Learning to Love Yourself
Most of you have probably heard Whitney Houston sing the words “learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all,” and so it is. I believe it is what all of us need, yet it’s what so few of us truly have. How is it that we don’t love ourselves–and how do we learn to love ourselves?
We begin by experiencing ourselves through our biological mother. We receive messages from her while we are present in the womb. What are these messages? Are we wanted? Are we told we are loved? How are we treated? When mother feels angry, sad, or terrified, what happens to us and what are the effects? From all our experiences in the womb, what decisions do we make about ourselves and about the world? Do we decide that we are wanted and lovable, or unwanted and unlovable? That decision will affect the rest of our lives. We make these decisions as infants and then forget, and yet we live our lives out of those initial decisions.
If mother takes good care of herself during the pregnancy and she talks to us and tells us we are important and loved, then we will know that we are wanted. Once born, if we are raised in a loving, protective environment and are told and shown by our parents that our feelings and needs are important and respected, then we feel supported for being who we are. When we are delighted in and loved warmly, when we’re encouraged to explore, be inquisitive, and to experiment–and our parents are not threatened by our individuality–then we know we are OK exactly as we are. As we grow and more fully express our feelings, and are given the words and tools to do that and encouraged to use our talents and skills in our own ways and think for ourselves, then we again get the message that we are not only loved but that we can love ourselves.
Unfortunately, many of us did not consistently have the kinds of positive and supportive experiences I’ve just detailed. As we grew and developed, we entered our teen years and adulthood believing we felt misunderstood, unwanted, and unloved, and believed our feelings and needs were not important or valued. As a result, our self-esteem and sense of OK-ness about who we are is very low. Many have experienced abandonment, rejection, abuse, chaos, and were raised by parents who were themselves unhealthy, immature, abused and unable to demonstrate love, acceptance and respect to us. Instead of seeing joy, delight, and love reflected in the eyes of our parents we saw anger, fear, sadness, depression, apathy, contempt, disinterest, disgust, rage, etc.
Our parents are our early mirrors and provide us with information about who we are and what we are like. If they themselves are still hurt children with little or no positive sense of themselves, then what they reflect back to us can be very distorted. We carry all these distortions with us as we grow and continue to add to those messages when our parents yell at us using hurtful words like “You clumsy oaf!” “You are so stupid!” “Can’t you do anything right?” “Why aren’t you like your sister?”
Our parents may also have given us invalidating messages like: “You’re not hungry, you’re just tired and need a nap,” or “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” Such messages take us away from our own inner experience and our inner wisdom, and we learn that there is something wrong with us, that we’re not OK. Then we start to look outside ourselves for what is right or OK and adapt to that. We begin to work at pleasing others in order to feel loved and accepted. The more we do that, the more we give up ourselves and the further we get from loving ourselves for who we really are.
Here is a list of what can interfere with us loving ourselves:
- Parental messages
- Parental reflections
- Parental abuse
- Disowning our own experience
- Pleasing others/seeking external approval
- Belief that loving ourselves is not OK
- Shame and guilt
Loving yourself is the greatest love of all and we all need to love ourselves to have a full healthy balanced life. But when early experiences have shaped your core beliefs about yourself otherwise, can you learn to love yourself? Yes–although it’s easy to tell someone how and not as easy to do.
Love is a decision. Make the decision to love yourself in every moment–unconditionally–no matter what. Act and speak only in loving ways to yourself. If you have a child or a very dear friend then use your relationship to them as an example and never say or do anything to yourself that you wouldn’t also say or do to them! Love yourself for being who you are, doing what you do, saying what you say, thinking what you think, and feeling what you feel. When you do that, you make space for yourself to be, do, think, feel, express, and accept yourself as you are.
What you are unwilling to love in yourself becomes like a hard spot and is walled off, difficult to touch or reach–and when you love those harder to accept aspects of yourself, it becomes soft and easier to reach. When you find a therapist who is well suited to you and your particular needs, you will begin to soften the hard spots in you, to heal the wounds and traumas that have hurt you, and you will be able to take in the love you have always deserved.
Some people have been so hurt that they need an experience of someone else being able to love them unconditionally before they can love themselves. Therapy is based on a relationship of trust—mutual trust–and can help support and guide your efforts to examining and then letting go of self deprecating beliefs. And in that regard, therapy can be thought of as the means to giving yourself the greatest gift of all: Learning to love yourself!