The message is loud and clear and splattered over websites, in books, in videos, and in podcasts wherever you turn: love yourself.
But that’s much easier done in theory than in practice, isn’t it?
And the world we live in isn’t all that much help a lot of the time…
The things we see and hear in our day-to-day lives are mostly geared toward sowing seeds of insecurity, self-doubt, poor self-esteem, and competition. When combined with insults and offhand remarks from other people in our lives, that’s a recipe for a whole lot of mental health struggles.
If we add various types of trauma into the mix, that recipe gets even murkier. For example, people who have a difficult time loving themselves can often track back their self-loathing to criticisms thrown at them in their youth. When one is inundated with negative messages on a daily basis, over the course of several years, then that often becomes an underlying personal narrative. Echoes keep resonating in our psyches long after the cruelties themselves are over and done with.
So how can someone learn to love themselves when the mirror they’re given has been warped and cracked by external influences? How can they get a true sense of their individual value when they can’t see themselves clearly?
Let’s delve into the many factors that can contribute to a lack of self-love, and then address how to go about reversing their effects.
Where does a lack of self-love stem from?
We may come into this world like smooth, unblemished stones, but the hardships and difficulties that life throws our way chip away at those surfaces over time. We end up feeling rather like the moon that orbits the strange little rock we live on, which is covered in dents and craters from being hammered by asteroids over the years. Its surface was once pristine as well, but now? Not so much.
Small children are oblivious little potatoes at first, but they start to really gain a sense of self – and self-awareness – around age two. How that sense of self develops, however, is thoroughly influenced by their environment.
Let’s say a small child is constantly referred to as a princess. How long will it take before she starts to refer to herself as such as well? Ask her what her name is and she may very well respond with “I’m their little Princess!”
As you might imagine, the same goes for negative reinforcements as well. What may seem like an innocuous gesture or phrase when they’re little may end up having rather intense, long-lasting repercussions.
Kids are sponges, and they soak up pretty much everything they see and hear around them. If you’ve spent much time with little ones, you’ve likely noticed how quickly they can learn a language, and how well they’ll repeat words, phrases, and behaviors they pick up.
So what happens if someone continually refers to their toddler as a “little pig” for eating enthusiastically at mealtimes? Or who forcefully changes their clothes without explaining to them why, or what’s happening? And then punishes them when they resist because they’re feeling uncomfortable about being stripped and handled roughly?
You may have noticed several attention-seeking trends on social media like TikTok these days in which parents trick their children to get reactions on camera. The parents might think it’s funny to bait-and-switch their child into thinking they’re getting a mouthful of ice cream only to taste mashed peas or turnips instead, or to scare their child by leaping out at them while wearing a terrifying-looking mask.
They might get several thousand views after that, but what kind of impact will that have on the child? Essentially, the lesson the little one will learn from that is that a person who’s taking care of them, who they rely upon for their every need, can’t be trusted.
Many people might brush off the idea that a child might be traumatized by an experience like this, believing that the kid either won’t remember it, or will get over it in time. But will they?
You may not remember your kindergarten teacher’s name, but chances are you remember something embarrassing or hurtful that happened to you when you were three or four years old.
Our personalities and perceptions are greatly shaped and influenced by how we experience the world, and we often learn bigger and longer-lasting lessons through pain than we do through pleasant experiences.
Children experience a wide variety of different things as they develop. Some of them will be fun and playful, while others will be frustrating, painful, even humiliating. Many kids will experience big traumatic events that will have significant impacts on their long-term wellbeing, while others may have to navigate micro injuries and aggressions that add up over time.
What’s the difference between “big T” and “small t” traumas?
Traumas can come in many forms, and most fall under two different categories: “big T” and “small t” traumas.
“Big T” traumas may include (but are not limited to), physical beatings, sexual assaults, gun violence, war, natural disasters, bad accidents (like car crashes and sporting injuries), and severe, life-threatening illnesses.
In contrast, “small t” traumas can either be isolated incidents, or mild-to-moderately stressful situations that occur over long periods of time. For example, a “small t” trauma such as a passing criticism from a loved one about one’s body shape may result in a lifelong eating disorder, or constantly bracing against potential parental anger can cause long-term anxiety.
When people talk about traumas they’ve experienced, most of them only focus on the big, intense things they’ve gone through, rather than smaller, hurtful things that have affected them. As a result, the smaller traumas tend to be brushed off.
“Big T” traumas are often considered “worthwhile” or “valid” reasons why a person may seek out therapy. Furthermore, people who have experienced them are more likely to receive sympathy from others than those with “small t” traumas.
