The Elusive Experience of Self-Love

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How do you love yourself?

There was a time when people talked about having a candle-lit bath with relaxing salts and essential oils, or booking a massage. These are good things to do but they don’t seem to answer the question.

Personally, I find self love one of the more challenging aspects of life in a marketing-saturated world. We experience so much implied criticism and judgement of our appearance, image and achievements that it’s hard to develop a strong sense of self to love.

Whilst spirituality often teaches giving up the self, you need to have a self to give up in the first place. If you try to surrender yourself when you haven’t developed a strong sense of who you are, you’re likely to find yourself on a bypass; you might even miss the point of life that way.

I’ve often given relatively simple answers to the question, “How do you love yourself?” For example, if you can become present you will naturally feel better and experience greater self love. If you relax you’ll also feel better and love naturally follows. But after 30 years of experience with relaxation and being able to be present when I choose to, I’ve found there’s more to self love than I thought when I was younger.

Two contrasting aspects of life increase self love when both aspects are fostered. On the one hand is flow/presence/relaxation, which brings you into the present moment. On the other hand is discipline/habit/focus, which builds your capacity for the future.

If I bring myself into the present moment I can always feel good, but if I’m ignoring the needs of my body through bad habits, it’s hard to sustain that good feeling as self love over the long term. Equally, if I’m hugely disciplined and do all the right things in my diet, exercise and self care, but am unable to be present or relaxed, I can feel good about what I do every day but still sense that there’s always something missing.

It took me a long time to recognize and appreciate the dynamic relationship between these two aspects of life, and it recently came strongly into focus. I’ve been travelling for two months and have stayed in 23 different locations so far. I let my daily discipline slip a bit, largely through necessity because of early starts and long travel days, and a lot of catching up on emails whenever I could get online. And even though my work requires me to be fully present for long stretches of time, I noticed a feeling of disappointment. I could feel my body asking for better attention and I wasn’t listening. The interesting thing is that I still exercised most days, but it wasn’t to the level that I normally do and I’ve developed a taste for something better.

I wasn’t hard on myself about it – I’ve learned that lesson. And I accepted it because something had to give. But the moment I started to get more disciplined, my feeling about myself shifted and brightened. It felt like a missing piece in the story of self-love was no longer missing. I can no longer convince myself that it’s enough just to love myself in my head and my heart. Self love requires action as well.

Many people don’t want to hear this. I didn’t either. But I’m so grateful to have discovered it because it’s given me a new motivation for taking care of myself as well as I possibly can. And I feel so much better, not because I’ve arrived at some point of achievement, but because I’m committed to the action that is loving myself, and that loving myself enables me to love my life more.

Seven components of self love
1. Discipline – Habits

There’s no getting around this. Brushing your teeth is an act of self love. Going to sleep, eating, drinking water…they’re all ways to love yourself, but doing them well is so much more loving. Would you want your child to be dirty, tired, hungry or malnourished? Of course not. So what about yourself?

This is one of the aspects of life we each need to face. Some people are very disciplined, and some aren’t. I’m not. I like lots of change and variety, but I will be forever grateful to my Chinese Master who taught me to get up early and at the same time every day. The self respect that goes with self discipline is tangible. So if you’re not good at self discipline, practise. No excuses.

2. Freedom – Presence

To be able to bring yourself into the present moment and let go of everything else is immensely freeing. It’s impossible to love yourself if you’re thinking all the time, because there’s no space for your heart to be active, and your heart is where love resides, not your mind. This alone is a great reason to learn meditation. It also increases your capacity for doing things successfully and your ability to listen to others, so there are many advantages to being able to be present.

3. Body – Exercise

Human beings are a weird bunch when it comes to bodies. Many people feel so insecure about their physical appearance that they ignore many of the body’s needs. Obviously your body needs food and liquid and rest and movement, but there’s so much more than that. If you love your home you’ll spend hours or days planning and designing and cleaning and enjoying the beautiful place you inhabit. How about doing the same when it comes to the house you carry around with you all the time?

