According to Merriam-Webster, self-love is defined like this:
self-love [self-ləv] noun- regard for one’s own happiness or advantage
Unfortunately, this definition only partially describes what self-love truly is. And even worse: it describes an aspect that has nothing to do with it: selfishness (regard for one’s own advantage).
Self-love is not selfish. It is not narcissistic. And it is not egotistical.
It is actually quite the opposite: self-love is a prerequisite for caring for others. That is why on airplanes they tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. Taking care of your needs first is essential to giving your loved ones the BEST you have got, including all your love. Giving yourself up for others — no matter if it is for a romantic partner, a sick parent or even your boss — will leave you not only burnt out but also angry and resentful towards the person you only want the best for.
And guess what, loving yourself has all these other wonderful benefits:
- Increased happiness by letting go of all the ways you have been neglecting, abusing and hating yourself
- Better health because you are letting go of the ways you have been abusing your body with food, alcohol, drugs and (lack of) exercise and listening to what your body truly needs
- Increased peace & emotional well-being because you are learning to manage your inner critic better and stop the negative self-talk
- Increased fulfillment in your relationships and work because you have the self-respect to go after what you want and say “no” to the things that are not good for you
A new definition
If you are still associating self-love with selfishness and guilt for taking care of yourself, you better upgrade your definition ASAP! While I believe that self-love is deeply personal and thus everybody should have his or her own self-love definition (and manifesto!), I’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about this and would love to share mine 🙂 Defining self-love is not easy. In all the work I did, I have found that self-love is best described by dividing it into 4 dimensions.
Without knowing yourself and being aware of what you want and need, self-love is hardly possible. If you are new to the self-love journey, this is where you start to build your base. Practicing mindfulness is a highly effective way to increase your self-awareness. Here are some tools that work especially well:
- Meditation: Start by meditating for 5 minutes a day and observe the thoughts that come up without any judgment. The simple act of training yourself to be aware of your thoughts can tremendously increase your self-awareness.
- Journaling: Pick an area of your life where you would like to get to know yourself better (e.g. your job, things that make you happy, hearing what your body needs) and come up with a set of questions about it. Sit down every night and answer the questions in your journal. Here are a few examples: What did I like about my job today? What got me annoyed about my job today? Which little moment made me happy today? Which activity did I truly enjoy today? How did I (not) listen to my body today?
- Decision-making mindfulness: Before taking any decision (e.g. whether to accept an event invitation, what to eat or how to react to a text) stop for 1 minute to pause and reflect. Ask yourself: Is this really what I want? Is this be good for me? Does acting like this reflect the person I want to be?
This is a rather obvious and seemingly simple self-love dimension. Deep down we know that taking care of ourselves — our body, mind, and soul — is a must for our personal well-being and essential for taking care of others. But for most of us it really doesn’t come naturally and we neglect ourselves in ways that we are not even aware of: putting other people’s needs before our own, dedicating everything we’ve got an even more to our job, not taking the time to enjoy the things we love or not taking breaks at all, not staying home when we are sick, punishing our bodies with bad food or even exercise.
The list goes on and on and on. I would bet $100 that I mentioned at least one thing that is true for you 😉
Okay, so what does it actually mean to take care of yourself? At the very core, self-care is about honoring your own, very personal needs. That’s why everyone needs to find his or her own version of self-care. Listen to your body and trust yourself. Define what wellness, health, and happiness mean to you and create a list of self-care rules for your body, mind, and soul.
Once you’ve got the hang of self-awareness and self-care, you can slowly venture into the deeper dimensions of self-love. The deeper you go, the more counter-intuitive self-love might feel. But trust me, this means you are on the right path. Self-compassion can be defined as the daily practice of treating yourself with unconditional kindness, especially when you are struggling.
There are three fundamental things you need for that:
- Self-awareness: Be aware of how you feel and recognize when you are suffering. Suffering can either be caused by something that happened to you (e.g. you were physically or emotionally hurt) or by something you did (e.g. made a mistake, experienced a failure). Whereas it seems more natural to be kind to ourselves in the first case (although we tend to just “suck it in and get on”), it is even more important to be self-compassionate when we are failing. But when we mess up, we often don’t feel like we are worthy of compassion.
- Acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition:When we are suffering we are often inclined to feel alone in our suffering. We ask ourselves: WHY ME? We then over-identify with our suffering and isolate from the rest of the world. But the truth is, suffering is part of our imperfect human nature. Whatever you are experiencing, there are countless other people that are experiencing similar or even worse things. Nobody is protected from suffering. But everybody deserves compassion — we don’t need to earn the right to it. We are inherently worthy of it because we are human. So once you understand that pain is inevitably part of our shared human condition, as is our worthiness of compassion, it gets a lot easier to overcome hard times.
- Reacting with compassion instead of punishment or self-pity: Often our natural reaction to suffering is one of two things. Either we feel bad, bathe ourselves in self-pity, indulge in destructive behavior like over-eating and drinking, deny the problem and obsess about our mistakes and misfortunes for way too long. Or, we react with harsh self-criticism and punish ourselves for our mistakes with endless negative self-talk (“you are a failure!”) and unrealistic expectations to counter-act our failure (going to the gym for 3 hours after eating 2 pieces of cake).
But true self-compassion is neither of these things. Instead, it means giving yourself the warm, supportive care you so deeply long for in that exact moment. By being compassionate with yourself you are not relying on other people to make you feel better and are thus taking full ownership of your emotional well-being. Once you have understood these three basics for self-compassion, you can create your own self-compassionate response to situations of your suffering. When doing that, make sure you include the following aspects:
- Be mindful of your suffering and give it the space it needs but don’t over-identify with your mistakes or misfortune.
- Remind yourself that suffering is an inevitable part of the shared human condition and that you are inherently worthy of compassion.
- Hold yourself accountable and evaluate how you have contributed to the problem.
- Decide not to hate yourself or pity yourself for it, instead give yourself the compassion and care you need. Listen to yourself to find out what it is that you need right now to take care of yourself physically and emotionally.
- Take necessary action to work on a solution and move on from your pain.
Just like self-compassion is about being unconditionally kind to yourself, self-worth is about valuing, respecting and accepting yourself unconditionally as a human being. You are worthy of love and happiness just as you are right now, at this moment. You don’t need to lose 10 pounds or get into Yale for that, because self-worth is about WHO you are and not WHAT you do. And that is the big difference from self-esteem. Whereas self-esteem is based on what you do and external factors like academic achievement and appearance, self-worth stems from an intrinsic worthiness of all human beings.
- Stop comparing yourself to others.
- Stop judging everything you do.
- Stop negative thought spirals and destructive behavior.
- Stop making your self-worth dependent on external factors (other people, your appearance, your performance, etc.).
- Treat yourself with unconditional compassion and care.
- Trust in yourself and your body to know what is best for you.
- Respect yourself enough to go after what you want in life and quit what is not serving you (relationships, jobs, etc.).
- Have the courage to wholeheartedly be your authentic self.
A multidimensional definition of self-love
Now, bringing all of this together, I came up with a new, multidimensional definition of self-love that touches on all 4 dimensions.
self-love[self-ləv] noun- the continual choice to accept your inherent, unconditional worth as an imperfect human being, as well as the daily practice of treating yourself with compassion, respect, and care.