Consider how you might react to finding out that a friend of yours lived through their city being bombed as a child, and now has a lasting fear of loud noises like fireworks. Chances are you’d feel empathy for them, and you would do your best to ensure that they weren’t exposed to those kinds of triggering events.
Now consider how you’d react to someone saying that they don’t ever eat dessert because their parents made fun of their weight daily as a child. Or that they didn’t like dogs since their grandmother’s chihuahua bit them on a regular basis. Would you show similar empathy for these experiences? Or would you roll your eyes at them and maybe crack a joke or two?
In contrast to those who have lived through war or near-death experiences, people who struggle with the fallout from “small t” traumas are often told to just get over themselves and stop being dramatic.
Instead of having their emotions and lasting hurts acknowledged and validated, they’re given the impression that they haven’t been through enough hardship to justify having any kind of post-traumatic stress.
Furthermore, they might be accused of attention-seeking, or told that they don’t have any right to feel damaged by “insignificant” past experiences because other people have it so much worse.
This is rather like telling someone with chronic migraines or arthritis that they aren’t experiencing “real” pain, unlike those with broken limbs or cancer.
How “small t” traumas influence our lives.
A wonderful philosopher named Ovid was famous for his quote: “The drop excavates the stone, not with force but by falling often.”
Have you seen stones with smooth holes in them before? Those often occur when a rock lies beneath a constant dripping water source for a long period of time. Over the years, the repetitive dripping on the same spot will bore a hole through the stone.
When you think of a water droplet, you probably don’t think of it as being particularly harmful. After all, water is immensely soothing. Droplets can quench thirst and offer a startling amount of refreshment on a blisteringly hot day. But even the gentlest thing can cause harm when it strikes the same spot over the course of several months, years, or decades.
Similarly, these small experiences can shape our lives in innumerable ways. As an example, in her book The Sex Life of Food, the (unfortunately named) author Bunny Crumpacker touches upon how people’s food choices as adults often reflect the experiences they had in their childhood.
For instance, if a person grew up in a household that was supportive and caring, in which food was offered as loving nourishment, then chances are they’ll love those foods well into adulthood. Childhood favorites will be their go-to “comfort foods,” and they’ll lovingly prepare those same dishes they enjoyed as children for those they care about. In simplest terms, this food represents love made tangible for them.
In contrast, a person whose childhood was fraught with abuse and hardship might associate mealtimes – and the items served at those times – with negativity. They’ll often balk from the dishes their family served so as not to relive old, ugly memories.
Some become picky eaters who only like bland, sweet, foods that appeal to children. Others will develop more adventurous palates and veer towards strong flavors, spices, and interesting textures, provided that they’re completely different from what their family fed them.
Think about the foods you enjoy most, versus those you despise. Then take some time to consider why you have these preferences and aversions. What are the stories behind your culinary choices? Which memories do you have associated with different dishes?
Every single thing we experience leaves an impact on our psyches in numerous ways. By understanding how your experiences thus far have shaped you, steps can be taken towards unravelling the damage that has been done.
10 Tips To Learn To Love Yourself
1. Start with acceptance.
Each and every one of us has a personal basket full of ingredients to work with in this lifetime. Some might seem easier to work with than others, or might seem more appealing, but no basket is better or worse than any other.
You might think that someone else’s collection of ingredients is more appealing or worthy than your own, but they undoubtedly have something else in the mix that you wouldn’t want to work with.
Have you ever watched a cooking competition show like “Chopped”? In it, contestants are given baskets of culinary ingredients that they need to transform into delicious meals within a set amount of time. Some of the collections seem ideal, as they’re familiar, versatile, and delicious all on their own.
That said, there’s always a wild card in the mix that they didn’t expect, and that has to be incorporated – even featured – or the contestant will be disqualified. So sure, a basket of strip steak, potato, and aged cheddar might seem incredibly lucky, but what about the pickled pig lips or chocolate hummus that need to be worked into that meal?
What’s this got to do with self-love?
Well, people who envy others because of their physical attractiveness, health, able-bodiedness, wealth, or family status might assume those other people’s baskets are solely filled with good stuff. In reality, the people they admire or envy usually have a slew of difficult ingredients that they have to work with as well.
It’s possible that the gorgeous person whose body shape you covet might be battling a chronic or terminal illness that causes them constant pain. Or the person who’s an absolute genius in math is so dyslexic with words that they’re unable to read books: they even need help ordering from a restaurant menu.
What we have at our disposal, with our own bodies and capabilities, is what we have to work with. As a result, if you’re beginning a journey towards greater self-love, the best first step you can take is unconditional acceptance.
