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The Keys to Self-Love

1. Know who you are.

Key points

  • Loving yourself usually requires having some concept of who you are.
  • Self-love may have its greatest usefulness, and its most difficult application, in a relationship landscape.
  • Other-love may come in direct proportion to self-love.
Matheus Ferrero/Unsplash
Source: Matheus Ferrero/Unsplash

Who am I?

Loving myself requires that, at least most of the time, I have some concept of who I am—or else, what am I trying to love? Yet there are times when knowing who I am can be like solving a Rubik's cube with its many confusing and moving parts. For example, I seem to be a different person when I'm with certain people or in certain circumstances. I revise who I am by contouring a best-fit self based on what I perceive to be called for in particular situations.

Worse, there are moments when knowing who I am can feel as slippery as grabbing a fish out of the water, or like hitting a moving target. It's as though the who of who I am doesn't like to sit still for long.

Even so, who I am, whatever its current design, is compactly housed within the complex quarters of my brain, and my brain, like everyone else's, has evolved to be sensitive, flexible, and adaptive to the vagaries of the environment. So, maybe who I am should be a bit hard to pin down at times. Nonetheless, let's give it a try—after all, an elusive self is probably more difficult to love.

A Tight Bundle of Circulating Needs

To put a palpable handle on the concept of who I am, think of a collection of needs of varying types and magnitudes, an ever-whirling composite of circulating wants, motives, drives, desires, preferences, inclinations, and sundry interests. Each of these broadly defined needs is tightly wrapped within the borders of my skin and each, in its turn, vies for expression and/or gratification. Further, my own particular bundle of needs provides a distinguishing outline of who I am; it constructs my sense of self, and sets me apart from others, even though I share many of the same needs.

Now, a definition of who I am—an identity—begins to take shape in reasonably concrete terms, built one need upon another, and the feelings associated with this creative process are positive. For instance, think of a time when you got a compliment from someone. You were momentarily singled out and identified as possessing a particular positive quality; indeed, you were served a self-defining moment and it probably felt very good. Remember?

Flying a Banner of Self-Sovereignty

Surely, the identification of my personal needs is a crucial first step in the mechanics of self-affection. This "life blood" process defines and preserves who I am in relation to others where I am at the greatest risk of losing the grip on my sense of self.

Figuratively speaking, by effectively identifying my needs, I hoist a flag overhead that proudly proclaims the sovereignty of who I am and subtly but firmly declares "Don't tread on me." Just as the flag flown over a nation's capital symbolizes that nation's rights, distinct identity, and sovereignty, the identification of my needs confirms my "right" to them. It also boosts my self-esteem. And equally important, the research team of Greenberg and Paivio (2013) found that merely identifying one's needs bumps up the likelihood of actively representing them.

Two Bold Manifestos

Now, consider two plausible assumptions:

  1. All of the needs that comprise who I am, are, at their most fundamental level, valid.
  2. Most critically, I cultivate self-compassion by deliberately and purposefully validating the basic legitimacy of my needs.

For example, I need to feel accepted and to accept others, I need to love and be loved, I need to feel understood respectfully and sensitively, and so on. Without question, these are basic and valid needs and as such, they ought to be crowned with positive status. Certainly, as I do this consistently, the affection I have for myself becomes strong, stable, and enduring. And again, as a result, I am more emboldened to actively represent my needs.

So, let's pick a need, even a trivial one, and look beneath it to its deepest taproot, its most irreducible level, to verify its legitimacy. For instance, Josh would like Chinese food tonight, while his partner, Jennifer, wants Mexican food. Obviously, both have basic needs for food, but also each partner needs to be sensitively and respectfully understood for their individual preferences, despite their differences. At the manifest level of their personal food preferences and at the deeper level of mutual respect and understanding, each partner brings a legitimate need to the other. The next question is how well each partner manages their need.

Quicker to Self-Criticize or Self-Praise?

Learning the simple but valuable mechanics of legitimizing my basic needs addresses these crucial questions: How much affection do I have for myself? Where should this self-affection ideally come from? How can I create it? How strong is it and what must I do to sustain it? In brief terms, what is the quality, resilience, and durability of my self-affection?

For example, am I quicker to fault myself, or praise myself? When I make mistakes, can I exonerate myself and learn from my experience? How do I typically talk to myself and what orchestrates this inner dialogue? How can I improve the quality of my relationship with myself?

A Common Pitfall

Once while rushing out the door to get to a friend's wedding, I asked my wife if she would please hurry. Apparently unable to hear what I'd just asked, she said, "What?" Frustrated at having to repeat myself while frantically running about and thinking that my wife might not share my urgency, I yelled back at her in a decidedly angry, disrespectful voice, "Come on, we have to go now or we'll be late, damn it!"

Well, my angry tone brought the greater part of her attention to how I'd spoken to her and not to the legitimacy of my need to arrive at the wedding punctually. Worse, afterward, realizing I'd hurt my wife's feelings, I was critical of myself. The legitimacy of my need had wrongfully justified my use of forceful, disrespectful talk. For some time afterward, I was remorseful. My need for a timely arrival at the wedding was indisputably valid but I had mismanaged it—a common mistake.

What's more, when I fail to distinguish between my need's legitimacy and my mismanagement of it, I berate myself. So, to temper my self-attack and thus preserve a measure of self-esteem, I'm teaching myself this critical point: My fundamental needs remain valid even though I may not always manage them well. Now, even in the lamentable aftermath of mismanaging my needs—which is inevitable, all of us, at times, mismanage our needs—I can preserve my self-esteem with the critical realization that my fundamental needs remain valid in spite of how I manage them.

Overlapping Bedfellows

Self-affection, self-esteem, self-compassion, and self-respect are celebrated kissing cousins with conjoining meanings. Further, we pay an almost religious-like homage to them in our culture. Truly, they are our venerable icons that characterize the pinnacle of our personal striving. But how are they best achieved? And can they ever be fully realized?

To the degree they are obtainable, consider again the concrete and review-worthy steps of need identification and need legitimization. By identifying my needs, I actively construct myself—and by the deliberate, purposeful acknowledgment of the fundamental legitimacy of my needs, I validate them, and myself, and thus become my own "hero." My self-affection, self-esteem, self-compassion, and self-respect are home-grown commodities, all organic, which, in my humble opinion, is the best and most enduring form of self-love.

Self-Affection's Greatest Testing Ground

I'm convinced that the nuts and bolts of self-love have their greatest usefulness but also their most difficult application on the uneven, emotionally charged, and often challenging landscape of the intimate relationship. In this complicated context, gifting myself with affection can be especially tricky business because much of who I am gets activated, rallied in an unending stream of countless interactions with my partner.

This steady tide of close encounters and infinite elbow-rubbing activates an expansive range of needs and their accompanying feelings, all of which keep me on my toes trying to keep my needs well-defined and validated. Yet, when I rise to these challenges, the gains in self-affection are especially personally fulfilling.

Ultimately, Other-Love Equals Self-Love

Will I get any more love from others, especially my most significant others, than I can provide myself? Maybe not. And this may be most true over the course of my long-term relationships. The message, then: Other-love may come in direct proportion to self-love, the affection I learn to provide to myself.

Lastly, the kind of self-love we've covered here may not have a downside to it; the science of self-compassion seems to support this conclusion. So, how well do you love yourself?

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Greenberg, L. S., & Paivio, S. C. (1997). Working with emotions in psychotherapy, New York: Guilford Press

Neff, K. D., (2011) Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass/Volume 5, Issue 1.

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