I love Dr Brené Brown for an endearing irony. Famous for her research on self-lovingness, she was analysing data about wholehearted people when she had the unwelcome realisation that she wasn’t one of them. It floored her so much, she hid her own findings away in a plastic box in her room for two years. Talk about a monster under the bed! But not just her bed. At its core, making your great love story happen requires two things: You’ve got to find the right person. And you have to be the right person. And getting that requires one thing more: self-love.
According to Dr Brown, people who live wholeheartedly love themselves, which means treating themselves with kindness, respect, affection, and trust. A key component of that self-lovingness is accepting themselves as they are, and believing they are worthy of love just because. There isn’t a reason these folks have for deserving love from others and from themselves; there doesn’t need to be. That’s the point, actually. When we really love ourselves, we don’t set preconditions, and we don’t wait. We don’t love ourselves if. We love ourselves anyway. Warts and all, we are worthy. This statement includes you!
I love you more than I even love myself
Loving ourselves is important, because Dr Brown’s research led her to conclude that we cannot love our partner, or our kids, or our friends more than we love ourselves. No wonder so many people are hurting those they love. When we don’t love ourselves, we act in ways that may seem to be hurting just us—but there’s no such thing as a victimless crime once we’re in relationships. When we don’t love ourselves enough to work on our problems or celebrate our strengths, those around us suffer too. And if you feel so bad about yourself that you can’t enjoy your own goodness, your partner can’t enjoy you nearly as much either.
Also, research indicates that you can’t take in another person’s love very well when you believe you don’t deserve it.
When Matthew was little, his dad beat his mom in front of him. And Karen’s mother committed suicide, leaving her at the mercy of a truly wicked stepmother. We now know that childhood trauma like that changes the brain’s structure. It changes emotions and behavior. Matt and Karen are both good people who don’t feel very good about themselves. They do good things in the world, but when others try to love them, they feel undeserving. It’s hard for them to believe they’re worthwhile. So when others treat them as worthy, they usually push them away and retreat to the safety of many friends—but no one person to depend on too much.
How to recognise whether you love yourself or not
Through interviews and subsequent analyses, Dr Brown found that another hallmark of being self-loving is acceptance of others—combined with boundaries. The self-loving understand that most of us, most of the time, are doing the very best we can. This understanding lets them feel compassion for others, rather than anger and hate.
But that doesn’t mean everyone’s behavior is up to their standards for choosing them as a partner. If you want to find and keep love, you have to be choosy, and the other person’s character has to count. Self-loving people don’t hate those who fail to meet basic standards of decency—but they also don’t allow others to treat them any old way. They aren’t doormats. They build fences, and nobody gets through the gate without behaviours amounting to the password. The self-loving are kind but firm, holding would-be partners accountable for their actions. Their motto could be “boundaries without blame." For example, a natural consequence of someone who stands you up could be that you don’t go out with them again. There’s no need to call them names, or hate them—in fact, those actions are against your chances to find and keep love.
The self-loving understand that most of us, most of the time, are doing the very best we can
What if you don’t love yourself very much right now?
Our lives are a house under constant construction. Building self-lovingness is a lifetime project. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait to find love until you are perfect at this, and your partner doesn’t have to be the paragon of self-love either.
Nobody loves themselves completely, so the first thing is to acknowledge that. You’re on the path, and this path has no end. It’s not a competition; embrace yourself right here where you are, right now in this and every moment.
In her research, Dr. Brown found that it helped people to love themselves more if they could tell their stories of shame to at least one other trustworthy person. Of course, for a lot of folks, the person they can trust is their lifemate—someone you’re trying to find. Maybe you have a close friend, though, or a therapist, who can listen to your story in a supportive, non-judgmental way. If so, that is a major step towards healing your heart.
I don’t know a trustworthy person to pour my heart out to
If you don’t have a friend or therapist standing in this gap for you, follow these science-backed steps towards change: notice, redirect, and repeat.
When you catch yourself thinking something shameful or unloving about yourself, notice. Don’t trash-talk yourself—just notice that you are feeling, thinking, or doing something that isn’t self-loving. Gently noticing is the gateway to change. Sometimes, you might feel bad about yourself even though you’ve followed your moral code. People raised to feel chronic shame might relate to a nagging feeling that there’s just something "off" about them. For instance, say you're feeling like you're a bad person, even though you merely decided to stop dating someone who yelled at you. What you did was right for you; but you feel wrong. Other times, you really will do something inappropriate. Everyone makes mistakes. Maybe you said you'd call someone—and then you never did. That’s hurtful, and human.
The difference between shame and guilt is that shame feels like something is wrong with us; guilt feels like something is wrong with what we did. Research shows that guilt can be good. It motivates us to apologise, or change our behaviour. Shame, though, freezes us; if we think we are bad, how can we change? Shame is the opposite of self-loving. It keeps us stuck.
So a mindset to move towards is acknowledging when we feel bad even though we’ve done nothing wrong: “I’ve got that sick feeling in my stomach, although I haven’t done a thing to deserve it.” Or, acknowledge our feelings around our failures: “I’m feeling like crap, because I told Becky I would call her and then I chickened out.” Notice whether it's a guilt feeling or a shame feeling—a feeling that what you did was wrong, or that you are wrong. Just notice.
Then, redirect your thoughts to something that's aligned with reality."I'm sticking by my boundaries. There is every reason to stop seeing people who yell at me, and it's my right to date people who make me feel like my best self. I'm feeling shame, but that’s because I was taught to feel wrong for having boundaries. I'm doing the loving thing for me now." Or, "What I did was rude; it might be too late to apologise to Becky, but at least I can resolve to send a note to her, and call other people when I make promises in the future."
Repeat the notice-redirect chain every time you catch yourself. Over time, you'll love yourself more!
Ultimately, we are the landlords of our lives. When we love ourselves, we have standards, and we don't key in squatters who can't or won't meet them. It's not mean. It's what works. And what works starts with taking that first step towards loving ourselves.
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