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Love yourself first.
You have heard this a million times. You feel instinctively that it is truth- but how exactly do you love yourself?
Everyone preaches self-love, but no-one seems to tell us how to practise it. In this article I want to talk about five simple, practical ways to do just that.
1) Know yourself- and your shadow.
You can’t really love a person unless you know them– and this goes for yourself, too. To really know yourself requires bravery and honesty- to take a good look at our own strengths and weaknesses can be both illuminating and painful. It can be hard to admit to ourselves all the ways in which we sabotage our own lives and relationships. It can be hard to accept accountability- blaming other people or circumstances for everything we don’t like about our lives is much easier. But once we begin this process of self-knowledge and start to both own and work on our weaknesses, we become stronger by the day. This increases our self respect, which makes self love much easier. Have you ever tried to love someone you didn’t respect?
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and religion: West and East (ed. 1958)
Carl Jung was the first psychologist to conceptualise the shadow of the psyche, describing it as “the thing a person has no wish to be”. He believed the shadow to be the source of our creative energy when properly integrated into the personality, but the source of much of our misery when denied and pushed away. If we deny certain aspects of ourselves, we tend to project them onto others– someone who regularly commits infidelity, for example, might project that onto their partner by being suspicious of them. A person who is insecure but not able to accept and work with that insecurity might instead project an arrogant, bullying demeanour- and so on.
Embracing your shadow.
So how do we work with our shadow? One simple technique I read about in the excellent Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw is this: make a list of five or so people you dislike. Fictional characters would also work, such as characters in a television programme you watch regularly- as long as you “know” the character fairly well. For each of those people, write down the characteristics of theirs you dislike.
For example, I might write:
John – arrogant, rude, unkind.
Susan – lazy, judgmental.
Robert – dishonest, miserly.
And so on. Keep going down your list until you have a good selection of characteristics. The things we dislike most in others are usually things we deny in ourselves, the things we have “no wish to be”. This is our shadow side. So for my example, taking “arrogant”, I would consider why I think arrogance so intolerable. I would also think about ways in which I could be going “over the top” in trying to “prove” I am not arrogant and push that side of myself further into the shadow- leading to me being overly modest and not being, or wanting to appear proud of myself, which is not a healthy way to live either.
For the trait of “rudeness”, I might consider whether I am so keen to appear “nice” that I allow people to manipulate or abuse me, because I do not want to appear “rude”. Or perhaps I might not always tell the truth in fear of being “rude”- if a friend asks me how they look in a certain outfit and I can see that it is two sizes too small, do I lie and say they look amazing just for fear of appearing rude? Is this a healthy way to approach the situation? Does that not, in fact, make me dishonest?
Could it be that I am in fact a rude person, and I am denying it by labelling others as rude? Have I actually been very rude to John, and cleaned my own conscience by mentally labelling him as the rude one based on his responses to my own actions?
Going to extremes.
This exercise can be very illuminating indeed, if we are prepared to be brutally honest with ourselves about our motivations. When we completely disown an aspect of our personality, we tend to go to the other extreme, rather than staying somewhere in the middle of the two extremes- a much healthier place, psychologically. We might despise “laziness” and go to the extreme of constantly making ourselves “busy” with this or that, ignoring our body and mind’s natural need to rest and rejuvenate. If we can own the “lazy” part of us, we can allow ourselves that rest without mentally beating ourselves up for it.
We can become more conscious of our flaws only when we accept them as part of us, and in the light of that consciousness they are transformed. We can make conscious choices going forward, choices about how we want to behave and interact with others. This gives us autonomy in our lives and increases self-respect.
The exercise also works the other way around, and I would recommend doing it both ways- list aspects of other people that you love, and you will end up with a fairly accurate portrayal of your own strengths. It goes without saying that if you are a naturally kind person, you probably enjoy and admire that in others. Shadow work is painful and it is equally important to note and celebrate the “light” in you to achieve balance and maintain your self-esteem.
Everyone has a shadow.
As we come to accept and embrace our shadow, we start to see ourselves as a whole person, an imperfect person, and we start to understand that all people are imperfect in the same way- and that’s okay. We start to accept the flaws of others, see their shadow, too- understand when they are projecting. The more we accept ourselves and move towards wholeness the more compassion we feel for everyone. As we improve the relationship with ourselves we will see the improvement in all other relationships as well.
Shadow work is self love.
It is a commitment to knowing ourselves, to diving deep into the dark parts and facing our inner demons. Shadow work is a huge topic and I plan to write a series on it sometime in the future, so I will leave it there for now, but if you are interested to learn more, you can find some excellent resources here and here.
2) Take care of your own needs.
