of self-rejection is categorically not self-love. Additionally, the parts of us that enact patterns that are not self-loving, not in our highest interest, are often the very same parts that have been the most wounded, they come from are our most vulnerable experiences, and are most lacking and most in need of love.  

Person holding a flower in their hands to represent self love

How We Were Trained To Reject Ourselves

Continuing with this hypothetical character, if some part of her stopped her from asserting her boundaries with her ex-partner when he mistreated her, it was for a reason: for example, perhaps she was afraid to lose his love if she voiced her needs because she grew up in an environment where voicing her needs was seen as selfish. This idea became neurobiologically wired in that every time she thought of standing up for her needs, it would trigger a fear that she was being selfish, which would, by her environment’s standards, make her bad and ultimately unlovable. So as she grew this wiring became embedded into her mind and body: that voicing needs = unlovable.

Living in a culture that tends to shame our biological human need for connection and often views the very existence of having emotional needs as weak or bad, makes it all the more difficult to break out of this kind of shame and self-rejection cycle. The irony is that when we accept ourselves completely (our needs, our vulnerabilities) we are better able to fill our needs in healthy self-loving ways that ultimately make us more resilient, which is a strength that is flexible, adaptable, not rigid or brittle. 

How We Can Learn To Practice Complete Self-Love

So, why is this not as easy as simply making a one-time decision to love all aspects of ourselves? The answer largely lies in neurobiology. If you have ever taken up learning an instrument, then you are aware that one of the first things you are taught is proper hand placement and posture. This is because the instructor knows that if you begin with poor posture or hand placement it will become a habit (i.e. neurobiologically wired) every time you play. Once it becomes a habit, it becomes increasingly difficult to change. 

When we are learning to love ourselves completely we can think of it like this: we were habituated to reject certain elements of ourselves that our caretakers and the environment we grew up in were unable to make room for — that habituation is wired, like a reflex or bad posture, into our bodies just as much as it is wired into our minds.  

To change any habit, we first need to become aware that it exists and then start becoming aware of it, in real-time, as it is occurring. In just the same way that we may have no idea we are slumping until another person points it out, so too, can we be rejecting or resisting aspects of ourselves with critical judgmental thoughts and tightness in the body without realizing. And in the same manner that once we can become aware of our posture in real-time, we can start practicing straightening it out, so too, can we begin practicing self-love and self-acceptance every time we notice ourselves engaging in the old habit of self-rejection. Although, the old wiring can never be fully erased, the more we practice self-love, the more it becomes our default and we learn how to come back to self-love when we that old wiring shows up. As therapists, part of our job is to act as guides that provide space where this kind of self-awareness and self-love can be practiced.

The kicker here is that if we aren’t careful we may begin rejecting the aspects of ourselves that are habituated to self-criticize. For self-acceptance, self-love to be whole and complete it needs to include embracing and, even, loving our inner critic. That’s not to say we need to believe this critical inner voice, it just means feeling compassion for a part of you that is trying to protect you in the only way it learned how to. Hopefully, I’ve now got you thinking about how the practice of self-love takes time, just like learning to play an instrument, or correct poor posture does, and shaming ourselves for having trouble with it will only set us back further. 

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