Why is it that we have such a hard time loving ourselves?
Even when we know in our heads we are worthy, we don’t feel it in our hearts. We don’t believe it when a loved one says, “You’re beautiful, smart, and capable.” Instead, we believe that little inner voice whispering, “You’re ugly, stupid, and unlovable.”
Underlying most of the emotional challenges we face, from depression to relationship problems, is the struggle for self-love. When we don’t feel worthy and can’t accept our flaws and weaknesses, we either shove down our feelings (which manifests in depression and anxiety), or we express them in unhealthy ways (through anger, passive-aggressive behaviors, or dysfunction).
Self-worth is essential for being a fully-actualized individual. When we don’t love ourselves, we compromise our relationships and every other part of our lives. We simply can’t function at an optimal level and fulfill our potential for happiness and success. Low self-worth undermines our happiness with a variety of self-sabotaging behaviors, such as:
- Neediness, insecurity, and people-pleasing
- Defensiveness and hypersensitivity
- Difficult, chaotic relationships
- Eating disorders
- Hypervigilance, extreme fear of making mistakes
- Poor personal boundaries
- Poor communication skills
- Poor social skills
- Sexual dysfunction
- Workaholic behaviors
- Inauthenticity, wearing a mask
Self-love is so difficult because the world often doesn’t reflect back to us what we’d like to believe about ourselves. We may accept the concept that we are worthy, and hopefully loving family and friends reinforce that. But out in the harsh world, we encounter criticism, comparisons, and judgements. We are told we aren’t good enough, and eventually we believe it.
We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves and rely on our own beliefs and judgements. Instead we look to others to build us up and manufacture our self-esteem. If others don’t like the person we are, we struggle to become someone else who meets the world’s approval.
Also we get trapped in “the negativity bias,” an evolutionary adaptation in which we pay much more attention to negative beliefs and events than positive. We are simply wired to focus more on our flaws and shortcomings than on our positive qualities.
With all of these challenges undermining our efforts for worthiness, it’s no wonder so many people suffer with low self-esteem. In order to embrace our true worthiness, we have to learn new ways of thinking and responding to the input we receive from the world around us.
Here are some ideas on how to love yourself:
1. Define worthiness for yourself.
Examine your own values. Define your integrity. Get clear on what YOU believe, what kind of person you want to be, and how you want to live your life — within the context of what is realistically attainable. Create your own personal operating system for life, without relying on what others think is best for you.
2. Become aware of your thoughts.
Start paying attention to the nature of your thoughts and how often you think negative things about yourself. Simply this awareness will help you disengage from the thoughts, if only for a few minutes. Diminish the reality and power of your negative thoughts by identifying them. Say something to yourself like, “There are those negative thoughts again. Look at what they are doing to me.”
3. Filter your perceptions.
As you become more aware of your thinking patterns, begin to filter your thoughts by applying the light of reality to them. Ask yourself, “Is my thought really the truth? Is it the entire truth or just my perception of the truth?” Challenge all of your negative thoughts, and seek out evidence that contradicts your negative beliefs. Do what you can to loosen your grasp on self-limiting beliefs.
4. Create new environments.
If certain environments or situations highlight or reinforce your feelings of low self-worth, change your environment. Put yourself in situations more often where you feel successful, confident, accepted, and happy. Play to your strengths, and focus on your natural aptitudes rather than struggling against something that constantly brings you down.
5. Find the right tribe.
If you are surrounded by critical, judgmental people, this will further entrench your feelings of low self-worth. Find supportive friends who are easy to be around, caring, fun, and happy. Let go of people who put you down, try to manipulate you, or treat you poorly. This isn’t always easy to do, but letting go of just one negative person can have a huge impact on your day-to-day feelings.
6. Practice realistic optimism.
When you really don’t believe you’re lovable, affirming that you are lovable feels false. Rather than making blanket statements about your self-worth, identify more honest, but optimistic affirmations you can say to yourself. For example, you might say, “Today I’m not as accomplished as I want to be, but I know I can improve and feel better about myself.” Improvement is always possible, and working on an improvement goal will make you feel better about yourself.
7. Learn the power of acceptance.
Maybe you don’t like your face or your body. Maybe you aren’t the funniest or most engaging person in your circle. You might look at other people and long to be like them. There are some realities in life that will never change. You can struggle against them or learn to accept them. By accepting, you free your energy to focus on other more productive, positive endeavors. You practice acceptance by facing your flaws honestly and relaxing your heart and mind.
