It took me a while to realise that I did not know how to love myself – or that it was something I even needed.
Now, after a year of experiments in self-love, it seems crazy to imagine how I was going through life without it.
But we survive with the tools that we have access to and it makes sense that I found self-love when I reached the limit of what self-criticism could do for me.
I’d like to share the process I went through which included working through my initial scepticism, figuring out what self-love is, lots of experimenting and some key lessons I picked up along the way.
At the bottom, you’ll also find links to resources and tools that were the most useful in exploring this topic.
It would be great if this story encourages you to design your own experiment and find out what self-love means for you.
Looking back, I could not predict how much confidence, resilience and calm this work will result in. But let’s go back to the beginning.
I have to admit that I was pretty sceptical about self-love at first.
As a young, working woman I’ve been regularly targeted with Instagram ads about self-care, bundled with promo codes for salt baths and face masks.
As someone exploring new, mind-body therapy approaches I often attend experimental workshops where it’s possible to stumble upon guru-like folks who try to convince me that ‘love is the answer to all’.
Even if that is true, neither of these was exactly the kind of reasoning that would convince me to launch into new psychological experiments.
A shift came from Twitter, when I saw Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata), an AI researcher, excitedly tweeting about how self-love was changing his life.
Here was someone I could actually relate to which made me feel like I should at least consider it. Either he went crazy or there was something to it I have missed.
While scrolling through Nick’s tweets, I remembered an experience I once had dancing while on a psychedelic at an underground rave. It was as if I saw myself from the outside, pat myself on the back and gave myself acknowledgement for the efforts I was putting into helping others.
That experience left me as moved as puzzled. I never knew I could feel so much kindness and acceptance towards myself.
What if that was my first experience of self-love? I wondered why it never occurred to me to try and induce that feeling more intentionally.
My scepticism started to subside and a sense of curiosity was emerging. I decided to set up some experiments and test if Nick was onto something.
What is self-love?
One of the first questions I had to answer was what it actually meant to love myself.
It was actually easier to think about being kinder to myself at first. I thought that maybe I could be more ok with skipping the gym on busy days instead of pushing myself to stick to a routine. Or try to resist judging myself so much when I make a mistake.
But thinking about that brought about some uncomfortable questions. What if doing that will make me go easy on myself, give up on my goals? Or become lazy?
If it was hard to love myself now, it would be even harder if I suddenly became a procrastinator. I felt stuck and I only just started.
As I was sharing my struggles with a friend, she recommended I check out Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher who designed studies to address those very worries. (Note: Self-compassion is not exactly the same as self-love, but I won’t draw a strong distinction between them here.)
I recommend listening to her entire TED talk but she uncovered that practising self-compassion made participants more productive, rather than less.
This was not exactly what I expected, but as I thought about it, things started making more sense. It’s sensible to assume that when we feel supported and accepted, we can achieve more than when we feel judged and not good enough.
If there was a possibility I could learn how to provide that to myself, it was worth a try.
Experiments in self-love
A more practical question still remained – How do I actually love myself?
A hint came from one of the first books on self-love that I found, Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On it.
It suggested a simple exercise: Tell yourself I love you ten times, while looking yourself in the eyes in the mirror.
I laughed as I imagined doing it but I could not hide the rush of excitement that came with the idea trying something new. I was ready for things to get awkward.
I spent the next few weeks engaging in new and surprising acts of love towards myself. Not only did I express it in the mirror but also tried hugging myself to sleep for the first time and connecting to my heart by putting my hand on my chest while listening to loving-kindness meditations.
Perhaps the most surprising of all was a simple question which also got from the book:
What would I do if I loved myself?
I was surprised at the clarity of answers I was getting. They all seemed to centre around simple things like noticing my efforts (Stop trying so hard and let the other person show you they care.), acknowledging my needs (Go and ask for a raise because you are worth it.) or just giving myself the permission to relax more (You don’t need to go out tonight – it’s ok to stay at home and do nothing.).
So something in me knew how to love myself.
It felt like I was tapping into some wisdom that was tucked away just below the surface, waiting for the right question to be asked.
I was also feeling a lot more emotions than before. It seems like providing myself more love meant that some of my old and forgotten emotions and memories started to come back.
I had to learn how to work with them – and do so quickly.
Feeling my feelings
Initially, the idea of expressing my repressed anger, sadness and fear was both fascinating and scary. I attended an emotional release workshop where I was encouraged to let go and allow and I learned about the possibility of making space for feelings and moving through them.
It was all new vocabulary for me and I was a bit afraid that I’ll become a woo-woo master if I start using them.
But the trick was actually in going out of my verbal mind and into the sensations in my body. For the first time in my life I was turning towards my emotions, trying to name them and locate them in my body.
It was really hard at first.
I was afraid that if I tried to turn up the volume of whatever I was feeling, it would just grow like a balloon and suck me into a black hole which I won’t know how to get out of.
One of the first times I released an emotion, I was lucky to have a friend sit with me and hold that accepting space that I did not know how to hold for myself yet.
That day, with his encouragement, I leaned back in my chair, opened my chest and decided to let the sadness I was feeling spread through my body.
It felt amazing. It was as if when I made a conscious decision to lean into it, my body knew how to do the rest.
A wave of warm intensity expanded radially from my chest, like a ripple that forms when a drop falls into a pool of still water. I instantly felt lighter and freer. Woah. I felt alive.
Later, I found a metaphor from Emily Nagowski that helped me better understand what happened:
Emotions are like tunnels – we move through them to get to the light at the end. But sometimes we get stuck.
I was learning how to get unstuck and walk out of the tunnel. Freeing up some vitality that was stuck because I was holding onto some old patterns.
