We’ve heard it said that we can’t love another until we love ourselves. We’ve even sung “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” right along with Whitney Houston and believed every word. But do we really live it? How many of us have truly learned to love ourselves, every part of ourselves, unconditionally?
Considering how hard most of us try to live up to an image of perfection we can never achieve, the answer to that question is self-evident. The larger questions are, why is self-love such a lifelong struggle for so many of us—and what can we do about it?
The Stories We Believe—
Most of us don’t get through childhood without feeling “core shame,” says Victoria Seeley, a marriage and family therapist in midtown. “We are raised in a shame-based society.” Instead of being taught that we’re OK as we are, she explains, we are raised on a model that says we need to improve. “We come from a minus—a certain deficit model.”
“Just feeling ‘not good enough’ is a huge issue,” concurs Tom Zinkle, Ph.D., a therapist with Kaiser Permanente and author of Making Life Work. “I always ask people, ‘Not good enough for what? How good-looking do we have to be? How successful? . . . Who decides? Who sets the standards?’”
By questioning these “cherished beliefs,” we can begin to move toward a place of self-acceptance, says Maxine Barish-Wreden, M.D., an internist and women’s health specialist for Sutter Medical Group. “It blows you right out of the water when you begin to question your stories,” she says. “Sometimes these ‘cherished beliefs’ can hold you down. We all learned these stories when we were kids. We need to challenge them.”
A Deadly Myth—
One of the biggest hurdles in learning to love ourselves is getting over the idea that we’re supposed to be perfect—a myth that particularly takes its toll on women.
“Our society has created a lot of pressure on women to be perfect, and a lot of the media perpetuates it,” says Barish-Wreden. “We can be so hard on ourselves. It takes a lot of courage for women to say, ‘I screwed up—I got completely stressed out and I hit my kids,’ or ‘The holidays were miserable.’”
Perfectionism is a deadly myth, adds Seeley, because it’s “not who we are. Making mistakes, or not being perfect, is a part of being human.” In the endless quest for perfection, the rung is placed ever higher and it’s never possible to reach it. As a result, Seeley says, women often begin over-functioning in an effort to “fix” themselves. “They’re doing more and more and more, and nothing changes in their sense of self. By the time a woman is in her late 30s or early 40s, she’s just fried and disillusioned, wondering, ‘Where do I go from here?’”
Learning the distinction between self-improvement and self-development, Seeley says, is a good place to start. “Self-improvement starts from a model that says, ‘Something’s wrong, and I have to fix it.’ Self-development starts from a model that says, ‘I’m OK as I am, and there’s still more to develop and grow.’”
Acceptance, Compassion and Forgiveness: Keys to Self-Love—
The first prerequisite to self-love is unconditional self-acceptance,and getting there may be as simple as changing your mindset, suggests Kaiser’s Zinkle. “I believe in [psychologist] Albert Ellis’ approach—that we have worth and value simply because we exist,” says Zinkle. “I always stress to people the importance of accepting that basic truth—that being born gives us a right to live and enjoy life and feel good about ourselves.”
True self-acceptance means embracing our whole selves—not just the parts we like.
“Self-love is most resilient when we’re looking at things honestly and realistically, and reality includes the whole—what might be judged ‘good’ and what might be judged ‘bad,’” notes Donna Sachs, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in private practice in Davis. “It’s easy for us to love ourselves when we’ve lost 10 pounds, gotten an ‘A’ or made the sale. But we have more trouble loving ourselves in the dark times, when things aren’t going so well.” Finding compassion for ourselves, rather than becoming judgmental or self-destructive, is the goal, says Sachs, adding, “I don’t think we know how to do that very well.”
With self-compassion, we can learn not only to embrace ourselves, warts and all, but to forgive ourselves—another tenet of self-love. And forgiving others is as important as forgiving ourselves, notes Barish-Wreden.
“For me, forgiveness toward myself as well as others has played a big role in creating well-being and self-love,” she says. After years of judging her mother “for all the things I felt she failed at as a mom,” Barish-Wreden herself became a mother and began to see the world through her mother’s eyes. “Rather than just seeing what she had done to me,” she shares, “I started to see how much anger and judgment I had thrown at her.” The healing began when Barish-Wreden called her mother to apologize and was surprised when her mother responded by asking for forgiveness. “The miraculous thing,” she says, “was that in giving up judging my mother, I was also able to accept myself as a mother—loving and caring and also at times impatient and angry. And that has become the foundation for my own self-acceptance and self-love.”
Loving Ourselves Means Taking Careof Ourselves—
Women in particular tend not to take good care of themselves, notes Zinkle, because they are so busy taking care of others. “You owe it to yourself to take care of yourself,” he says. Women who juggle multiple roles as worker, mother and wife are at highest risk of burnout, he warns, and need to learn to take time for themselves. “About a third of the people I see in therapy are women who are so busy they don’t even have time to take a walk,” he says.
Taking care of ourselves also means honoring our deepest values and our true selves.
Asking yourself, “Who am I doing this for?” is a great way to gain clarity, Seeley says. “Am I doing this for some ‘fictitious other’ who I think expects this or am I doing this for me, to really take care of myself? How do I want to use this time, this space of mine?”
When we begin to live in integrity and take time for ourselves, Seeley says, miracles can happen.
“I see magic all the time,” she says, referring to her clients, most of whom are women. “When people take time to do something for themselves, it can make an enormous difference in their lives.” But taking time for ourselves means setting limits, and that can be hard for women, she says. “First you have to break through that system that says, ‘I shouldn’t do this for myself—it’s ‘selfish’ or ‘bad.’”
There is no doubt that the benefits of self-love also extend to physical health, notes Barish-Wreden, who has been running a women’s-health group at Sutter for 10 years. “The whole impact of thought on physical well-being is the future of medicine,” she says. “Mind-body medicine is, to me, the genesis of self-love and acceptance.”
Achieving a mind-body-spirit balance is essential to finding self-love, adds Claudia Morales, a clairvoyant and co-owner and manager of East West Books in Sacramento. “You have to get past the physicality and get to the soul level,” says Morales, who frequently uses guided meditation as a tool for helping women to develop self-compassion and self-love. “We look in the mirror and see the big butt, the fat thighs, whatever, but if we can get past that, we can move toward honoring and valuing ourselves as we are.” To assist women in this process, Morales asks them to say “I love you” while looking in the mirror. “As you start doing it more and more, your cellular memory gets activated, and it (self-love) starts to become real,” she explains. Writing a love letter to yourself is another useful technique, Morales says, because it develops self-appreciation. “As you learn to value yourself,” she says, “others will find value in you.”
Despite all this enlightenment, the No. 1 question Morales hears women ask during readings is, “Am I ever going to be loved?”
Her answer is always the same.
“When you find love within you,” she says, “you can begin to find and receive love.”