8. Change what you can.
If positive change is possible, then do whatever you can to change your behaviors, choices, and actions to support your feelings of self-love. Just remember that outward change alone won’t make you feel more lovable. You’ll feel better about yourself for taking action, but that action must be supported with inner work on your thoughts and beliefs.
9. Celebrate your differences.
Sometimes the very thing we loathe about ourselves is considered our best, most unique quality by others. If you were the black sheep of your family, you might believe you are the “odd” one. But as an adult, other people regard your personality or lifestyle as interesting and attractive. Don’t strive to fit in. Celebrate being unique.
10. Practice gratitude.
During the times when you catch yourself in negative thinking, switch gears entirely and focus on gratitude. Make a list of everything you are grateful for in your life — from the most insignificant to the most important. Don’t just jot things down quickly. Really focus on each item on the list, and think about how you’d feel without it. Study after study has shown that the regular practice of gratitude helps improve your outlook and feelings of happiness.
11. Show compassion for yourself.
Pretend you are your own best friend, and show the kind of compassion to yourself you would show to someone you care about. Rather than putting yourself down, use words of encouragement and support. You are as deserving of kindness as anyone, so set the stage for that by treating yourself kindly.
12. Learn healthy communication skills.
Being able to communicate your feelings and fears in mature, non-confrontational, healthy ways is critical to self-esteem and improved relationships. Everyone has insecurities, but rather than hide or diminish them, improve your emotional intelligence so you are less reactive and more authentic.
13. Be willing to set boundaries.
When we don’t love ourselves, often we let others take advantage of us. Sometimes we don’t even know this is happening because we haven’t created firm boundaries. Decide how you want to be treated and what you will and won’t tolerate. This may be difficult if you’re accustomed to letting others have their way. Start by communicating one new boundary at a time and practicing holding firm with it.
14. Speak up for yourself.
Part of creating and following through on your boundaries is learning to speak up for yourself. If others say or do things you don’t like, or if you have ideas or input you previously held back for fear of offending someone, try stepping out of your comfort zone and speaking your mind. You can do this calmly but decisively, even if you have to pretend at first.
15. Take care of yourself.
You show love and compassion for yourself when you treat your body, mind, and emotions with care. That means eating healthy foods, exercising, getting enough sleep, going to the doctor, taking care of your hygiene, having a support system, and finding ways to stimulate your mind. When you treat yourself as someone with value, you’ll feel more valuable.
16. Find your passion.
When you find something you love as your career or even as a hobby, you’ll have a new purpose for your life. A passion gives you a reason to get up in the morning, as you’re eager and engaged in what you are doing. You’ll find you use your natural skills and aptitudes with your passion, and this reinforces a positive self-perception. Knowing your passion allows you to be authentic and express yourself through your interests and endeavors. You don’t have to pretend to be something you aren’t.
17. Simplify and create balance.
A complicated, overly scheduled life drains your energy and creates anxiety. Decide how much order and balance you want in your life, and begin cutting back on the tasks, obligations, and material things that don’t add to your life. This will give you breathing room to pursue your passion, work on yourself, and redefine how you want to spend your time and energy. Giving yourself this space is a way of showing love to yourself.
18. Deal with past wounds.
If there’s something from your childhood or more recent past that has impacted your self-esteem and restricted your ability to love yourself, then take action to heal those wounds. Find a professional counselor who can help you navigate through the past pain and work with you to learn new ways of relating to yourself and others.
19. Practice forgiveness.
To love yourself, you must first forgive yourself and forgive others who have hurt you. You forgive yourself in the same way you forgive a loved one who genuinely seeks forgiveness. You offer it freely and with compassion. Beating yourself up over and over again is an exercise in futility. Do what needs to be done to right any wrongs and regain your integrity, and then let it go. If others have wounded you, offer the same forgiveness to them — even if they don’t seek it. The ability to forgive is a huge step toward self-respect and wholeness.
20. Show the love you want to others.
If you want love, understanding, and compassion, treat others with the same. Become the kind of person you want to surround yourself with. Don’t offer love in order to be validated or get something in return. Offer unconditional love with no expectations. The more you can give love freely, the more love you have for yourself.
Learning to love yourself is a process. As you begin to trust yourself and define your needs and desires, you’ll find you need less and less validation and reinforcement from others. You’ll create experiences and relationships that match your values and authentic desires, reinforcing your essential worth and lovability.
With every mindful effort and shift in thinking, you’ll find you respect yourself and see yourself as deserving of your own love.
photo credit: Loving Earth