The Art of Self-Love

Susan sat in front of me staring out the window.  She smoothed some stray gray hairs around her right ear, sighed, and said, “I’m 63 years old for heaven’s sake; it’s time that I learn to love myself.  That’s why I’m here.”

I asked her to number her self-love on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being rich with self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-cherishing and 1 being total self-loathing.  She told me that she was a solid 4.

And so we began our work together.  My heart goes out to the men and women who struggle with self-love.  In fact, at some point in therapy, even when self-love isn’t the presenting issue, I always ask, “Do you love yourself?”  The answer is usually a surprised look, and a tentative, “I don’t think so,” or “I don’t know.”  Very few answer with a resounding ‘yes!’

Personally, I think we suffer an epidemic of self-loathers, or at least self-dislikers.  And yet, as with many disorders, this epidemic is based on distorted thoughts, misperceptions, and mind traps.  Once a person claims their birthright of self-love, everything in life becomes easier – from work to relationships to simply looking in a mirror.

So, I suggested three daily exercises for Susan.

Self-Acceptance (a visualization) – In the morning before getting out of bed, put one hand on your heart and the other hand on your lower belly.  Keep your eyes closed and imagine yourself in a serene place.  Imagine 3 beings in front of you, 3 benefactors -- people or pets who deeply love and accept you for who you are.  They may or may not be currently living on the planet.  In the case of Susan, she selected her husband, her daughter, and her dog.  Part of a session was about the selection of these people.  (We also spent a session processing the reality that she could not include her critical mother in this line-up.)

Hold these benefactors in your mind’s eye and imagine them beaming the light of love toward you.  Know that they love and accept you exactly as you are, including your strengths and your foibles.  Breathe in their love for several moments, letting it sink into you as if you are a dry sponge.  Know that you are loveable and loved.

Self-Compassion (affirmations) – I asked her to put post-it notes on the mirrors in her house with messages like, “I am beautiful,”  “I am strong,”  “I am a decent person with a good heart,”  “I am doing the best that I can,” “I am a kind and loving wife and mother,”  “I have many blessings in my life,” and “I am part of Divine light.”  Every time she was in the bathroom, she was to say at least two of these out loud. 

Self-compassion is about confidence but also tenderness toward the self.  I asked her to put her hand over her heart as she said or thought affirmations throughout the day.  I asked her to remember that she’s a tender soul doing the best she can to grow and feel better about herself.  Although she initially felt awkward in doing these practices, she stayed with the process.  She had compassion for her own awkwardness and perseverance.

Self-Cherishing (self-care action) --  I asked Susan to list 5 things that she loves to do, things that calm her and make her feel cared for.  She wrote down meditation, walking her dog, reading gardening magazines, listening to Mozart, and going to a yoga class.  While she can’t necessarily do each of these every day, I asked her to do one a day, even if it was only for 5 or 10 minutes.  While she did it, she was to be intentional about thinking to herself, “I am choosing to do this activity because it is a conscious act of self-cherishing, and I know that I deserve it.”

Susan was highly motivated and did these exercises with zeal.  The mirror one was the most difficult for her.  She didn’t believe a word she said, at first.  But she kept at it and was determined to ‘fake it til she made it.’

After 10 sessions, everything in her life had begun to improve dramatically.  When I asked her to number herself again on the self-love scale, she told me, “I’m definitely an 8 now,” she said.  Smiling mischievously she added, “And some days I’m even a 9.”

I asked her what she thought had helped her turn the corner and finally embrace the ability to love herself.  She said, “You know, I stuck with the exercises even when I didn’t feel the love.  And then, suddenly, to my surprise, I became the love.”

And beautifully, in becoming the love, all of her relationships were positively impacted.  Truly self-love is the basis for the ability to love others.  So, the benefit of this journey is that the love spills out to others.

May all beings dwell in the bliss and peace of self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-cherishing.  May all beings become the essence of self-love so that it radiates out and touches all who encounter it.