One of the things I have noticed over recent years is how widespread the use of the terms love and self love have become. I often hear these words in coaching, advertising, music and social conversations. A little while ago, I was at a meditation organized by a group of indigenous people in the morning and at a cultural event held by one of the major world religions in the evening – and both times I was told that what I would need to do in order to find true happiness was to love myself. This fascinated me. How come this modern concept of self-love could so easily weave itself into different longstanding cultural and religious traditions?
Self-love also prominently features in the therapy room, albeit often linked to a sense of inadequacy for not loving oneself enough. Clients tell me that they received the same message I did twice that day, which is that if they are struggling in their relationships or with their outlook on life this is due to a lack of self-love.
After many years of working as a therapist my sense is that unfortunately, things are not all that straightforward. There isn't a simple on/off switch for self-love. And for many of my clients, the term itself sounds intimidating and so very unachievable.
In particular, those who have experienced sexual abuse, who suffer from body dysmorphia or anorexia or who have been told multiple times by their caregivers that they are just no good stand out in my memory as especially resistant to the notion of self-love. How can I love myself, if I am burdened by shame and guilt, if I despise my own body or my own character? How can I be expected to love myself if I have been told from an early age that I am bad, selfish or stupid?
In these situations, it comes to me as no surprise that the widely promoted expectation of self-love as a precursor for happiness hits a thick wall of contrast and inability. It is just all too much. And instead of engaging with the very valid question of the sources for our sense of appreciation and recognition, many people simply turn off and declare that they just cannot do it.
It is true: If I am more at ease with myself, if I can feel more comfortable in my own skin, I am less reliant on validation from others. If I have a strong and positive sense of self, a single word of disagreement or disapproval is not going to hit me so hard. However, we are still social animals, and it is unrealistic to assume that we won't be at all affected by feedback from others, good or bad. Equally, I don't think it is helpful to think of self-love as an all or nothing concept.
To get away from the enormity and all encompassing nature that many of us are associating with self-love, I am proposing the hopefully more digestible - if slightly less shiny - notion of self-acceptance. And rather than burdening ourselves with the expectation of complete self-acceptance, I consider our life long task to be one of working towards greater levels of self-acceptance.
As we are in a constant process of change throughout our life course, we are also continuously facing new challenges and new losses that we need to come to terms with. So the process of self-acceptance is inevitably ongoing; the idea of complete self-acceptance may well only ever be an aspiration that we are getting ever closer to.
Does this help? Does this feel a little more achievable: moving along a continuum towards greater levels of self-acceptance? Maybe this perspective can enable us to look at different areas in our life and see where self-acceptance is easier and where it is harder. Maybe it allows us to track progress in one particular area over time.
Change happens all the time, and we are much more of an agent in our lives than we often give ourselves credit for. If I am able to see the small steps I am taking towards increasing self-acceptance, this will help me to build my confidence and inspire me to grow further. So it is very worth looking out for them.
Coming back to the question in the title of this post: Do I have to love myself? No client has ever asked me this directly. However, many times this question is the elephant in the room when this topic comes up: Do I have to love myself with all that I am in order to be truly happy? And what if I can't? What if nobody has shown me how to do that?
My answer is: That's OK. We don't have to love ourselves, and we may not want to or feel able to apply this concept to ourselves now or ever. This doesn't prevent us from experiencing moments of happiness. At the same time, I am convinced that we can all work towards greater levels of self-acceptance, wherever we start from and whatever we have been through. And with greater self-acceptance comes greater lightness and ease in our life and the ability to enjoy life more, so there may simply be more moments of happiness. And maybe deeper moments of happiness, too. And maybe that is motivation enough.
I am aware that there are many suggestions and exercises out there to strengthen self-love, and I am not disputing their benefits or effectiveness. Based on my experience as a therapist, I just know that an exercise is most effective if it meets the person where they are at. Be it in the gym or the mental gym, if the task is too hard, too much of a stretch, too painful, we are unlikely to stick with it. And when too much within us resists or rebels and we don't follow through, we are all too often left with a sense of failure, thus further reinforcing any negative self-beliefs and thus making self-love seem even further out of reach. So this exercise here is for all those that feel overwhelmed by the notion of self-love while being inspired to develop greater self-acceptance.
Take some undisturbed reflection time when you are feeling fairly calm and think about the notion of self-acceptance in relation to yourself. What broad areas are coming up for you? Where is self-acceptance easier and where is it harder? Where has there been progress over time? Different categories may include your personality, your body, your career, your health, your faith, your parenting, your social or financial status or other categories all together.
Is there a particular area where you would like to increase your level of self-acceptance? Focus on that area. Write down different sub-categories or elements in that category. Explore your feelings towards these elements. What are you feeling positive towards? What are you feeling negative towards? What are you feeling neutral towards? Notice that not all elements automatically evoke negative feelings – some may not evoke much of a feeling at all, some may evoke conflicting feelings – positive and negative at the same time. For those that evoke clear negative feelings, see if you can see the other side of that aspect. For example, every personality trait has a sunny and a shadow side. If only the shadow side is in focus, consider the sunny side of this trait. How else could I look at this aspect? Write it down. See if this changes your feelings from clearly negative to less negative, mixed, neutral or positive. What small behavioral steps could you take to move on the continuum towards greater self-acceptance for those elements that evoke strong negative feelings? What evidence or feedback could you gather to hold a more balanced view? What small task could you accomplish to feel a little sense of pride or achievement in relation to this element? How does this change your overall self-acceptance in this area?
What insights did you gain from this calm exploration of your current level of self-acceptance? Were you able to identify some specific next steps on your journey? Were you able to see progress in some areas by considering your history and where you have come from?