How to Love Yourself For Real, According to Therapists
March 4, 2022
How-to-love-yourself advice is ubiquitous these days. Step into your favorite local gift shop and you’ll likely find self-love manifesting candles topped with rose quartz, positive-affirmation card decks, and pillows embossed with Brene Brown self-compassion quotes. Scroll through Instagram or TikTok and you’ll probably encounter influencer types spouting self-love advice that often ignores the many complex reasons why someone might struggle with self-worth—a barrage of “you just have to love yourself” toxic positivity that was brilliantly (and hilariously) portrayed in the second episode of Euphoria season 2.
Self-love sells. Are we really buying it, though? Kat from Euphoria certainly isn’t, but while it may seem cheesy or oversimplified, most mental health professionals will tell you, in one way or another, that being kinder to and more accepting of yourself is important for both mental well-being and healthy relationships. However, a variety of factors (trauma, years of self-criticism, and systemic discrimination to name a few) can make this simple-sounding practice way more complicated—and much easier said than done.
Chances are, if you’ve clicked on this article, you could use some support in the self-compassion area. That’s why we consulted a few therapists who specialize in the topic. Read on for their practical tips on how to (actually) love yourself—no inspirational quotes required (but no shame if those help you, either).
1. Think of self-love as a practice, not a destination—and define it for yourself.
There is no finish line you cross when you officially love yourself. Self-love is neither constant nor permanent. It’s also not the same thing as being “in love” with yourself, so if the word “love” doesn’t feel right to you, consider working toward acceptance or neutrality. “We often define love in this fairytale sense where everything needs to be perfect and then apply that same pressure to self-love, which isn’t realistic,” Whitney Goodman, LMFT, author of Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, tells SELF. We don’t have to love everything about ourselves, and certain days will be easier than others. Just like with other long-term relationships, sometimes loving ourselves is “just commitment, perseverance, acceptance, or general neutrality,” licensed clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD, assistant professor at Northwestern University and author of Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want, tells SELF. And don’t expect to cultivate new thought patterns overnight: Like any habit, accepting and being kinder to yourself takes practice.
2. Know that you don’t have to love your reality in order to love (or accept, or forgive) yourself.
Imagine your closest friends and family members who show up with love for you when you’re at your worst, least successful, insert-negative-adjective self. Now ask yourself if you’d treat yourself the same way. We love our friends and family despite their faults, but it’s so hard for many of us to love our faulty selves. “When we realize that perfection is not the prerequisite to being loved by other people or loving yourself, we can begin to practice self-acceptance and, maybe eventually, self-love,” Adia Gooden, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist whose TED Talk on “unconditional self-worth” has been viewed nearly 1 million times, tells SELF.
But anyone who’s been weighed down by woulds, shoulds, and coulds knows that accepting your mistakes and imperfections can feel near impossible. “When I work with clients, I see the majority of their suffering coming from a longing for things to be different from how they are,” Goodman says. She uses a dialectical behavior therapy practice called “radical acceptance” to help people accept the reality of their lives while also having hope for the future.
This practice is rooted in the theory that to accept our imperfect selves, we must first acknowledge our reality. “What we resist persists,” Dr. Gooden says. In other words, if you deny what’s happening, you’re more likely to get stuck in negative self-talk (“It shouldn’t be this way” or “I shouldn’t have done that”). Conversely, if you practice acknowledging your reality in non-judgmental terms (“This is my situation” or “This is what happened”) you’ll be better able to accept and move past the things you can’t control. The word “accept” is key here—you don’t have to like what’s happening, Dr. Gooden emphasizes. For example, it’s okay and natural to feel disappointed that you didn’t get called back for a second interview, but accepting the facts of the situation (“They didn’t call me back and I’m disappointed”) can prevent you from feeling like you are a disappointment. The idea is to avoid getting stuck in a self-blame spiral by first validating your thoughts and feelings, and then practicing self-acceptance instead of repeatedly berating yourself for what you should’ve done differently (yes, even if you mispronounced the company’s name).
Self-forgiveness is another practice that can foster self-love and acceptance, Dr. Gooden says. Again, forgiving yourself is often much easier in theory than it is in practice, but one way she recommends letting yourself off the hook is to identify the wisdom you gained from a discouraging situation. If, for example, a relationship doesn’t work out, try not to be hard on yourself for the five months you invested in the other person or a way you acted that you’re not proud of. Instead, ask yourself what you learned during those months that might benefit you in the future. Self-love doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes; it supports us in taking responsibility when we do something we’re not happy about so we can more easily move forward, Dr. Gooden says.
Also important to note: The process of learning to accept and/or forgive yourself may bring up deep sadness. “When you think about how much time you’ve spent beating yourself up, comparing yourself to others, or being convinced that you were bad or broken, there can be quite a bit of grief,” Dr. Solomon says. It’s normal and even healthy to grant yourself time to feel that loss, she says, so long as you eventually work on accepting whatever happened in the past so you can move forward—and embrace your future as an opportunity to live differently.
3. Challenge your negative mental narrative by sticking to the facts.
Buddhists explain suffering as two arrows. The first arrow is the unfortunate event that happened to us—a painful arrow outside of our control. The second arrow is the story we tell ourselves about that event—this suffering is self-inflicted. Self-love, Dr. Solomon says, means not shooting ourselves with that second arrow. The first arrow, for example, could be the fact that a loved one dies of COVID-19. The second arrow could be you telling yourself that they wouldn’t have died if you’d convinced them to go to the doctor sooner. Or it might be you telling yourself that you should have spent the holidays with them, despite the fact that they weren’t vaccinated. In other words, a situation can be emotionally painful, of course, but the story we tell ourselves about it is often the main source of our suffering. The good news is, we can work on not adding to our pain with this negative narrative, Dr. Solomon says.
If, however, regrets or other negative thoughts start seeping in about a painful event, Goodman suggests we look at the facts. “Is there any evidence against these thoughts? Is there anything you can identify that makes things seem less bleak? You’re not denying reality, but instead pointing out all the things that exist at once,” Goodman says. So you got laid off from your job—does that mean you’re bad at what you do? Is there evidence that proves it had nothing to do with your performance? Or perhaps your performance at work has suffered due to challenges outside of your control. Or maybe you really weren’t great at your job because it was a bad match for your skills and strengths—but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. By identifying all the facts, you’re better able to recognize what you are and aren’t in control of—and to avoid letting a challenging event define your self-worth.
Another way to challenge our inner negative narrative is to ask ourselves where those thoughts are coming from, Dr. Gooden says. For example, maybe social media posts that trigger comparison can fuel negative self-talk. Consider those filtered Instagram pics from someone you haven’t seen since high school that make you feel your life pales in comparison to theirs or that you’re somehow less worthy. Dr. Gooden suggests asking yourself, “Where is that story coming from?” and “Is it actually true?” Those questions may help you realize that negative thoughts about yourself often aren’t facts, but results of cultural or childhood conditioning.
Sometimes we internalize the voice of a hyper-critical parent, for example, Dr. Solomon says: The mother with low self-esteem who berated herself when she made mistakes. Or the father who was quick to point out his perceived physical flaws. Breaking intergenerational patterns is hard to do but it can also be an empowering step in cultivating self-love. “It’s exciting to realize that negative patterns, like being severely critical of your body or abilities, can stop with you,” Dr. Solomon says.
Self-love isn’t about blaming our parents or caregivers. It’s possible that they did the best they could at the time they were raising you and you didn’t get what you needed when you were little. “We are not responsible for the ways in which we were hurt, misunderstood, or neglected by caregivers when we were children,” Dr. Solomon says. “But it is our responsibility, as adults, to address and adjust the coping strategies we developed to deal with that pain.” Again, learning to accept what happened in the past so you can move through it—maybe with a therapist, if you’re struggling on your own—can help you grow closer to self-love, she says.
4. Acknowledge that oppression and trauma can make self-love even more challenging.
If you belong to a marginalized or historically oppressed group, you may internalize societal messages telling you you’re not valuable. And even if you don’t believe those messages about your particular group are true about you, says Dr. Gooden, there can be pressure to overperform in an attempt to disprove them. “Some people start to neglect their physical, emotional, and mental needs in the process of trying to prove, on an outward level, that they’re worthy and that they deserve respect,” she says.
It can also be harder for survivors of trauma, who often struggle with shame and self-blame, to believe they are worthy of love. With interpersonal trauma, like sexual assault or something else that violates boundaries, the implicit message is that you’re not worthy of respect. “It’s very common for survivors of trauma to internalize that message and think, There must be something wrong with me that this person did this to me,” Dr. Gooden says.
Working through oppression and trauma can be incredibly challenging on your own, which is why both Dr. Gooden and Dr. Solomon recommend unpacking these issues with a therapist, if you’re able—here’s some advice for finding a culturally competent therapist, as well as some tips for finding an affordable one. But trying to be kinder to our bodies can be one small step toward healing. “When we honor our bodies, we can shift our relationship with them away from judgment and acknowledge that they—and we—are worthy of love and care,” Dr. Gooden says. What does honoring your body look like? She recommends soothing self-care classics like taking a warm bath with essential oils or scented candles, or queueing up some of your favorite songs and dancing it out in your living room. But your body-centered kindness doesn’t have to look like that. Going for a walk, feeding yourself a delicious meal, or wearing comfortable pants, for example, might be more appealing to you.
5. Practice setting boundaries—in real life and online—to build self-worth.
Setting safe boundaries in relationships is an important step in cultivating self-love. Avoid giving your time and energy to people—parents, friends, or partners—who trigger feelings of unworthiness, Dr. Solomon advises. “Part of practicing self-love is not seeking water from an empty well,” she says. “I recommend making relational and sexual choices that center around pleasure, comfort, safety, and communication.” You might have to end a relationship with someone who makes you feel bad about yourself (a red flag in romantic relationships), for example. And if you can’t necessarily stop all communication right away or at all (in the case of a demanding boss, say, or a critical parent), try practicing radical acceptance (as outlined above) and setting even small boundaries, Dr. Solomon says—like ending a phone conversation with a loved one who’s bringing you down, or not checking your work email after a certain time in the evening.
6. Remind yourself that loving—or at least accepting—yourself is a worthwhile pursuit.
As we mentioned earlier, social media influencers may make self-love seem superficial or even toxic (as in, using “self-love” as a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions or attributing success to self-love instead of privilege). But self-love has the potential to profoundly impact your life if you define it as an acceptance of who you are and a commitment to personal growth. “Self-love isn’t navel-gazing and never contributing to the world. It’s actually the best foundation to have a loving, healthy partnership with someone else. It’s the best foundation to be a parent. It’s the best foundation to share your gifts as you work in the world,” Dr. Gooden says.
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