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Karen Stewart, MA, and David Stewart, PhD, are psychologists who work with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations in their Durham practice.

Love Yourself

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

I often think that my most important job as a therapist is to teach people to love themselves “truly, madly, deeply,” as the song by Savage Garden goes. I find that most of us have a much easier time loving our partners, children, parents, or friends than we do ourselves. Many people spend their lives wishing for others to love and care for them. While there is nothing wrong with wanting others to care for us, there is no substitute for loving and taking care of ourselves. Only we know what we really want and need at the deepest, most meaningful level.

Real self-love means that we accept who we are and bring tenderness and compassion to ourselves. We can acknowledge and feel grateful for our strengths and gifts, without feeling superior or comparing ourselves with others. We can bring compassion and understanding when we recognize our shortcomings, mistakes, and failures, rather than beating ourselves up or feeling ashamed. We can see ourselves clearly without judging. Real self-love leads to real self-care. Deep self-love is not excessively indulgent, it is not narcissistic, and it is not selfish. The same acceptance, generosity and compassion we give to ourselves can then be shown to others. When we know our best self, our wise self, our ability to do the right thing improves.

Real self-love is not overly indulgent. We can justify a piece of cake or a purchase of something we don’t need as a “treat” for ourselves. But if we do these things too frequently and we are overweight or cannot afford the purchases the brief pleasure may have negative consequences. Rather than taking real care of ourselves by choosing to eat healthily and live within our budget, we may jeopardize our physical or financial health. From a place of real self-love, when we need to comfort ourselves, we visit a friend, take a walk, listen to our favorite music, sing, dance, go for a run, go fishing, meditate, practice yoga, exercise, read. Accomplishing chores, getting organized, washing our car, doing yardwork are all things that bring good feelings and positive benefits. The list of good things we can do is inexhaustible.

Real love is not narcissistic. Narcissism is a pale substitute for real self-love; it is an ego pretending. We can easily tell the difference between someone who is boastful and needs constant adoration and the person who is quietly self-confident, going about doing the right thing. When we really love ourselves, our own self-appraisal is the most important. Praise and recognition are nice but they are not necessary for our self-esteem. When we love ourselves, we are self-confident.

Real self-love is not selfish; we do not act at the expense of others. The same compassion and care we give to ourselves, we also give to others. We don’t wear ourselves out by giving from an empty place. We take time to replenish ourselves.

Getting Started

How do you get started? Make a list of all the things for which you are grateful, starting with the most important—health. No matter how sick you are it could always be worse, think of all the things that are working. If you are healthy this starts with your bones, muscles, heart, lungs and other organs, skin, senses. Continue this list with food, shelter, health care, education, friends, family, other communities. What paid or unpaid work brings you a sense of meaning, joy, and accomplishment? What about the natural world, what elements do you especially love? Stars? Water? Ocean? When you note a lack, imagine ways to fill the gap.

Finally, think of what you like about yourself, times when you felt very good about yourself and times when you have felt loved. Really allow those positive feelings to well up. Hold onto them, note what they feel like in your body. Write them down. Do that as often as you can every day. When negative thoughts, feelings, images come to mind, don’t run from them or magnify them. Merely hold them, as you would a small child on your lap and send loving healing energy to yourself. Imagine what you have learned and what you might do differently next time. Send tenderness and compassion to yourself and the courage to go on. When you are stressed and whenever you think of it, remember these lists, take a few breaths and send some love your way.