Survivors of abuse, neglect and trauma often become cut off to even their basic physical needs- this is because we dissociate from our bodies, and because we sometimes struggle to understand that our needs are important. We might fail to notice signs of hunger, thirst or even needing the toilet when we are in a dissociative state. We might neglect our own needs as a subconscious way of self-harming, or use it as an excuse to be co-dependent on our partner.
To combat this, it is important as survivors to get in touch with our bodies- to perform regular body scans where we ask ourselves “How do I feel? What do I need right now?”
Here is a quick body scan video to give you an idea of what they are. You can find much longer body scans on YouTube, if you have more time. Once you get the idea, you can perform one in just a couple of minutes, or take as long as you want.
Once you have performed the scan you should have a good idea of what your body needs- did you feel cold? Wrap yourself up in some snuggly clothes or a blanket. Hungry? Cook something nourishing, or if you are not up to cooking, eat some fruit, peanut butter on toast or porridge (some of my go-to easy meals when I am down). Get yourself a glass of water or a nice soothing tea. Have a long bath to soothe your muscles. Go for a walk in the park if you haven’t had any fresh air or exercise for a while. A healthy, looked-after body is capable of healing so much faster, and all these small acts of kindness towards yourself add up quickly into a feeling of self love.
After physical needs have been taken care of, you can move on to your emotional needs. Sit with yourself for a while, breathe deeply and be present in your body. What are you feeling? If you are anything like most trauma survivors, it is very hard for you to identify your feelings. What are the physical sensations? What are your thoughts centred around?
Take out your journal and start to write. Don’t think about it-just write, see what comes out. If you prefer, you can draw or paint. Try to describe, draw or paint what you feel. Once you have a general idea of what you are feeling, you can use an emotion wheel to get more specific.
How to use the emotion wheel.
Start in the middle and decide which of the general emotions you feel. Let’s say you feel ‘bad’. Move to the next section, and ask yourself “Do I feel bored, busy, stressed or tired?” and choose one (or as many as apply to the moment). So for example, you decide you feel tired and stressed. Move to the outer wheel and ask “Do I feel sleepy, unfocused, overwhelmed or out of control?” – you will most likely have a lightbulb moment where you realise “Oh! I am feeling overwhelmed and sleepy!”
So by the magic of the emotion wheel we have moved from feeling “bad” to “overwhelmed and sleepy” in just a couple of steps. Once you recognise these specific emotions you will be able to identify them more easily in the future. But for now, focus on “overwhelmed and sleepy”. What are things you can do to be less overwhelmed? Perhaps you could make a to-do list and choose one thing to get done, noting what can be put off until tomorrow. Perhaps you could phone a good friend, family member or doctor to talk about it. Or you could practise self-soothing to calm your nervous system- you will find some good tips in my article Self Soothing- A Survivor’s Guide.
What can we do to combat sleepiness? Well, the obvious thing would be to take a nap, which would also help with the overwhelmed feeling. If you can’t take a nap, you could drink a coffee, or go for a brisk walk, or have a shower to wake yourself up. You may find the sleepiness comes from being overwhelmed- your natural response to stress is to dissociate or zone out, which is a sleepy feeling- so try taking care of the overwhelmed side first and you might find you wake up quite a bit.
Learning to meet our own needs is an important step towards recovery.
When you meet your own physical and emotional needs, it will give you an enormous sense of wellbeing- and you can move on to fulfil “higher” needs such as the social, spiritual and intellectual. You will find it much easier to read a book if you’re physically and emotionally well, for example. When you meet your own needs, you are truly loving yourself. You are saying to yourself “I matter. I deserve healing”- and your body and mind will be able to heal much more easily.
3) Be kind to yourself.
“Be nice to yourself. Go to Nando’s alone. Take walks along the river on your own. Have super-long baths and blast your favourite playlist whilst you do so. Stop waiting for someone to give you that unconditional fairytale love and give it to yourself. Start right now.“Chidera Eggerue
Self love is about being your own best friend. We all have an inner critic- a set of negative self-perceptions that seems to run on a loop and can stop us from achieving our goals. It’s that voice saying “you’ll never get that job, don’t even bother applying” or “everyone will laugh at you if you wear that”. In survivors the inner critic is often exceptionally harsh, because of our core wounds- we may feel unlovable, different from others, somehow defective or broken. Some of us may have had abusive parents who belittled us or ignored us- making us feel unworthy and undeserving of love to the point where the inner critic takes over and we are not on our own side anymore.
You have to be there for you!
