Throughout my career, I have frequently met people who told me they would like to love themselves more, but they don’t know how to do it, they have the feeling that they can’t or will never manage to treat themselves in a more loving and compassionate way. This statement, "I would like to treat myself better, to love myself more, but I can’t succeed", gives rise to a deep feeling of frustration and guilt, because the person in question realizes that it depends on themselves, but at the same time they can’t change much, as if they were a prisoner in their own body or life.
When we claim that we want to make a change, but we act or relate to that change with anger, hatred, frailness or resistance, we’ll hardly make the steps needed for that change, because we will feel that we are doing a sort of sacrifice, or something against our will. Changes need to be supported by an attitude of acceptance. For example, if we want to quit smoking, if we see this as a sacrifice and not as something we do for our own good, even if it’s hard for us at the moment, we will be much more tempted to light a cigarette when we feel the need, even if this ruins our whole process. The same way, if we see the actions we do for our own good as sacrifices - "it’s so hard" - and that's because, at the moment, it seems like a real ordeal to change a habit and we want instant gratification, we will be much more tempted to give up on them, even if in the beginning we were extremely excited and motivated to visualize that "ideal self" or that "ideal life."
Self-love comes from accepting the current situation, from accepting your present Self, from accepting yourself as you are now, and then, once you recognize and accept the things you don’t like about yourself, that are hurting you, you can begin to change them. Self-love doesn’t magically appear if you repeat to yourself "I am a wonderful person", "I deserve what’s best", if deep down you don’t believe this, if, in fact, you perceive yourself in a negative way, if you blame yourself for your flaws, but you do nothing to change them, or you give up much too quickly because "it's hard", because those voices that sabotage you arise in your mind: "you won't succeed", "you have failed so many times" , why would be different this time?"
Therefore, the "flaws" mentioned above can be seen as obstacles to your transformation towards that "ideal self". These are, in fact, self-destructive patterns of thinking and behavior, many of them unconscious, which express a low self-esteem, a lack of self-confidence, a feeling of worthlessness or even self-hatred. Among these factors we can list:
- a victim attitude and mentality or feeling sorry for yourself - to consider that you have no power to make changes in your life, to influence your environment, your future - it means to blame other external factors for the way your life is, looking for excuses and justifications to explain to yourself and to others why "it can't be done", why it’s not up to you, why you are simply out of luck, a "product" of your circumstances;
- closely related to this victim mentality are the limiting beliefs and self-fulfilling prophecies such as "I know for sure I will fail", "I can’t do that" - we are talking about a mental set of beliefs that "sets you up" for failure, as well as the passive attitude or lack of action that most often is caused by fear, by beliefs like the ones listed above;
- learned helplessness - when people are subjected to aversive stimuli that they can’t escape or defend themselves, they learn to behave in a helpless manner; when they think they have no control, no personal power, they can end up behaving in a helpless manner. This way, because they consider themselves to be helpless from the start, they will not see or seek opportunities or ways to solve the problem they face;
- displaying attitudes or behaviors that demonstrate incompetence - simulating incompetence (in an unconscious way) can be seen as a defense mechanism - for example, a child whose parents had exaggerated expectations of him, who felt overwhelmed by their claims, can defend himself by developing a self-imposed incompetence - "if my parents realize that I am really incompetent, they will leave me alone". Later, the "incompetent" adult will use this to avoid or escape from situations he doesn’t want to face, he will self-sabotage, because he will avoid using his potential and capabilities to their true value;
- repression and suppression of emotions - a child who used to be punished for his anger manifestations, who was not allowed to express his emotions, who was not allowed to cry if he was verbally abused, who was not allowed to become angry if a parent was physically abusing him, will learn that "it is not allowed" or it is not okay to feel and manifest his anger or sadness. Of course, he will still feel them, but he will repress them, accumulating frustrations, resentments, allowing his personal limits and boundaries to be violated, not expressing his wishes, needs or dissatisfaction;
- denying of problems, refusing to get help - a person who denies their problems, who refuses to ask for help, who lies to themselves that everything is fine even though their behaviors are increasingly destructive, is a person who actually suffers from a lack of self-love;
- drugs and alcohol abuse and addiction, gambling, casual and risky sex, are signs of a wounded self, of unresolved traumas and issues, of an escape from one's own self – a person who is happy, at peace with themselves, a person who is healing themselves, no longer seeks refuge in substances or actions that numb them or that, on the contrary, make them feel "alive", feel something, something other than pain and dissatisfaction;
- neglecting one's body and health, which, besides drug abuse, can be manifested by eating too much or not enough, not sleeping enough, working excessively, to exhaustion, hurting yourself by self-mutilation (which is a way of expressing your inner pain in a physical manner) or other destructive, risky, dangerous actions;
- sabotaging your relationships by aggressive, violent, passive behaviors, by being uninvolved, indifferent, by ambivalent behaviors or unconscious ones that lead to their dissolution or accepting toxic relationships, in which you are devalued, humiliated, abused;
- self-sacrifice - the countless compromises and sacrifices you make, which make you feel that you are a good and altruistic person (which helps you feel better about yourself) are evidence of a lack of self-love because it involves, in fact, giving up your own aspirations, dreams, plans, for the sake of another person (generally your partner) who, in reality, doesn’t need those sacrifices and compromises, being an autonomous and perfectly capable adult, just like you.
Such attitudes and behaviors express a lack of self-love, because when you love yourself, you no longer allow others to treat you with disrespect and without consideration, to break your boundaries, you take care of yourself and your physical, mental, emotional well-being, you respect your needs and desires and you fight for yourself and your dreams.