Rather than wishing that your metaphorical basket of ingredients was different, accept the fact that this is what you have to work with. Wishing things weren’t as they are will only lead to depression, disassociation, and a chronic lack of self-worth. Instead of going that route, try to lean into and embrace what you have.
Or, in shorter terms: “own it.”
2. Work with what you have, to the best of your ability.
Edith Sitwell was an author and poet who was born in the late 1800s. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the ideal of feminine beauty was a petite frame with a tiny waist, curvaceous bust and hips, and delicate features. In stark – almost defiant – contrast to this ideal, Edit was just over six feet tall, long-limbed and slender, with striking, fierce features.
She also had Marfan syndrome, which in her case caused a mild spinal deformation.
Rather than lamenting her fate and trying to force herself to fit in with the ideals of the day, Edith embraced what she had and went full-out to celebrate her own attributes. She chose to cultivate an “eccentric” aesthetic, choosing to wear long, dramatically hued dressing gowns and turbans. Instead of hiding perceived “flaws” in her appearance, she drew focus to her height and shape.
When asked why she didn’t try to conform to societal expectations of what she should look like, she famously responded with: “If one is a greyhound, why try to look like a Pekingese?”
Try to embrace your inner Edith, regardless of your gender, and determine what you think would suit you best as an individual. This goes for your personal sense of fashion, as well as your home decor, career choices, romantic interests, hobbies, etc.
If it’s helpful, make a Venn diagram that encompasses what you love most, and what you have to work with. There will undoubtedly be overlap between them that you can revel in to your heart’s content.
3. Make a list of the things you like about yourself.
I often suggest that people make lists to help them with personal growth, but there’s a reason for that (and it isn’t just my Virgo rising sign taking center stage).
Our minds are often maelstroms of random bits of information, responsibilities, snippets of conversations, song lyrics, and so on. When we start to take solid steps towards greater wholeness, we might have moments of inspiration and awareness, but they’ll be fleeting. Later on, when we try to remember an epiphany we had at the breakfast table, we won’t be able to remember exactly what it was.
By keeping a journal or notepad handy, we can jot down these ideas and incorporate them into our personal work. Furthermore, and this is the most important bit, we can keep referring back to them time and time again.
By writing down these ideas, we manifest them into the physical realm. Then we can use them as touchpoints and reminders whenever we feel like we’re veering off our chosen path.
Dedicate several pages to all the different traits you have that you either like, or think have promise to work with. Do you really like your eyes? Are you able to learn languages or artistic skills easily? Can you keep calm in stressful circumstances? Are some parts of your body stronger than others?
Write all of this down.
Then, take another few pages to write down things that you love and admire. If you’re more visually oriented, consider making a Pinterest board or scrapbook to help with this step.
Are there subjects or career paths that you admire and would love to get involved with? How about fashion aesthetics? Are there styles that you love dearly but have been afraid to adopt because you don’t think they wouldn’t suit your physical frame?
When and if you come across a fear or hesitation about one of these things, try doing some internal digging to figure out where this aversion is coming from.
Maybe you were mocked by someone close to you for having an interest in it when you were young, or someone insulted you when you were wearing something you loved, simply because it was different. Or perhaps a topic you adore is seen as too odd or unconventional by those who would prefer you to be more like them.
Once you understand where these hesitations come from, you can start working to overcome them and embrace a greater sense of authenticity and self-love.
Additionally, when you have that list of great stuff right in front of you, you might start to glean a greater picture of the glorious version of yourself that you can start to step into, when you’re ready.
4. Don’t allow anyone to mistreat you.
People may have mistreated you in the past, when you were unable to stand up for yourself and be your own most fervent advocate, but no more. This is where you set firm boundaries about what you will and will not accept as far as your wellbeing is concerned.
Become your own sentinel and guard your heart against infractions. This might involve learning to say “no” to people who are demanding your time and energy without recompense, even though they might try to guilt trip you about it. Or perhaps it’s telling those who are abusive towards you that you won’t tolerate that kind of behavior anymore.
This might be quite terrifying if you’re conflict averse, as there will inevitably be pushback from those who are accustomed to mistreating you. But to truly love yourself, you need to make your health and happiness top priorities.
If the people in your life have been mistreating you, put a stop to it the next time they say or do something unacceptable. When they complain or try to do it again to reassert their dominance, leave. Or kick them out, depending on the circumstance.
Make it abundantly clear that you are done being mistreated. If they don’t respect your boundaries, then you may have to go low- or no-contact for a while to make it clearer.