These thoughts you have about yourself- would you say that to a good friend of yours? Would you tell them they are useless, stupid, or won’t amount to anything? I’m guessing you wouldn’t- and in that case why talk to yourself that way? Think about it- you are the only person you can truly rely on to be there for you, 24/7. You are the only person in the world guaranteed to be with you for the rest of your life. So why not choose to be kind, to be a supportive friend to yourself, and enjoy other people for the time they are around? You will always have yourself.
How to defeat the inner critic.
Once you are aware of it, the inner critic can be silenced. Next time you notice these thoughts arising; challenge them. Laugh at them. Imagine your inner critic as a person- perhaps a grumpy old man. Ask them why they have to be so negative all the time. Tell them-politely or not so politely- how wrong they are about you. Tell them to take a running jump. Remember, you are in control of your mind.
Write in your journal some of the negative thoughts as they arise, and write down the evidence for and against them. You will find plenty of evidence to suggest they are plain false. If the thought is “you’ll never amount to anything” for example, you could write down some of the things you have done in the past that you are proud of. You could write down future goals and aspirations, and the steps you could take to achieve them. You could think about people you look up to who have had a difficult upbringing and still lead meaningful lives.
You will not find much evidence to support the statement that you’ll never amount to anything, because the truth is that every day is a fresh start. You have control over your life and you can make conscious choices to improve it every minute of every day.
The more you practise standing up to that inner critic, the easier it will become. You will be able to catch yourself in the act and silence these thoughts before they become overwhelming. You will be able to replace them with kind, supportive thoughts. So what if you fail anyway? So what if that person rejects you, so what if people laugh? None of it matters in the long run. When you are truly your own best friend, you can support yourself through anything.
4) Practise saying “No.”
“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”anna taylor
How many times have you dragged yourself to a party when you weren’t feeling up to it, or agreed to help someone when you didn’t want to, and resented every minute of it? How many times have you let people overstep your boundaries (if you even have them)?
Survivors often struggle with boundaries because abuse is a major boundary violation. We come to believe that our bodies are not our own, that we are somehow worth less than other people. Self love is about recognising your own worth and your right to boundaries. You can find out more about setting boundaries here.
“No” is a complete sentence.
You do not need to justify yourself to other people. If someone asks you for a favour- time, money, anything- you can simply say “No”. Survivors often over-explain themselves, which just allows manipulative people more time to manipulate us into changing our minds. If the other person is non-manipulative they will respect your “no” and take it at face value. If they continue to push you, consider if you need this person in your life.
“One friend told me her one big takeaway from three years and $11,000 of therapy was Learn to say no. And when you do, don’t complain and don’t explain. Every excuse you make is like an invitation to ask you again in a different way.”Kelly Corrigan
Like most of these self-love skills, saying “no” is something that gets easier with practise. It will feel incredibly uncomfortable at first- but that’s okay. Growth is about stepping outside of your comfort zone. When you realise how good it feels to say no, it will become less and less uncomfortable. Your self respect will increase- as will your quality of life. The important thing is to make sure that once you have said no, you don’t waste time worrying about it. Don’t turn down an invitation to a party and then sit at home fretting about what people think. You have created time for yourself- so do something fun, or relaxing, and enjoy it.
5) Forgive yourself.
“Forgive yourself. The supreme act of forgiveness is when you can forgive yourself for all the wounds you’ve created in your own life. Forgiveness is an act of self-love. When you forgive yourself, self-acceptance begins and self-love grows. “Miguel Ángel Ruiz Macías
You cannot love yourself if you blame yourself for every little mistake you’ve ever made. Once you have looked at your shadow and taken accountability for your past actions, you must forgive yourself so you can move on in a healthy way, and make different choices going forward. Realise that the choices you made in the past and the ways in which you behaved were a result of trauma, and in most cases a normal reaction to trauma. Realise that you know better now, and you can be better.
There is no point carrying around blame and guilt over past actions. Everyone makes mistakes- the trick is to learn from them, to be a better person every day than you were the previous day.
So write yourself a love-letter, a letter of forgiveness where you absolve yourself of the guilt. You will feel much lighter for it.
Self love begins with forgiveness. Let go of the blame and guilt you carry and make space in your heart for love.
I hope this article has given you some practical steps towards loving yourself. You have been through enough. You have abandoned yourself many times; it is time to go home to yourself. Practising these steps as much as possible will allow your self love to grow and you will blossom as a result.
You can learn to love yourself.
You deserve your own love.
Please take a look at some of my other articles. Like, comment and subscribe if you enjoyed (or if you didn’t)!
I appreciate you either way.
Ten Ways to Heal Trauma Part One, Part Two
Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing
Trauma bonds (and how to break them)
Emotional Flashbacks- and how to cope.
Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma
5 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults