“One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others. There was a time when I felt lousy about my over-forty body, saw myself as too fat, too this, or too that. Yet I fantasized about finding a lover who would give me the gift of being loved as I am. It is silly, isn’t it, that I would dream of someone else offering to me the acceptance and affirmation I was withholding from myself. This was a moment when the maxim ‘You can never love anybody if you are unable to love yourself’ made clear sense. And I add, ‘Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.’ – bell hooks (All About Love: New Visions)
For as long as I can remember up until a couple of years ago I was searching, searching for a partner to fill the empty spaces within me. I had this worry that I was not good enough, that I was not lovable. I wash harsh and judgmental with myself when I made mistakes. During this time, I wished for someone else to love me unconditionally. I longed for a partner to provide me with the comfort and encouragement that I rarely offered myself. When I was in relationships I could barely tolerate any indication that my boyfriends might not think I was wonderful. I was overly sensitive to any sign of rejection, sometimes experiencing intense anxiety and starting conflict in response to feeling rejected. While I still struggle with being sensitive to rejection, I look back on my teens and twenties and can see that my challenges in romantic relationships were in part due to the problems in my relationship with myself. As my relationship with myself has healed, my relationships with others have also improved.
In the quote at the beginning of this post, bell hooks encourages us to offer ourselves the love that we dream of. To be our own lover. This is essential, not only for the health of any romantic relationship we might engage in but to feel fulfilled when we are single and to have healthy relationships with family members and friends. When we stop outsourcing what can give ourselves our life and relationships become so much better. In this post I will share my suggestions for ways to begin to improve your relationship with yourself.
Develop and unconditional relationship with yourself
I love this Pema Chodron quote: “Right now can you make an unconditional relationship with yourself? Just at the height that you are? The weight that you are, with the intelligence that you have, and your current burden of pain? Can you enter into an unconditional relationship with that?” Most of us long for someone to love us unconditionally and I encourage you to make that someone yourself. What would it look like for you to fully accept yourself? Without the condition that you lose weight or stop engaging in a bad habit, without a condition that you find a partner or get a promotion. Can you offer yourself love and acceptance just as you are right now? Part of developing an unconditional relationship with ourselves involves treating ourselves with compassion no matter what is going on. Think about the times when you are most harsh with yourself and consider responding more gently when you make a mistake or are unhappy with something. When I encourage clients to be less harsh with themselves they often worry that the only way they can get themselves to do anything is to be self-critical. I encourage you to be kind and firm with yourself; gently acknowledge short-comings and mistakes and firmly push yourself to make improvements. If you would like to be in a long-term relationship, treating yourself with kindness and compassion will increase your ability to treat a partner that way. Loving yourself unconditionally will enable you to love a partner unconditionally.
Most of us have done something in our past that caused ourselves pain or heartache. We often carry the scars of that pain with us for years, continuing to blame ourselves and feel shame for what happened. I encourage you to forgive yourself. Forgiveness involves acknowledging and accepting what has already happened and giving yourself some grace for the mistake you made. One thing that can help with forgiving yourself is to reflect on what you learned from the difficult experience you had. How did it help you to grow? What wisdom and maturity would you be missing if you hadn’t had that challenging experience or experiences? If your mind continues to make you feel shame for mistakes you’ve made, see if you can let those thoughts go and come back to the present moment.
Think about what you would like a partner to do for you and do that for yourself
Take some time to think about how you hope a loving partner might treat you. How would you like that person to show their love to you? Would they make you laugh? Take you out? Cook a delicious meal for you? Give you flowers? Make sure you had some quiet time to yourself with your favorite treat? Take you on a trip? Now think about which of these things you can do for yourself. I’m not arguing that you doing these things for yourself will feel the same as someone else doing them for you but you may be surprised at how nice it is to treat yourself to things that you enjoy. I encourage you to try it.
Improving our relationships with ourselves is an ongoing process, it’s not something that will change all at once. I hope that beginning to work on these things will help you to feel better about yourself, treat yourself better, and will improve your relationships.