Self Love is Not A Destination – It Is A Practice

Written by Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW

When many of us hear the words “self love,” we immediately have a negative connotation… we start thinking of that woman who is posting a new glamorous selfie every day… or we think of the narcissistic guy who and acts like he thinks that he is better than everyone around him. We have all heard that we should “just love ourselves” so many times. Yet we tune it out, thinking that we don’t want to be that self-centered woman or that arrogant guy.

But what most of us don’t understand is that there is an enormous difference between being selfish or narcissistic and actually practicing self love. In fact, when we truly love ourselves well, we tend to act far less selfishly than someone who doesn’t love themselves. Narcissism, a word that is quickly becoming a household term, is not a healthy self love – it is characterized by an excessive interest and preoccupation with one’s self, combined with a general disregard for others and a lack of empathy. Being overly narcissistic is highly detrimental to both one’s self and to close relationships; the narcissist’s inability to look in the mirror and or truly understand another’s position cripples intimacy and love.

Self love, on the other hand, is not a bad word. If we want to lead a fulfilling, happy life, and to get unstuck from the negative places we find ourselves, self love is IMPERATIVE. Without self love, we have nowhere to put the love or the good things that come our way. We end up sabotaging opportunities, feeling we don’t deserve things (and thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy), resenting our loved ones…and in the end, just plain unhappy.

What is self love, really? Self love is not a destination – it is a practice, just like brushing our teeth. For many of us, it takes effort, attention, and mindful attempts to incorporate these practices into our lives, especially if we grew up not being shown how to do this. Let’s discuss some of the biggest ways that we can start practicing self love.

  • First of all, self love is practicing good self care – making sure we eat right, get enough sleep, creating the space to exercise/do a hobby/maintain friendships, etc. These things sound so basic, but if we think about it, we can’t function well if these things are not happening on a regular basis.  We may try to convince ourselves that we don’t need these things. We may feel guilty when we take 30 minutes to go take a run, or when we spend 15 minutes catching up with a dear friend, but ultimately, we are a better parent, partner, and friend when we do. Let’s face it – when we don’t do these things, we very often become irritable, impatient, and even resentful.
  • Another key component to self love is having healthy boundaries. Boundaries are filters – they allow us to say what is ok and what is not ok. We don’t allow anyone and everyone in to our inner sanctum. We move slowly with people to find out who we can trust, before we repeatedly invest in people who are likely to harm us. We draw lines in the sand and stand by them; we recognize abusive behavior and don’t tolerate it. We know that trying to change someone who is living in a toxic way is pointless, so we are able to extricate ourselves and wish the other person well. We wish them healing and love at their core, but know that we CAN’T love them hard enough to change them.

We know to treat ourselves well, we know what we deserve, and we don’t allow others to beat down and break our spirit.  We walk away when necessary to preserve our soul and spirit.  And while we can always forgive and walk away with love, we need to be more selective about with whom we reconcile (there is a big difference). Many of us struggle with boundaries because we feel that having boundaries interferes with our ability to be a kind, loving, good person.  But being a good person has nothing to do with letting other people destroy us. We can best help people from a position of strength, and that strength is challenged when we are surrounded by people who are harmful to us. It is our right and responsibility to make good decisions for ourselves.  We can always love others, but sometimes, it is best done from afar.  Boundaries help us protect ourselves, and the relationships we hold most dear, from the toxicity that is around us.

