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  • BY MELISSA FAIRCHILD, LCSW

What the Heck is Self-Love Really?

“I won’t be back.  Please don’t look for me.”  I signed the note and abandoned this life forevermore.


Rushing to pack and leave the day after my birthday, I left this note for my mother on the dining room table.  I had recently learned that at seventeen I could leave home legally as long as another adult would accept responsibility for me.  After debating for weeks how this would affect my siblings, I accepted my aunt’s offer to live with her.


I knew I could not stay any longer.  Looking back, this statement was not just a cliché of a rebelling teenage girl.  It was a basic fact of life or death.


By the age of thirteen, I ran the household, which included cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry and caring for my four younger siblings (ages 1, 6, 8 and 10).  The youngest spent so much time with me that she called me mama when she began to talk.  By the age of sixteen, I averaged 4 hours of sleep a night.  Between housework, homework, childcare, and my mother’s insomnia, I was running on fumes.


Like many, I was taught to take care of everyone else.  To have needs or wants of my own was selfish and asking for too much.  Instead, I learned to read and anticipate the needs of others very efficiently.  It was a matter of survival.


As if all of that wasn’t enough to drive any sane adult to the edge, I was born with a moderately severe hearing impairment.  This meant easily missing thirty percent of what is said in normal conversation.  I got my first set of hearing aids when I turned eighteen.


Yet in spite of everything, leaving was still the hardest decision I ever made.


Little did I understand that I was on the edge of physical, emotional and psychiatric collapse.  Had I stayed, I’d likely have spent years in and out of psychiatric hospitals.  Instead, I was led to help others.


In hindsight, leaving home was the first significant act of loving myself, though more than a decade would pass before I would hear of the concept of self-love.


What Is Self-Love?

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection." ~Buddha

When I first heard of self-love, authors spoke of mani-pedis, sending yourself flowers, getting a massage and/or facial, going out with the girls, eating a pint of ice cream, and so forth.  Though each activity had its place, none of them ever filled the gaping hole of feeling unloved and unlovable. 


So what is this thing called self-love?


Dictionary.com defines self-love as “the instinct by which one's actions are directed to the promotion of one's own welfare or well-being, especially an excessive regard for one's own advantage (emphasis mine).”


woman drinking a cup of warm tea
What Does Self-Love Look Like to You?

Had I read that definition years ago, I would have run in the opposite direction of self-love as fast as my old overheating station wagon could travel.  This definition would suggest that loving yourself is selfishly at the expense of others.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.


Simply stated, self-love is respecting yourself enough to care for your own wellness; it is taking care of yourself.  Yes, some will accuse you of being selfish when this involves focusing on yourself first.  Often the accusers are those who do not appreciate you putting yourself ahead of their needs, wants and desires; nor do they care about how their demands of you affect you as long as you continue to deliver on their needs.


Self-love is learning to take care of your needs with the same love and concern that you put into caring for others, including your physical, emotional, mental, medical and spiritual needs.  Do you respect your limits, make sure you eat healthy food, and get the rest you need?  How about actively seeking out the experiences that bring balance, love and peace into your life?


Or are you constantly sick and stressed from neglecting yourself while allowing others to dictate how you spend your time, money and energy?  In other words, are you first or are you last on your list of importance?  How you answer this question is imperative to your contentment in all aspects of your life.


Expressing Self-Love

“By doing the work to love ourselves more, I believe we will love each other better.” ~ Laverne Cox

Truly loving oneself is facing yourself exactly as you are, warts and all as they say.  This consists of embracing your failures, fears, insecurities, shame, guilt, losses, imperfections, weaknesses, etc.  And in many cases, like my own, it includes facing your history of trauma (including physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse), the accompanying depression, anxiety and victimization, and whatever methods you used to survive... all that ugly stuff we want to bury and forget.


Now this process is not meant to degrade you by any means.  It is about learning to extend unconditional compassion to yourself- the acceptance often deeply longed for from another.  Often this process involves forgiving yourself for mistakes you made, so that you are empowered to make better choices as you move forward.


But do not stop there for you have also done many things well, even exceptional.  Loving yourself includes identifying all your successes and progress, as well as areas where you continue to grow.  In essence, self-love is a life-long process of learning to appreciate yourself exactly as you are while continuously seeking to do better.