It’s not just a question of making sure your body eats and drinks something, sleeps at some point, and moves a bit so you can tick the boxes. It responds very physically to what you put into it, how you treat it and what you do with it.

One of my greatest discoveries has been that my body loves movement that reaches all parts of it. For most of my life I walked a lot and was always fit enough to walk up a mountain. That was my measure of fit and healthy. Then last year I discovered what happens when I exercise in a way that works with all of me (not just my legs/heart/lungs) and it was a revelation. To experience an increase in strength, agility, flexibility, balance and overall movement capability has been a real pleasure. This helps me to love myself. It feels so good.

4. Energy – Relaxation

You are made of energy, so you need to take care of your energy. If it gets dirty and blocked you get very uncomfortable. You can start pretending you love yourself instead of doing it for real. Daily relaxation to clean your energy, heal and balance your body, and open up to receive fresh energy makes a huge difference to the way you feel and, therefore, has a big impact on self love.

5. Time – Prioritisation

The To Do list can be a killer of self love. I notice that whenever I get into my “tick the box” mode, powering through the list to get things checked off, my self love goes down. It makes me feel like a slave to my business and that’s not what I went into business for.

I feel much better when I make sure I do something important every day. I like to make this my priority for the day. Today it’s writing this blog. I will do many other things, some of them also important, but this is my benchmark. If I feel that I’ve shown up fully and created something valuable that moves my business forward, I get a sense of satisfaction that’s missing if I just answer emails all day. It might be something quite different for you, but it’s important to discover what makes time feel good to you.

6. Environment – Cleaning

I learned from my Chinese Master that my outer environment is a reflection of my inner environment. Having grown up very messy, I found this difficult to swallow. I used to argue with her that messiness is creative, but she never let me off the hook with that one.

If I walk into my office and see a mess there, there’s a little reaction in me of disappointment. This is not about trying to be perfect, but about honouring myself and creating a nice space in which I can live a beautiful life. I’m very lucky to have a husband who’s immaculately clean and has very high standards for our environment. I’m truly grateful to him for this. I don’t think I could have done it on my own. It’s such a pleasure to spend time in a place that’s loved and cared for. It’s another measure of self love.

7. Forgiveness – Kindness

I frequently fail. I’m OK with that because I learn a lot from it, but it was very important for me to learn to be kind and forgiving towards myself. I used to beat myself up relentlessly, and there was no love in that.

The important thing about self love is that it gives you the desire to become a better person. Every time you’re kind to yourself you increase the love a little. It doesn’t make much difference in a day or two, but if you keep being kind for years, it transforms your life.

Personally, I don’t like to dress failure up as some kind of “success, really.” I know it’s true at the deepest level that there’s no such thing as failure (or success), but I find it powerful to be honest with myself. If I plan to achieve something and it doesn’t work, it’s useful to be able to admit it, look at what happened and learn from the situation. It stretches my ability to love myself.

If I pretend that it was supposed to happen that way (which I used to do a lot) I feel more comfortable but I gain less. I end up making excuses for myself. It’s easy to pretend to love myself if I always say that everything is perfect, but I’ve found that love built that way isn’t real. I would prefer to experience the perfection in the failures and the successes. That feels much more loving to me.

So how do you love yourself?

I don’t want to suggest that this is a definitive list. Self love is very personal, so it would be valuable for you to make your own list rather than rely on mine. This was a useful exercise for me and focusing on this topic will add to my own ability to love myself.

I recommend giving yourself plenty of time (a few years or more) to explore this immensely important topic. It grows very slowly, often through times of challenge and apparent adversity. If you can love yourself when people around you are unkind, unsupportive, dishonest, depressed, or any other of the many ways they can hurt you, then you know the love is real and powerful.

There may be some uncomfortable messages in here. If that’s so, I recommend getting uncomfortable. It’s a wonderful springboard for self development, and that increases self love.


Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

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