  • Another aspect to self love is investing the time and energy in ourselves to really deal with our core issues (childhood issues, baggage from prior relationships, fears, insecurities, etc.)  If we don’t invest in ourselves enough to address these concerns and learn to come to terms with them, or gain an inner peace, they will follow us around everywhere. They will negatively affect our relationships and come back to haunt us every time we try to love another. Unresolved issues always rear their ugly heads when we most want to love someone and, unfortunately, we end up sabotaging things we really want. These issues can be addressed in many ways, but sometimes people need therapy to get through and fully healed. It can be a very worthwhile investment for people who need to do this self work (but were never given the tools to do so).
  • Yet another core aspect to self love is showing ourselves grace and forgiving ourselves.  We recognize that we are imperfect and accept ourselves and our flaws.  We can admit our weaknesses and look in the mirror to try to improve what we want to change.  But we don’t beat ourselves up – no self hatred or shaming.  We are kind and forgiving to ourselves (and in turn, tend to be better able to exhibit this positive behavior towards others).  We look for good in ourselves and value our strengths and, likewise, tend to then be able to see it in others. We are less judgmental because we have full capacity for empathy… we give empathy to ourselves, and again, this naturally translates to our ability to give it to others.  Research supports that those who do not self love tend to fall into one of two camps: they either tend to treat others badly (as a reflection of how they view themselves), or they allow themselves to be treated badly (as they feel that is all they deserve).  We reflect what we feel inside, one way or another.

Practicing self love essentially fuels good self esteem. Self esteem is essential to having healthy, positive, long term relationships. When we have good self esteem, we basically respect ourselves. When we self love, we tend to surround ourselves with healthy people who uplift us and make us better, instead of people who drain us and tear us down; we believe that we deserve good things, and don’t settle for less. We don’t need to overcompensate – we don’t need to be showy, or brag – because we believe we are good at the core and don’t need constant reassurances from everyone else to believe it. Yes, our self esteem is initially shaped from others (often our parents), but eventually, when we have established good self esteem in our deepest corner of our inner self, we are less dependent on the opinions of others.  We don’t need to be “people pleasers.” We don’t let ourselves be walked on or taken advantage of to try to gain approval. We are no longer codependent – which ends up being toxic and harmful to everyone involved. We can allow ourselves to be interdependent with others… that healthy balance of dependency and independence (and the sweet spot for a healthy relationship to thrive).

But here’s what’s interesting… when we have good self esteem and no longer feel the need to be a people pleaser, we are finally able to really please and love a person. But, it is born out of WANTING and being ABLE to please and share, not out of a desperation for them to love us and give us validation to make us feel good (which is temporary and short-lived). We can finally give others what they really need vs aching for them to fill our voids, and it never being enough. We end up being less selfish because we are reflecting the good that is inside us. And, ironically enough, we are also less likely to act narcissistic – because if we are more secure at our core, we have less need to self aggrandize. To put it simply, if we do not have self love, we tend to act even more narcissistic and more selfishly than someone who, in fact, loves themselves well.

While we are all intimately connected in this world, there is a deep corner in each of us which is the self, which only we can touch. We are, as children, shaped to have a good self esteem and taught how to love that self…or we are not. In those instances where we were not modeled good self love, we need to address that as an adult by investing in learning to self love. Others may try to help us, or try to save us from ourselves, but they will fail, and we will likely resent them for trying. If we are unable to practice self loving behaviors on our own, good therapy can help us uncover the reasons that we may be unable to practice self love. Therapy can teach us how to not only cognitively understand self love, but can also allow us to unlock the emotional barriers that we may not even be aware of. We can’t have a healthy self without healthy attachment and connection (either from parents, loved ones, or a therapist). Likewise, we can’t create new healthy connections if we don’t love ourselves. It is the old adage about the chicken and the egg… both are intertwined, one can’t exist without the other.

At first glance, self love can sound selfish and narcissistic, but it really is quite the opposite. Instead of rolling your eyes the next time you hear the phrase “love yourself,” try to consider that practicing self love is actually the birthplace of altruism and kindness, and not narcissism at all. It is the only path to both giving and receiving the love and good opportunities that come into our lives. And, ultimately, isn’t that what we all want?


About The Author

Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW

Cari McKnightCari McKnight received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in private therapy for individuals, couples, and families dealing with relationship/ interpersonal difficulties. She also provides mental health therapy for issues such as depression and anxiety. She has extensive experience in mental health treatment and is passionate about helping others create balance and happiness in their lives.  In addition to her clinical therapy practice, Cari also authors articles and literature on a variety of relevant mental health topics – including relationships, marriage, interpersonal conflicts, and self-actualization. Cari lives with her husband and two daughters in the St. Louis area.

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