Protect yourself and your wellbeing the way you’d protect a child whom you’d sworn to take care of and nurture. You have full permission to go full-on mama/papa bear in your own defense.
5. Boost your self-confidence with role models you can relate to.
There have been huge strides in the self-positivity movement over the past few years. This is great for those who are seeking role models to help encourage them to live more authentically.
At current count, there are over 7 billion people on this planet, most of whom do not look like supermodels. Think about the people who are in your extended social circle: chances are they run the gamut of body shapes, able-bodiedness, and gender expression.
So instead of hating yourself for not looking the way that other person does, or not being able to achieve something that they did, focus on the magnificent, unique expression of the universe that is YOU.
Instagram is turning out to be a great resource for inspirational people who are trying to help and support one another. Whatever struggles you’re facing, or whichever direction(s) you’d like to move towards, you will be able to find others of like mind on there.
Would you love to dress in bright, cheerful hues rather than somber, conservative clothes? Do that. Get a bunch of tattoos? Go for it!
Do some keyword searches to look for the topics that interest you, and then follow the people who inspire you. There will undoubtedly be other people who follow them that will also have great accounts, and before you know it, you’ll have more esteem-boosting visual candy to bask in than you ever thought possible.
In addition to feeling more confident about the fact that there are others out there who are on a similar path to your own, you might make some great new friends!
6. Let go of other people’s expectations of you.
This builds upon the earlier tip regarding embracing what you have to work with, as well as what you love.
Some of the greatest suffering in life comes from trying to be something we’re not for the sake of making other people happier or more comfortable.
Many people spend their entire lives in misery, being inauthentic and unfulfilled, simply because they’re putting all their energy toward maintaining a masquerade.
This life is YOURS to live as you see fit. You don’t exist to make relatives proud of your academic accomplishments, nor do you have to sacrifice your dreams in order to fulfill someone else’s ideas of who you’d become.
Take a look at what you really want out of life versus what other people want you to do in order to make them happy. Do you want to travel the world instead of raising a bunch of kids? Then do that. Or, do you want to raise a bunch of kids instead of pursuing a career in law or medicine? Then do that.
Live the life that you dream of, and don’t feel guilty about upsetting other people’s expectations. If they’re upset, then they shouldn’t have tried to impose expectations on you to begin with! You’re not a malleable peg that can be mashed into the mold that they set out for you.
This is your life. Embrace it and live it in the way that makes you happiest.
7. Forgive yourself for past errors.
Whether you’ve experienced big or small traumas, chances are you berate yourself quite fiercely for some of them. This is normal, it is common, but it is not very healthy.
We’re often incredibly cruel to ourselves after we’ve experienced something awful, as we feel that we could have avoided certain painful situations if only we’d had more foresight, awareness, etc.
One person might be angry with themselves for not seeing their partner’s abuse well ahead of time, instead choosing to ignore big red flags and “allowing” themselves to be mistreated. Meanwhile, someone else might be furious with themselves for choosing to take a risky holiday where they contracted an illness that affected their health and body shape.
“If only” they’d listened to their insight, or made different choices, etc. This is the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” rabbit hole that so many people fall into after going through difficulty. Even if there was absolutely no way they could have avoided experiencing what they did, they’d find a way to be awful to themselves about it.
If this is something you’ve been struggling with, please try to learn how to forgive yourself. We’re all stumbling through life as best we can, and we will all make mistakes. We learn from these experiences so we can grow from them, but holding onto them also holds us back from growing into the people we’re capable of becoming.
One technique that may work for you is to envision yourself sitting with the past version of you and really paying attention to where they were mentally and emotionally at the time. Why did past you make those choices? If you can understand where they stemmed from, that can go a long way toward personal forgiveness.
For instance, you may have chosen to tolerate mistreatment because you thought that was “normal” due to abuse in your youth. Similarly, you might have been more adventurous than was prudent at the time because you needed to break free from what had been a stifling home environment.
None of these choices were “bad” or “wrong.” Even if they ended up changing your life in unexpected ways, there was undoubtedly an invaluable lesson that you learned from it.
8. Use your gifts for the greater good.
One of the best ways to learn how to love yourself is to use some of your talents and abilities to help others.
There are so many ways that each and every one of us can help others. The key is to refer to that list you made early on in which you highlighted the things that you’re amazing at, and then use those things to the best of your ability.
Are you very articulate? Then consider advocating for those who can’t help themselves, such as animals, children, or the natural environment.
Can you cook or bake well? Look into volunteering with outreach programs that help to feed the homeless.