To love yourself means to forgive yourself, to understand that in the past you did everything you could with the information you had, if you knew otherwise, you would have done otherwise; it means taking responsibility and learning from your experiences, being more tolerant with yourself, showing compassion and acceptance to yourself and others; to love yourself means to have authentic relationships with those around you, to show others how you really are, because you accept yourself as you are.
Why is it so hard for us to love ourselves? Maybe we weren’t taught what self-love means and how to love ourselves, maybe we weren’t taught to stand up for ourselves and to defend our limits and boundaries, to say "no" when we wanted to say "no", without feeling guilty, maybe we haven’t been taught that in order to be able to care for others or to give, we must, first of all, take care of ourselves, fulfill our needs in order to have our "tanks” full, because only this way we can offer to those around us.
Instead, we were taught to make compromises and sacrifices, to put others above us, ignoring our needs and desires, invalidating our personality. We were taught to be martyrs, heroes, rescuers, living in fact in a deep intrapsychic conflict caused by the difference between what others expect from us and what we actually want, omitting the fact that, in the end, nobody will glorify us and that we can’t really "save" anyone (in turn, we can offer our help to those who want to be helped). We have been taught to seek love outside ourselves - we long to be loved and to love, but how can we love others if that love is lacking, if we don’t love ourselves? How can we behave in a compassionate manner with others, if we don’t know how to be compassionate with ourselves?
The moment we learn to love ourselves, our relationships will inevitably change. On the one hand, we will attract into our lives those people who will mirror our self-love, on the other hand, there will be those who will try to convince us that self-love is selfish, those who will try to make us feel guilty because we no longer want to make sacrifices and compromises, those who will feel offended if we refuse them, if we no longer accept to break our boundaries, those who will try to convince us that we have gone crazy and that would be better for us to “pull ourselves together”, that is, those who, in fact, tell us: "be unhappy like we are, don't step ahead, don't give up your comfort zone (uncomfortable, otherwise), don't show us that you can, don't make us question the beliefs that we have followed all our life, don’t make us doubt our choices and decisions, don’t make us look sincerely deep down, to find that we should change something, get out of our comfort zone”. In such situations, try not to take things personally - people are resisting your evolution because of their own fears and they don’t feel comfortable when one of their "kind" make a step forward. Why do you expect a person who doesn’t know what unconditional love means (who doesn’t love him/herself) to support you unconditionally?
In addition, the way someone behaves with you actually reflects the relationship they have with themselves - a person's actions toward you speak about that person, not about you. For example, someone may try to humiliate you, to trap you, displaying an apparent self-confidence, but why do you think they do it? Because they are indeed self-confident? Because they are self-sufficient or at peace with themselves? No, but because of their inferiority complexes, because of their insecurity they try to mask through these aggressive attitudes, because one way or another they feel threatened by you. If a person treats you badly, it doesn’t mean that you deserve to be treated badly, that you aren’t a valuable person; you don’t have a problem, but they have – they are frustrated or have unhealed wounds. Why would you stay in such a situation? Do you really think you don't deserve better? Or do you really think you can save that person by being tolerant and "kind"?
Self-love is not a mystical experience, it is not a feeling of bliss and exaltation that you permanently feel, it’s rather a practice, which means that self-love doesn’t just fall out of the sky, but you must cultivate it each day, paying attention to your thoughts, attitude and behaviors. By developing the ability to be as long as possible self-aware or self-conscious – to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, relational patterns, decisions, actions, reactions, needs, desires, triggers, good things and harmful things for you. Just like in a couple relationship, (self) love is cultivated. In vain do you say that you love yourself if your actions prove otherwise. You won't believe it. You are going to become more and more angry with yourself.
Self-love shouldn’t be viewed as an objective that must be achieved immediately at any cost. The truth is that there will be times when, maybe, you will feel bad, you will feel worthless, you will judge yourself, you will be overly critical with yourself. If in those vulnerable moments you will say to yourself, "I am not even capable of loving myself", you will harm yourself even more. Don’t transform self-love into a reason for becoming more frustrated or dissatisfied with yourself, because self-love says "yes, today I had a failure, today I feel bad, today I doubt myself, but this failure doesn’t make me a loser, this bad feeling isn’t me, it’s just a feeling which will fade, this insecurity I feel now doesn’t mean that I will not be able to succeed next time. ”
Self-love teaches you to distinguish between what’s true and what’s false - you may have been told that you are not good or capable enough, or that if you don’t do things perfectly, you don’t deserve to be appreciated, or if you don’t struggle to please others, you don't deserve to be loved. You may have even come to believe all these things, they have entered your mind like viruses - the idea is that when these thoughts arise, please realize that they aren’t true - they are, in fact, the voices of those who have influenced you in a certain way (those who didn’t know how to love themselves or show others love, those who instilled insecurity and mistrust in your mind, because they were insecure and doubting).
Self-love teaches you to be your best friend, to encourage yourself, to speak kindly in your inner dialogue, to take care of yourself, to see your weaknesses as opportunities to develop yourself, confronting them and understanding the fear you have to overcome, the lesson you have to learn. Self-love teaches you to be assertive - to say what you want, what bothers you, what are your limits, to respect yourself, while respecting others.
Self-love teaches you not to compare yourself to others, to give up the unrealistic ideals set by society or the media, to understand that you will never truly be able to accept yourself if your purpose is to correspond to that perfect and unrealistic ideal - you will struggle your whole life trying to become who you are not just to please others, because that is how you think you will be loved, accepted and happy, when in fact the process is the reverse - the moment you accept and love yourself, any kind of struggle disappears - you no longer fight for others’ acceptance and love, they come naturally, effortless.
When we accept ourselves, we will no longer seek to be accepted by others and we will no longer make impossible things for them to accept us. When we love ourselves, we will no longer frantically seek to be loved by others and we will no longer make impossible things for them to love us. By loving ourselves we become complete and whole.
Dr. Ursula Sandner