Self-love 101: What It Really Means to ‘love Yourself’

If you’re looking for romantic love, you’ve probably heard the advice that the key to getting someone to love you is to love yourself first. Yet the phrase is thrown around so casually, it’s assumed we should all know what it means. However, the “how to” isn’t always obvious. At a basic level, it involves stellar self-care by eating well and wearing a bike helmet. Or you can take it literally and utter “I love you” in front of a mirror in the style of Saturday Night Live’s “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley.”

I’ve struggled to understand the concept myself beyond self-preservation or a goofy self-help exercise – even to the point of saying out loud when faced with life’s dilemmas: “Would a girl who loves herself eat the rest of those fries? Accept that crappy assignment? Pay $6 for coconut water?” Or sometimes I pretend I’m babysitting my sweet 8-year-old niece and imagine the advice I’d give her and then apply it myself. “No way should you let your friend think she can cancel plans without giving you more notice! A person who loves herself wouldn’t put up with that.” These little techniques might seem ridiculous, but they help me see my choices more objectively. Instead of asking whether something is simply good for me, I’m holding myself to a higher standard of whether it’s proof that “I love myself.”

But how do you do it in a way that makes you irresistible to someone else? The idea is that by treating yourself well, you’re communicating to others that you have rock-solid self-worth. You’re not demanding they treat you well. You’re inspiring them to treat you well. In fact, anything else would sound like a foreign language to you because that’s not how you operate on Planet Self-Esteem.

Here are some tips on how to cultivate your own inner radiance:

1) Look good

This advice is always controversial because there’s a valid argument that a person who is in love with his or her own existence shouldn’t need to conform to our society’s beauty standards. A role model of total self-acceptance shouldn’t be worrying about whether her lip gloss is feathering, right? On the other hand, people who think of themselves as prizes consider personal style and good grooming as “decorations” – much like wrapping a valuable present in a beautiful box. Never mind the obvious fact that physical attraction is an important part of the dating process. You also hold your head a little higher in the world when your roots aren’t showing and your nail polish isn’t chipped. So take an inventory of your appearance: Do you need a better hairstyle? Should you get your eyebrows shaped? Is your mascara old and clumpy? Do you need to trim your Movember ‘stache? Give yourself a few extra minutes in the morning to put yourself together. Admire yourself in the mirror.

2) Make your life easier

People who love themselves get enough sleep and exercise and take their fish oil supplements. They get their teeth cleaned and stay on top of their mammograms and prostate exams. They pay their bills and file their taxes on time. Want other ideas of how you can be nicer to yourself? Sometimes it helps to think how you would love another person. Maybe you’d program her coffee maker the night before to make her morning go easier or arrive at the airport 10 minutes early because it feels nice to relax in the car and browse the magazines before boarding your flight. My gift to myself is organizing my toiletry bag. I take a half hour and squirt all my cleaners and lotions into little travel bottles. You’re taking charge of your life. Not only do you feel better about it, you make it easier for another person to imagine being in it.

3) Talk nicely to yourself

People who love themselves don’t experience self-love in dramatic crescendos of “I am awesome!” Rather, it’s a quieter, more consistent sense of contentment marked by self-compassion. One of my most favorite Ted talks is by Brene Brown of the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, who studies ways to reduce the shame we experience in our lives. She admits that she’d never talk to her kids the way she sometimes talks to herself. You probably would never say, “You’re a loser” or “You’ll never find a boyfriend,” to someone you care about. Yet dating tends to bring out our worst insecurities, and we think awful things, such as “He looks so buff in his photos. He won’t be attracted to my big butt.” Or “I can’t believe I said that during our date. I’m sure she thinks I’m clueless.” So cut yourself some slack. You’re probably doing the best you can.

4) Allow yourself to be vulnerable

Another important concept Brown talks about is having the courage to let ourselves be seen in all our imperfect glory. You’re able to say, “I didn’t finish college. I didn’t lose those 20 pounds. I have awful taste in shoes. I’m terrified that I will never find the love I’ve craved my entire life. But I’m still lovable. I fundamentally like myself.” Not only are you giving others permission to accept their own flaws, you’re telling them you’re worth loving because of your flaws. In any case, it doesn’t matter whether they agree. You’ll still be loving yourself tomorrow.

Richards-book coverAbout the Author:

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.

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