When I was bed-bound for months recovering from a serious illness, I took up knitting and made warm clothes for orphans and refugees overseas. Similarly, a friend of mine uses the proceeds from his wood carvings to donate to animal sanctuary shelters.
It’s difficult not to feel good about oneself when one has poured love and effort into helping others, and there’s always something we can do to offer assistance.
We all have abilities we can put to use for the greater good: what are yours?
9. Do things that bring you joy.
Many people who dislike aspects of themselves end up holding back from experiencing joy. They might feel that they don’t deserve happiness, or fun, or great food for various reasons. Maybe it’s hearing other people’s cruel comments in the backs of their minds, or because they’re trying to punish themselves for perceived shortcomings and/or transgressions.
Furthermore, some people refrain from taking part in activities or hobbies that they enjoy because they don’t feel that they’re very good at them. They might watch online reels of people who create beautiful things with clay or paint and don’t bother trying because they’ll never be “as good” as them. Or they hold back from swimming or taking yoga classes because they’re afraid that others will be awful to them about a less-than-perfect physical form.
Life is short, and one of the greatest blessings we can give ourselves is to have joy, in whichever ways we can help to manifest it into being.
You don’t have to be the best baker in the world in order to enjoy making treats for yourself (and the people you love). Your macarons can be lumpy and misshapen, and your cake decorating skills can be basic. As long as you are having fun, that’s truly all that matters.
The same goes for any kind of visual art, craft, music, movement, etc.
As for other people’s negative opinions: ask yourself why these people’s thoughts matter to you. Chances are you’ll never know their names, never be involved in their lives at all. They can think negatively of you if they want to – it says far more about them and their sad, possibly damaged personal lives than anything about you.
Do the fun thing. Eat the delicious food that makes your toes curl. Spend evenings soaking in bubble baths, reading atrocious romance novels and sipping juice from champagne glasses if that brings you happiness.
Celebrate the time you have with pastimes that make you smile.
10. Work with a therapist to get past stumbling blocks and heal old wounds.
If you find that old traumas – whether big or small “T” versions thereof – are holding you back from progress, or if you keep tripping over the same triggers, you might wish to get some help from a therapist.
This doesn’t mean that you’ve backslid in your journey or that you’re failing in some way. Rather, you’re getting advice from someone who can see blind spots in the bigger picture, and might have some techniques that can help break you free from the cycle(s) you’re repeating.
Try to see this like an experienced gamer who has tips or cheat codes for how to defeat the Big Boss. There may be a technique that’s actually quite simple and can move you forward significantly, but you just haven’t been able to see it from your own perspective.
The things that you’ve been through have made lasting impressions on your life, but that doesn’t mean that you’re stuck within the confines that they’ve created for you. With the help of a trained professional, you can transcend the difficulties and use the lessons to forge a beautiful future for yourself; one that’s full of unconditional self-love, self-compassion, and joy.
One final note: Change is inevitable, and you may need to re-learn how to love yourself over time.
It’s important to keep in mind that stumbling blocks and setbacks are inevitable. After all, we change constantly as we move through life. Our bodies change shape as we age, unexpected life circumstances can sideline us, priorities may change significantly, or we may have sudden epiphanies that make us want to overhaul literally everything.
As a result, be prepared to revisit these techniques on how to love yourself over and over again through the years. Traits that you appreciate in yourself now might annoy you then, while abilities you don’t think about much now might be absolutely treasured in a decade or two.
Try to hold space and love for your own personal development the same way you would for a beloved child. In fact, you can even try to visualize your inner child every time you feel a pang of irritation or disappointment with yourself.
If your own child were struggling with this issue, would you insult them? Or try to be patient and encouraging with them? Will you continue the cycle of abusive behavior that you experienced? Or break that awful cycle by loving yourself unconditionally, and working with what you have to cultivate the best outcome possible in any situation?
Your body will change, as may your level of able-bodiedness. So will your interests, hobbies, priorities, and friend circles. The good news is that we all have tools at our disposal to navigate these changes with grace, and to see ourselves as works in progress that will get more beautiful and complex over time.
Like heritage buildings with beautiful gardens, the greatest charm lies in the stories held by weathered stone and tangled vines. Not in temporarily perfect manicured lawns and perpetually whitewashed windowsills.
You may also like:
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- 11 Symptoms Of A Self-Loathing Mindset (+ How To Overcome It)
- 4 Things To Do When You Don’t Care About Yourself
- How To Stop Body Shaming Yourself (And Deal With It From Others)
- How To Conquer A Feeling Of Worthlessness
- What To Do When You Hate Yourself: No Nonsense Advice