Not so long ago on a busy Manchester bus, I overheard a conversation between two teenage girls, one crying and the other doing her best to soothe her companion.
‘But why doesn’t he love me? I did everything right.’ She wailed, loudly enough to engage the whole lower deck. ‘I just want him to love me. Why doesn’t anybody love me?’ (Sob. Sniff.)
The friend’s arm sympathetically reached around the weeping girl’s heaving shoulders.
‘Well …’ she began, sagely, ‘Someone shared this thing on Facebook that said you’ve got to learn to love yourself first.’
‘Yeah, but how do I do that?’
‘I dunno,’ she shrugged. ‘It didn’t say.’
Not all wisdom can be rounded into a sound bite or squashed into an inspirational meme – or a blog. Learning what it means to love ourselves is a personal exploration of our darkest thoughts and feelings about the person we believe we are – deep down.
At the very least, it means challenging old, culturally ingrained ideas often delivered in the form of cautionary proverbs: everyone knows that pride comes before a fall and that one should never blow one’s own trumpet. As kids, when me or one of my siblings dared boast an achievement, we’d be put back in our place with a punishing chorus of, ‘You’re so vain. I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, DON’T YOU …?’
Later, a therapist told me that learning to love myself would not only save my life – it would fundamentally change me: I could start again and reach for the stars. I wanted to believe her but I was terrified of sticking my head above the parapet and besides, leopards don’t change their spots and even if I could change, I’d already made my bed – I knew what I had to do!
I allowed my old beliefs to be challenged and one by one they crumbled under her gentle scrutiny. These days I try to live each day with my head (and shoulders) above the parapet, my spots change every time I learn something new, and I make and unmake beds as often as I need to. Get me – blowing my own trumpet! Here’s how I did it:
1. Separate feeling from fact. The deep-down self we hide, feel ashamed of and deem unworthy is most likely made up of a collection of memories from childhood and adolescence – like a floating island of flotsam and jetsam that appears like a solid mass from a distance but actually has no structural integrity. In short, it’s not real. Those pieces of unprocessed memory and childishly interpreted facts are not evidence of a hidden truth about us. The self that is out in the world, dealing with life’s challenges day after day is you doing your actual best. Let it be good enough – at least for today.
2. Forgive yourself for every poor decision you’ve ever made. It is deeply unfair to judge our past selves for not knowing then what we know now. The past is not evidence of our failings – it’s information. If we investigate the past with love, we’ll see patterns in our behaviour that create loops, some of which we’ve been circling for years. Identifying a pattern means we can change it. Nothing changes if nothing changes, but when something changes, everything changes.
3. Take comfort in the reflections of others. Present self vs Hidden self = Imposter syndrome: the unshakable feeling that we’re lying in some way about who we are and what we deserve, and that any minute now someone is going to find us out and blow our cover. This duality is why loving ourselves – and feeling truly loved by others – can sometimes feel impossible. So the next time someone says, ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re awesome’, instead of secretly thinking, ‘Yeah, well, you wouldn’t say that if you really knew me’, thank them for reflecting a version of you that is less warped than your own.
4. Identify something you need (and give it to yourself). Needs aren’t like wants – we actually can’t live without them. Ignoring needs forces our bodies, psyches and souls to demand our attention more vigorously. Illness, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, compulsive behaviours and addiction can all be consequences. Start with the small stuff – a hot bath, a massage, a day off, eating leafy vegetables, a walk in the park, some fresh air. Then, when you’re better practised, you’ll be ready to seek more validating relationships in love, work and life.
5. Create a loving routine – and stick to it. The word ‘discipline’ probably conjures images of shouty men in military uniform or sour-faced Dickensian schoolmasters, but when it comes to wellbeing, discipline is self-love in action. One of the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of the word is ‘To train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way.’ Love is not a fuzzy feeling – it’s something we DO for the nourishment of self or others. Use the basics as a framework: feed, water, comfort and rest yourself well as a matter of routine rather than deserving (see above).
Above all be patient. Learning to love ourselves is a lifetime challenge. Focus on recognising the subtle and unsubtle ways you beat yourself up – privately and publicly – and pay attention to each one, remembering to ask: Is this a fact or just an old feeling floating on the surface of my past?