Many women turn our backs on self-love because we don’t want to appear selfish, self-centered, or self–absorbed. We’ve come to believe that putting others first and meeting other’s needs is kind and compassionate and that if we spend too much time focusing on ourselves, we’re selfish.

At an intellectual level, we may believe that self-love is important.  At a subconscious level, however, we have barriers preventing us from practicing self-love. If we do believe that loving ourselves is important, we find it almost impossible to act in ways that are self-loving. Come to think of it, most of us don’t even know what self-love looks or feels like.

I have the privilege of teaching meditation and mindfulness to women.  I began to see a pattern that seemed to be the norm for most women. Many of us have a difficult time actually loving ourselves. This lack of self-love causes all sorts of problems in our lives that we attempt to fix by manipulating our external circumstances.

Most of us aren’t aware that to have the relationships, health, prosperity, contentment, and peace of mind that we desire, we MUST first learn to love ourselves. We must love ourselves, not because we want to be selfish, but because we want to be whole.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for his bestselling writing on mindfulness and peace, put it this way:

If we do not know how to take care of ourselves and to love ourselves, we cannot take care of the people we love. Loving oneself is the foundation for loving another person.

Doing the work to heal whatever needs to be healed in order to fully love oneself is the greatest thing that we can do for others and ourselves.

What does a lack of self-love look like in our lives? Can you relate to any of these things?

  • Saying “yes” when you want to say “no” or feeling guilty when you DO say “no.”
  • Feeling anger, resentment, anxiety, stress, jealousy or excessive worry.
  • Tolerating and accepting being treated poorly by others.
  • Putting the needs of others before your own.
  • Keeping yourself so busy you don’t have to spend time with yourself.
  • Hanging out with people that leave you feeling drained.
  • Taking on other people’s problems as if they’re your own and feeling you need to solve them.
  • A pattern of unhealthy relationships.
  • An illness that can be either physical or emotional.
  • Difficulty or inability setting boundaries with others.

What I’ve come to understand is that we can’t love others or show genuine compassion when we haven’t done our own work. When we haven’t done the work and moved into a place of self-love, our demonstrations of love are made in an attempt to fill ourselves up and have everything to do with us and very little to do with the other person.

I love Maya Angelou’s quote:

I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me ‘I love you.’… There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

Instead of looking at self-love as selfishness or being self-centred, we can view it as the most loving thing that we could do. People that love themselves don’t enter into relationships in order for others to fill up their love tank. Their love tank is already full and they are able to express genuine love and compassion for others from a place of wholeness.

Practicing self-love isn’t easy, as it requires that we are honest with ourselves about our beliefs, our behaviors and our relationships. It requires a lot of reflection and a conscious commitment to changing beliefs and patterns that are firmly established. It’s challenging because, at some level, many of us believe that we are better people for putting others first.

Self-love is recognizing and believing that when we put ourselves first, it doesn’t mean we’re putting others second.

One of my clients asked a really powerful question: “If we’re not full of self-love, then what are we full of?” I daresay that many of us are full of guilt, anger, resentment, regrets, sadness, and countless misbeliefs about how we should be.

The first and most important step in the journey towards self-love is self-awareness. Are you able to look in the mirror every morning when you wake up and say “I love you…?” If you find this difficult, you are not alone. Many healthy and very successful women that I work with, have a hard time with this one.

There is a great TED Talk by Shauna Shapiro, The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger which is well worth watching. At the end of the video, Dr. Shapiro invites us to put our hands on our hearts and say ” I love you.”  I have also found it really powerful to add–“I am enough” at the end of the “I love you.” It’s amazing how incredibly freeing that feels to know that we are enough, worthy and loved just the way we are.

Self-love isn’t an all or nothing thing.  It’s a daily practice that creates a ripple of healing until one day we actually believe it. A belief that penetrates into every corner of our lives–leaving us feeling alive, nourished and knowing that our lives have meaning and purpose.

True, authentic love in the world comes from deep self-love.  The only way to obtain that feeling of love that we all desire and need is through loving ourselves unconditionally.

(This post was originally published on June 29, 2015, and updated on March 12, 2019).