How do We Cultivate Self-Love?

Mar 17, 2020

I have had the opportunity to see the Dali Lama speak.  One of the things he talked about was the value of all faith traditions.  He wasn’t interested in converting the Wisconsin Episcopal to Tibetan Buddhism.  In his words, “there are many paths up the mountain.”  I find that the same is true with self-love.  While self-loathing is an easy state to find yourself in – particularly when overwhelmed with chronic pain, chronic illness, the ravages of mental illness or trauma.  And yet, bending towards self-love is the most worthwhile, most rewarding, most beneficial gift we can give ourselves.

It seems like self-love is all the rage.  People talk about cultivating self-love like cultivating tomatoes and while there may be similarities – they both take patience, care, feeding, and abundance of nutrients, in my mind that’s where the similarities end.  There are many reasons to examine why self-love and whether self-love is possible.  This article isn’t going to be exploring those questions.   If, for you, self-love isn’t a concept you can tolerate today swap out my words for what you can manage – self compassion, self-kindness, friendship with yourself, you choose what works and go with that.  What is important is that we take steps toward loving ourselves.  It can open up and transform our lives, our health conditions, and our well being in unexpected ways.  Let’s get started.

Food.  Ooof.  Did I really start here?  For many of us, this one is the hardest; food choices are the toughest of the tough.  And that’s part of the reason I started here.  If we can demonstrate self-worth through our food choices, imagine what else is possible!  Okay, here’s the thing, I don’t mean that you overhaul your diet.  I think this is where I’ve gone wrong in the past.  I’ve set such unrealistic expectations that I’ve tanked myself from the onset.  When I plan to start eating Autoimmune Paleo and on the fourth day I invariably slip up, I feel like the whole thing is a wash and eat three apple fritters – I am setting myself up for failure.  Are you clear which foods make you feel better?  Do you know what you wish/want/mean to be eating?  What if you just started making a change just once a week and celebrated yourself?  Perhaps that could be something you could build on, perhaps in a couple of weeks you could make a whole meal that way.  Celebrate.  The next week, repeat.  This kind of incremental change is easier to tolerate.  We are less likely to fail at it than whole hog, cold turkey, reformation.  When I celebrate my successes rather than setting myself up for failure, I have a greater likelihood of building myself up, of succeeding, and of contributing to my self-worth.

Gratitude.  John Kabat Zinn, founder of the renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program said, “as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong.”  So take time each day to acknowledge this reality.  You have heard me tout gratitude practices and it may be easier to access gratitude for things outside of myself: the beautiful weather, the comfort of my dogs.  It is powerful, in bodies that we often feel are failing us, to appreciate what is right with our body.  Thank you legs for carrying me to the mailbox.  I’m so grateful I can listen to this music that lifts my spirit.  How lucky I am to have functioning eyesight to appreciate this glorious sunset.  Bringing it back to my body and the things it still can and is doing is a potent way to get in touch with my abilities, and a thankful heart is a softened one, and one that is more open to self-worth and self-love.

Affirmations.  Did you stop reading?  Stay with me here; there is a lot of research to back me up on this.  Affirmations are a fake it till you make it activity.  These are short repeatable phrases that over time burrow into your psyche and become what you believe.  Start by finding the right ones.  You’ll know they are the right ones, because they are the antidotes to the ugly messages you’ve been told or have been telling yourself for years.  They feel like a healing balm (or are too outlandish to even believe).  Write them down and put them where you can see them (on the bathroom mirror, on the ceiling above your bed, inside your closet door, the visor of car, any place you look often.  Affirmations can be anything, but what is most important is that they scratch that itch.  It could be Brene Brown’s, “I’m imperfect and I’m enough,” or my standard, “I am not this illness, I am this wholeness.”  When you find it, say it over and over again, repeating it as you brush your teeth, drive home from dropping off the kids, as you wash the dishes.  Say it until it becomes second nature – until the parts of you that don’t really believe these messages start to soften and eventually loosens its grip on you.  One day these messages can become truth.  It can become YOUR truth and can evict self-loathing and grow into self-worth, and the building blocks of self-love.

Finally, if you are able and you haven’t already, find a good therapist.  I cannot, in a closing paragraph, come close to expressing the ways that years of talk therapy, EMDR and trauma release exercises have transformed my sense of self.  I have been able to change patterns that don’t serve me, manage the grief that threatens to overwhelm me, and live more peacefully with a life that looks so different than I expected.  Additionally, (and we’ve discussed this in other posts) evict the people from your life who do not support you.  Period.  There are many routes that can get you to the desired summit of self-love, I hope you’re on one.  I’d love to hear about the path you’re on.

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