I realized I’ve been misunderstanding a phrase I’ve heard all my life. Does that ever happen to you? Like you realize that all this time, people have been saying “scapegoat,” while you’ve been hearing something about an escape goat? This happens.
The phrase I’ve been misunderstanding all these years is this one:
“You have to love yourself.”
And the difference between what I thought it meant and what it actually means (or should mean) makes the difference between it being a useless, annoying cliche and it having the power to change lives.
See, the part I was mixed up about was the word “love.” “Love,” as a verb, can mean two very different things. One meaning is to feel very fond of something or someone. That’s the kind of love that I’m going to call “affective love,” because it’s a feeling. It’s something that happens to you. You might say you “love pizza”, meaning you really enjoy pizza. You might love jazz or puppies. Might you love a person? Sure! You can feel very fond of a person, and you can enjoy being around them very much. You can affectively love them. You think they’re just wonderful. And yes, you can affectively love yourself. You can feel smart and beautiful and proud, and you can think you’re just awesome. That is loving yourself in the affective sense.
But that’s not what the wise advice, “You have to love yourself,” is saying. It’s talking about a different kind of love. It’s what I’ll call “active love.” This love isn’t something you feel. It’s something you do. It’s a choice you make. It’s a commitment. It’s the way in which parents love their children. The way in which an artist loves their craft. Or a firefighter loves their community. Often, it’s work. It’s not passive enjoyment of something. It’s effort put into something. It’s deciding that something is worth your love and acting upon that decision in every way you can.
When we actively love someone, we honor them and respect them. We treat them with care and compassion. We forgive them. We hold them in the light, seeing them as worthy of our attention. We actively love them even during the times when we don’t particularly feel like we affectively love them at all. Even when they’re at their worst, because we don’t need them to be any certain way to love them actively. Active love is not dependent on our enjoyment of the one we love. It’s dependent only on our own commitment to loving them.
So when you hear that you should love yourself, and you’re thinking of it in terms of the affective kind of love, it’s likely you won’t find that very helpful. Maybe you don’t particularly even like yourself at the moment. Maybe you made a bad choice. Or you’re having a bad day. Or someone you care about it mad at you. Maybe you’re struggling with depression. There are a million reasons we might not, at any given moment, love ourselves in the affective sense of the word. And even when we do, even when we feel like we’re the bees’ knees, the best that will get us is a temporary chance to give ourselves a high five for being awesome.
But actively loving yourself is different. It’s something you can do regardless of how you’re feeling about yourself. It’s a way of relating to yourself as someone who deserves to be cared for and defended and protected and respected. Not because you like yourself a whole lot or feel smart or funny or beautiful. But because you are you. Just like a mother loves her child even when they’re naked and muddy and picking their nose and calling her stupid, you can love yourself simply because you are yours. And because if there’s one person who’s ever done anything for you, it’s you. And because there’s no one else who will – or even can – love you as deeply as you (can) love yourself.
Here are some rules you can follow to better love yourself:
- Do not stand for meanness. Not from other people, but also (and especially) not from yourself. If the words you choose to describe yourself are words you wouldn’t use to describe a friend, don’t use them. “I’m so stupid.” “I’m hideous.” “I hate myself.” None of that is acceptable, even in the privacy of your own mind.
- Forgive yourself. When you make a mistake, take extra care to say nice things to yourself. Don’t deny the mistake, or you’ll never learn anything. But don’t judge yourself for it. Acknowledge it, plan what you’ll do different next time, and tell yourself it’s okay. You know your friends are more than their bad choices. Remind yourself that you are too.
- Nurture yourself. Pay attention to what you need and insist that you are worthy of getting your needs met. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Rest. Is your life structured such that those things aren’t always possible? Maybe you need to make some changes. Or at the very least, prioritize your needs such that you will make those changes as soon as reasonably possible. Yes, life it busy. Yes, there’s not enough time in the day. But if you can make time for anything at all, let it be self-care.
- Be authentic. Let yourself be you. If you act like someone you’re not, the message you send yourself is that the real you is not good enough. If you lie about yourself and/or to yourself, you’re reinforcing your inadequate image. Convincing yourself that you really are brilliant and talented and beautiful might be hard but luckily that’s not what you need to do. What you need to do is get real with yourself, seeing yourself as who you really are – nothing more, nothing less. You might be surprised at how much better it can feel to be flawed and real than perfect and fake. And the key message that sends , to yourself and to the world, is that yes, you are just fine, just the way you are.
- In all of these, use the Best Friend Test. Or if you don’t have a best friend who you think the world of, think of someone you love dearly – a child, a spouse, etc. – and substitute them in where it says “best friend.” This is the Best Friend Test: If you wouldn’t say something to or about your best friend, don’t say it to or about yourself. If you wouldn’t judge your best friend harshly for doing a particular thing, don’t judge yourself any more harshly. And if you wouldn’t want your best friend to go without nourishment, don’t withhold it from yourself if you can help it.*
*If you have a hard time comparing yourself to your best friend, you need to spend some time recognizing all that you’ve done for you over the course of your life and have a little appreciation. Then repeat the above suggestions until you see it.
The best part about actively loving yourself is that over time, doing so will lead to more experiences of affectively loving yourself. The better you treat yourself (when done authentically), the better you’ll feel about yourself. So not only will you be lovingly cared for by the person with the most access to you (you!), you’ll also find you enjoy yourself more than you ever have. Win, win!
If this all sounds crazy or impossible to you, I challenge you to try it for awhile and see what a difference it can make. It’s free, and it might change your life.