I started to refine my understanding of what self-love is and how to practise it. It felt like I was treating myself like I would a friend or a loved one.
Why did I stop loving myself?
It was when self-love started to feel more accessible that I became interested in a bigger question.
I had to find out why I stopped loving myself in the first place.
I started with revisiting my childhood and some flashbacks I had of times when I have been reprimanded by adults for being too excited or emotional.
I tried to put myself in the shoes of my younger self and imagine how that would have felt. I must have concluded that hiding my emotions was an effective strategy to regain acceptance from caregivers.
As I worked through this level, more examples started coming up – this time the choices I made even though no one told me to.
I thought of a time when I lied to my friend about how she looked in new clothes because I was afraid my honest opinion would jeopardise our friendship. Or that time when I had a fight with my boyfriend and too readily accepted it was all my fault and that I had to change to restore connection between us.
It was painful to look at all those ways in which I did not know how to show up for myself. I was trying to self-love but self-judgement was clouding my vision.
I had to try something new. I remembered about the ideal figure exercise that I first tried in a workshop on self-love I attended earlier.
It’s actually a very cool psychological trick.
For once, I was imagining being a different person – in this case, an ideal older sister – which immediately helped me gain more distance from the negative judgements I was wrapped up in.
That gave me the space to imagine how an ideal sister would have supported me in all those past situations, and how she would have helped me notice my needs and support me in not compromising them for the sake of connection.
It was like building my own emotional support database of statements and actions that would feel good to receive in distress.
Then came the best part – I imagined actually giving that support to my younger self and really tried to feel into how that would have felt. This made it very clear that with appropriate support, things could have gone very differently.
I slowly felt my self-judgment dissolve, replaced by compassion, care and sometimes grief at my own, forgotten suffering.
Even though I was just imagining it, the exercise left me feeling more peaceful and something resolved.
How much better could I feel if I did this more often?
Loving all of me
By now it became clear to me that loving myself was a bit more complicated than just learning a skill and getting better at it. There were some parts of me that were harder to love than others.
This is where experimenting with Internal Family Systems (also called parts work) took things to a new level.
The central idea of IFS is that our mind is made up of multiple parts, which form at different stages of our life, often in response to situations when our wellbeing and safety is threatened.
They are like strategies that help us survive in the short-run, but often don’t work well in the long-run.
I got really excited about it when the founder of IFS, Richard Schwartz, came on the Tim Ferris Show and guided him through a live session.
I found myself crying when within just 20 minutes Tim was able to reconnect with the fear and anxiety that he was holding since he was a small boy and found a way to release it.
I decided to get a self-guided IFS audiobook which turned out to be the best $30 I ever spent on my mental health.
I decided to work on a part of me that was standing in the way of more self-acceptance – The Perfectionist. He never thought that anything I did was good enough and often pushed me to strain myself to get external approval.
One evening, sitting cross-legged on the floor, guided by the IFS script on my headphones, I made a connection with this part and started imagining sitting with him at the table. I wanted to ask him why he was there and what role he was playing for me.
You can imagine my surprise when The Perfectionist responded and told me that he was using criticism as a way to help me reach my goals and produce high-quality work.
Huh. I did not expect that we had shared goals for Me. My initial antagonism turned into a sense of appreciation and curiosity.
I actually wanted to thank him and it felt good to acknowledge all the hard work he has done for me so far.
More importantly, now I was able to tell him that his methods were not as effective as before and that I wanted him to let me experiment with self-love more. He was actually pretty interested in this and agreed to tone down a bit next time when I’m working on something.
I thought that this must be the experience of becoming more integrated or whole that the wellness world was talking about. Reaching internal deals instead of launching fights.
As I stood at a safe distance from this part, an important realisation dawned on me. For the most part of my life I was operating under an assumption that unless I improved myself and achieved my goals, I could not be accepted or loved.
But there was a big flaw in this model. It assumed that love could only come from the outside, so it had to be hard-won.
This is not what I was experiencing in my self-love experiments. Love could come from the inside too and just like for participants in Kristin Neff’s study, it was helping me feel more confident about achieving my goals.
I thought back to Nick’s tweet and realised that the scepticism was fully gone. Self-love was definitely a thing and I now wanted to have more of it.
I completed my definition of self-love: The ability to support myself – all parts of me – with care and acceptance that someone who loves me would.
One of the key things I learned during this experiment was that self-love is an evolving practice. It’s also normal to continue to fall in and out of love with yourself, sometimes even several times during one day.
Unlike I initially feared, loving myself did not make me lazy or unproductive.
If anything, I now challenge myself more, because doing it from the place of love generates more energy than the short-lived motivation created by self-criticism.
I also feel better able to tell when what I need is to not push myself but recover instead. This creates an energy surplus that I can then apply to doing things that are meaningful to me.
Self-love also didn’t make me feel like I don’t need other people in my life. However, I do feel less dependent on them for feeling good about myself.
This feels like an important new source of strength because whatever happens in my life, I can be there for myself.
Finally, over time I developed some simple heuristics that help me more reliably check if I am loving myself or spinning into criticism.
And still, over the past year, I had months of feeling loving towards myself followed by weeks when I didn’t even realise I was not loving myself.
Even writing this post required a lot of love for myself because no matter if I loved myself yesterday, I still hear the voice in my head that wonders if anyone will find it interesting.
But when it happens I like to close my eyes, put a hand on my heart and ask myself:
What would I do if I loved myself?
I don’t fully understand how it works, but it seems to work each time.
If this story made you interested in some self-love experimentation, I’ve put together a page with some of my favourite resources and tools – books, meditations, bodywork and podcasts.
You can find them here.
Thanks so much to John, Julia, Natalia, Kosta, Charlotte, Adrian for providing feedback on the draft of this piece.