Acts of self-love may consist of setting boundaries or standing up for yourself.  It may be learning that saying “no” can be a complete sentence.  You are not obligated to always justify your response.  These are just a few of the basic skills that contribute to the foundation for a healthy sense of self-respect and self-worth.  And know that confronting any challenge generally requires expanding your comfort zone in some manner.


Lastly, do not forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how ugly they may have played out the first time or how insignificant you may judge them to be.  YOU DID IT.  You now have more experience and knowledge to draw on for future challenges.


Loving and appreciating yourself means you no longer need to seek love from others. This frees you to more fully express your love for others.  When your love tank is full, you no longer depend on others to fill it for you; nor do you allow others to drain your tank.  By taking care of you first, you are now in a position to care for others.


Where To Start?


“I got my start by giving myself a start.” ~ Madam C. J. Walker

So where do you start?  Many believe that when seeking change, always start with the most important or most pressing issue.  I disagree.  My experience is this approach sets you up for failure by intensifying your fear and anxiety, often resulting in procrastination.  If you knew how to meet that challenge confidently enough, you would already be doing everything you could.


Instead start with the simplest, easiest thing you can do.  Start with something that has the most potential for success.  This bit of achievement begins building the momentum to take increasingly more difficult steps of change.


You could start by just acknowledging without judgement where you have failed to love yourself.  Then accept responsibility to learn how to do better.  After making a list, take a baby step toward your goal.  Or perhaps you may start by making a list expressing where you have successfully loved yourself and commit to do more of those things.


Sometimes the internal and the external work overlap.  For instance, buying a gift for yourself may be a great act of self-love if you have a pattern of neglecting yourself (that saving for a rainy day that never comes).  On the other hand, choosing not to buy something may be a greater act of self-love for someone who struggles with being a shopaholic, unknowingly trying to fill that emptiness with stuff, mani-pedis or food.


But, to be clear, one size does not fit all.  No two stories are ever identical.  What works brilliantly for one, may fail terribly for another.  No worries.  We simply add the “failures” to the list of lessons learned. (i.e., been there, done that) and try something else.


In short, you get to choose where you want to start.  There is no right or wrong way to begin this process.  Just do not neglect the icky stuff forever.  Avoidance tends to bite you the butt eventually.


You Do Not Have To Go It Alone

“Asking for help is an affirmation that you believe in yourself, you recognize an answer is available, and you are open to receive it.” ~ Alan Cohen

At some point, you will likely need support with some aspect of this process.  There is no shame in needing help.  In fact, seeking help is a great act of self-love in itself.  Had I not finally talked with my high school counselor after her many efforts to reach out to me, my life would have turned out very differently.  My counselor was one of many I have turned to throughout my life.  Yes, this means learning to trust again.  Yes, trusting is a risky, but necessary part of the process.


There are so many options to attain assistance.  You may join a support group, enter therapy, work with a spiritual group, or hire a coach.  If you are like me, you may use all of these resources of support and more, depending on what aspect or issue you are working on at any given time.


What If I Fall Short?

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just like loving your partner, child or furbaby is not an occasional act, loving yourself is a daily commitment as well.  And as you have fallen short at being a loving partner or parent at times, you will fall short at loving yourself.  Rather than beating yourself up when you recognize your mistake, simply start again.


Go back to yoga.  Start meditating again.  Return to therapy.  Go for a walk.  Take a nap. Put the chocolate, alcohol, and junk food down.  Stand your ground.  Apologize when appropriate.  Put someone out.  Let someone in.  Just start again, whatever that looks like for you.


Whatever you do, do not give up.  You were created to contribute to this remarkable world as only you can.  You are enough.  In fact, you are more than enough.


The more you remember and accept this as truth, the more resilient you will come through any challenge thrown your way.  It may not be pretty, but you will grow ever stronger and wiser for having had the experience.  And those who are in your circle or tribe will be blessed as well for having had you in their life.


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Meet the expert:

For more than 35 years, including 27 years in the Veterans Administration, Melissa has helped thousands to develop the stable, loving lives they desired. Having overcome a traumatic childhood she understands the challenges of facing the wounds that hold us hostages to the past.  She combines her personal and professional experience to support your transformation into the person you were born to be.


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