Self-love in the Season of Love: What to Do When it Feels Unattainable
February 17, 2023
by deana

Hey everyone! Been seeing a lot of posts lately on love and self-love. I LOVE that folks are working to shift their perspective to the positive, to give themselves the unconditional love they deserve and perhaps haven’t always had. And yet… many find the idea of self-love difficult to achieve.  It feels so far away that trying to shift from being self-critical to saying “I love myself” feels inauthentic and causes upset and stress.  Some may even call it toxic positivity, because focusing on an end goal of self-love vs honoring where you are right now can feel invalidating.

So let’s talk about how to make this foreign concept feel less impossible and how to move towards self-love in a kinder, more compassionate way.

One of my absolute favorite meditations to teach is the loving-kindness meditation. But because I work primarily with people who struggle with trauma, shame, perfectionism, and a nasty inner critic, I’ve found that some loving-kindness practices can feel painful. When I first started offering this meditation, I used a script, and found that time and again, I had at least one person after the class or session waiting to tell me how they just couldn’t say the same words of love and appreciation to themselves as they could to others.  And how that made them feel shameful or life a failure.  This was so far from my intention, but clearly the impact is what truly matters here.  I wanted to foster a sense of self-compassion and some people were leaving feeling like that inner critic was amplified.

The best way I can explain some of why this occurs is through metaphor. Let’s say I want to go to the gym to take care of my health and get stronger mentally and physically. And maybe to me, that means lifting. Let’s pick a random number, say 400? If it’s my first day at the gym would it make sense for me to try to squat 400lbs? Absolutely not! I’d probably throw out my back or worse, at the very least I’d cause myself some physical pain. So instead, I’d likely need to learn the proper form, then add the bar, then maybe add 10lbs, and then incrementally make increases as I built up the necessary muscles to safely squat. I may never get to 400lbs, but if I can calibrate my goal to be small, actionable steps, then I can safely move in the direction of what’s important to me, my values (health and a sense of strength), vs an end goal that may or may not serve me (squatting 400lbs).

So let’s bring that back to self-love. For some, saying “I love you” to themselves feels painful, like going from 0 to 400. Perhaps it’s never been safe to be kind to themselves, perhaps they don’t feel they deserve the kindness, perhaps they are simply repeating what they have been taught. Whatever the reason, for some, to go from “I hate myself”, “I don’t like myself”, or “I’m worthless” to “I love you” is too much, too fast. It could feel completely inauthentic and false, it could bring up anger and/or a sense of being stuck, or it can even trigger more negative thoughts about self and the world at large.  

So how do we make the idea of self-love possible? We take smaller, more feasible steps towards it, praise ourselves for trying, give ourselves grace when we have days where it isn’t possible, and trust that each time we practice we are carving out a new neural pathway and moving towards a positive shift in perspective about self. 

Instead of saying, “I love myself”, what if we tried one of the following?:

  • “I like myself in this moment”
  • “I am okay with myself right now”
  • “I am choosing to be kind to myself in this moment”
  • “I am grateful for myself” or “I am grateful for this small part about myself” 
  • “I am going to be kind to myself by…” (holding my own hand, getting a cup of tea, sitting under a cozy or weighted blanket, taking a few full breaths, or whatever else feels like kindness)

What if we saw self-love as a spectrum vs a black and white?

What if instead of jumping from 0 to 400 we go to 5 or 10? What if we practice self-compassion or self-gratitude in our work to improve our self-esteem? What if we saw self-love or positive self-regard as a spectrum vs a black and white? Could self-love be something where how we feel can shift day to day? Where we let go of feeling like self-love is something we either have or don’t have- I love myself or I hate myself. Because if there are only two choices and we don’t feel like self-love is attainable for us, we can feel stuck. It can be so hard to make the jump from one end of the spectrum to the other and for many it feels inauthentic and not being able to make that jump causes pain and feels like a personal failing.

Because I noticed people sharing these sentiments, I eventually created my own version of the loving kindness meditation. One that allowed for that spectrum- a range of experiences vs an absolute, and one that offered smaller, more attainable prompts.

Here’s what years of offering my own version of loving-kindness meditation has taught me:

  • You may not get to a place where you can say you love yourself every single day. That is OK and normal!
  • There will still be days where you may say some of the unkind things you used to when you began this process.
  • AND this is ok too! The way we feel about ourselves can ebb and flow. Ebbs and flow means that some days we can feel closer to self-love and other days we can feel closer to that inner critic.
  • Each time we practice embracing a small amount of self-compassion, in ways that are more accessible and kind, rather than jumping to 400, we start to create a new way of thinking.
  • Eventually we are able to believe in ourselves more and start to see ourselves in a more positive light. We might even move along that spectrum, settling closer and closer to self-love over time.
  • AND it also gets easier to tolerate and forgive ourselves for the days where self-love just isn’t possible. It helps us build the resilience we need to tolerate the days where our old thought patterns show up again.

So that’s my PSA for the day. If you can’t be positive right now, that’s ok. Can you find one small change that feels possible and strive to practice that? And at the same time, can you honor that what you are doing is a practice? And remember- the nature of practice is that it cannot be perfect. When you find yourself struggling, try to thank yourself for being aware of that struggle. Try to remember that when we practice something, it doesn’t always go well. But the more we practice, the easier it gets. And simply practicing, challenging yourself to make a small change, whether it’s for 10 seconds or 10 minutes is actually a very big step and wondrous start, restart, or continuation of your self-compassion journey.

And one last thought on why I love this idea of self-compassion and self-love on a spectrum. Because once we practice this, we can learn to apply it to many other areas of life. Perhaps this is a small bit of body kindness, for example, you may not be ready to say you love your body, but can you practice saying thank you to your heart for pumping. Even if you are only 1% thankful, that’s a 1% shift towards a more kind relationship with your body. 

Remember, ebb and flow means you’ll have some days where you don’t feel great about yourself and other days where you do, as well as a large variety in between. 

The fact is, sometimes things happen that will cause that inner critic to show up (trauma triggers, being around certain people, places, or circumstances, etc).  Part of what you can learn in therapy are the tools to tolerate the tough days when they happen AND how to still celebrate the growth you’ve had on days where self-compassion is a little more available to you. 

If you can bring just a touch of kindness to your self-work, you’ll be surprised at how quickly things will start to shift for you. And if you don’t know where to begin to check out some of my free meditations on Insight Timer. There’s one on body gratitude and another on loving-kindness. Both are trauma-sensitive.