What does it really mean to love yourself?

How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Every article, every self help guide, every book on relationships, tells us the same thing – learn to love yourself first! But what does that really mean? How do you actually love yourself? How do you get to that place where you’re not just repeating silly affirmations, but you genuinely feel feelings of love for you, within your body?

It’s a three step process. 

First you have to listen. Listen to your thoughts and judgments about yourself.

Pay attention to the internal dialogue that happens within you. How do you talk to yourself? Specifically, what do you say to yourself? Do you judge yourself? Are you mean and harsh with yourself? Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?

When I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I found out that every time I looked in a mirror, or walked by a reflective surface, I would grimace internally. I could and would immediately pick out everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself? (I know you do).

Next time you catch yourself doing that – try to shift to kindness for yourself. Look for the good things in the mirror, and forgive whatever you think is “wrong” with you in that moment. You can take a judgment like “I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good about being overweight. Turn your negative judgments about reality into positives.

Treat yourself compassionately. Treat yourself as if you were a little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old, and find that child still living within you. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love. Just this alone will shift so many things for you.

Second, find your standards of perfection. As you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling “bad” or uncomfortable, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). The negative opinions your internal judge voice has about you are not arbitrary. They are the perfect result of the standards of perfection you created for yourself long ago. This is how you love yourself conditionally. This is where you deny yourself your own love…

When I am __________ (stronger, faster, richer, in better shape, more successful, married, etc.), then I will have made it. Then I will deserve my own acceptance, my own love, my own approval. That’s when I’ll finally feel good about myself.

Your judge is always comparing you to some standard of perfection, and letting you know that you’ve failed, and thus making you feel unworthy. This whole psychological mechanism operates like a perfect machine – the standard of perfection generates an automatic judgmental thought as soon as you fall short (and you almost always fall short). When you start to see your thoughts as separate from “you,” it will be almost funny. By bringing your standards of perfection into awareness, you will be able to release them, and actually feel better! You will start to give yourself love now, in the present, not at some future time.

What are your standards of perfection? How do you find them? 
They aren’t always self evident. Whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?” Ask yourself what or who is it that you should have been in that moment? What/who am I comparing myself to?
The answers you come up with are your standards. Write them down!! They sound something like:
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed”
  • “I should be the kind of person who never skips a day at the gym – I must be super disciplined.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t spill the coffee – clumsiness isn’t sexy or cool. I must be suave and cool all the time.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t trip in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”

The more you do this, the more you recognize how silly these standards are; and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is. Then you can let these standards go.


Third, begin looking at your patterns of behavior. Think about why you do the things you do, and what is the fear that’s really driving them. Try to articulate your own flaws and weaknesses (without judgement), instead of denying them. This is brutal honesty. This means you get really really still, and you examine yourself (with love). Then you work on accepting these aspects of yourself, unconditionally.

It will look something like this:

When I feel intimidated by someone, I have judged this person as better than me. In a flash, somewhere inside of me it was decided that this is someone I ought to fear, respect, admire, and seek approval from. I have judged myself as worse than this person, and I immediately put on my armor (shiny and seductive, but made entirely of metal). I am so nervous that this person will see my flaws, my weakness, or something wrong with me, that I become like stone on the outside, impenetrable. Ice queen. 

I try to appear as perfect as I can, in every way I can, in that moment. I try to stand taller. I consider everything I’m about to say two or three times, before saying it. Internally, my pulse beats a little quicker. I feel a little anxious and jittery. I am extremely self-conscious of how I look, how I stand, sit, walk, hold my wine glass, what I’m wearing. I don’t really pay attention to what the person is saying, because I’m either wondering if they’re judging me, or I’m planning my next witty response. 
I want this person to know how smart I am; that I’m good enough. That I’m not weak. That I’m worthy of their respect and admiration. I want to “win him over.” I’m also extremely sensitive to everything he says. If I perceive something slightly offensive (even if it’s meant as a joke), my armor grows thicker and my defenses go up. I become a little aggressive, prickly even. I up the ante with a snide remark, all the while not wanting him to see that I’m exposed. I defend my position, my integrity, my worth at all costs. Maybe I have a zinger ready, with which I can retaliate. Maybe I just roll my eyes to let him know that what he said doesn’t affect me. 
Alternatively, if his remark was intentionally offensive and combat ensues, I will get progressively more and more agitated and aggressive. The idea of concession, or even the slightest admission that he may be right, is impossible. In the heat of battle, I won’t budge a single inch. I will bend logic and reason in my favor in order to win. I will play semantics. I will use all sorts of manipulative tools to get my way. I will exhaust my opponent until he gives up in exasperation, usually because he sees that there’s no point in fighting me. I don’t care why he gives up, as long as I am the last one standing. 
Regardless of the nature of the encounter, at some point it’s over, and I leave the person’s presence, but mentally I replay the conversation a million times. Sometimes the mental replay lasts until the next day. Sometimes it can last for weeks. I smile and congratulate myself for the moments when I said or did something smart or funny. I endlessly berate myself for the one dumb thing I said…

That’s the kind of self-examination I’m talking about. That is the level of honest reflection you make. Admit these things to yourself. We are all just human. We are all just doing our best. We are all perfectly imperfect. Accept that sometimes, you play out your patterns (maybe more often than you think). You don’t need to pretend that you don’t. You can admit it without shame or fear of judgment. When you do, and you see that there’s nothing to judge (because we’re all just acting like scared little children), you will come to love yourself. You will literally fall in love with your own self, and your patterns will slowly start to disintegrate.

Remember the only judgments that hurt you are your own.

Here are some prompts to get your started:
1. When I feel intimidated by someone, I ___________________
2. When I am hurt by something a friend has done, I ___________________
3. When I am hurt by something my lover/partner/spouse has said, I _________________
4. When my mother/father/parental figure asks me to do something I don’t want to do, I _____________________
5. When my boss calls me into her office, I ______________________
6. When I see my ex-husband’s/ex-wife’s number on the caller ID, I ____________________
7. When someone cuts me off on the highway, I ____________________.