When you live in a world that values and instills a sense of competition from birth, comparison is the default, factory setting — a pressure looming in every facet of life. It’s the catalyst that drives a need to work a little bit harder, be more attractive — to be a little bit more perfect. Because if this person on Instagram is there, then why are you here? But thanks to the self-love movement, the grip on this innate competition is loosened with a new ideal: Just love yourself. As if it’s that easy.
“I think it’s great how much wellness and self-help culture have evolved and become more of a priority,” holistic health coach Miranda Atkinson tells Bustle, “but I think that it gets into that toxic mindset of ‘If I’m not doing something to better myself, then I’m getting worse’ ... if you put the pressure on yourself to be perfect, you’re just going to fall short every single day.” When learning how to love yourself is tangled in a web of toxic positivity and curated “self-love” aesthetics, true self-acceptance can get a little lost in translation. Instead of being totally OK with yourself, it’s just a different form of pressure to perform and keep up — hello, persistent perfectionism.
According to psychologist and speaker Dr. Marissa Franco, Ph.D., people often equate comparison and beating themselves up with motivation. “In fact, research finds [that comparison] makes us doubt ourselves, feel incapable of overcoming challenges, and stop trying,” she tells Bustle. “Self-compassion, however, allows us to regulate these paralyzing emotions that block us from reaching our goals,” she continues. “That's why being compassionate towards yourself will make you more — not less — motivated and overall happier.” So, what is self-love? While the idea means something different to everyone, it all starts with compassion. Below, the experts provide insight on exactly how to love yourself better in every way.
What Is Self-Love?
“Self-love” is a loaded concept: It boils down to holding space for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and is complex despite often being framed as a one-time thing. “It’s not that simple,” self-love coach and therapist America Allen, LCSW, tells Bustle. “Self-love is not a light switch that we can just flip on, it's not something you do once, and boom — you're done,” she says. “Just like your other relationships, it is a choice to commit to yourself.” It’s a daily practice — a conscious decision to be patient and accept yourself for where you are in the moment. “[It’s] holding yourself accountable without judgment, examining your behaviors and thoughts while also showing yourself care and compassion,” notes Allen.
Self-love is the unconditional understanding with yourself that you’re worthy no matter what.
It may sound like an unnecessary, frilly practice reserved for people with bottomless stocks of free time and ambitions of TikTok stardom á la the mental health niche. But in truth, there’s nothing that will arm you to fearlessly face the world like learning to love yourself. “It motivates you to make healthy decisions and choices that encourage you to prioritize yourself, allowing you to meet your needs as they change,” Allen explains.
According to Atkinson, self-love is the unconditional understanding with yourself that you’re worthy no matter what. “All emotions are passing,” she tells Bustle. “They come and they go.” When hard days come around, self-love is knowing you’re always worthy of respect and don’t need to rely on outside sources. “At the end of the day you have to be your own biggest advocate,” she tells Bustle.
How To Practice Self-Love Mentally
Learning how to love yourself is a process, one that takes time and care and adjustments where needed — like growing a plant. Allen tells her clients that it’s an evolving journey and their self-love practice will look different day to day based on their current needs. “When we give ourselves permission to pivot and meet those needs is where the magic happens,” she tells Bustle. Being mindful in the moment and gauging your needs, “whether it's the need to forgive yourself, setting boundaries, learning to be kind to yourself in a difficult moment, showing up as your authentic self, [or] trusting yourself — these all show self-love in practice,” Allen explains.
Monitor Your Thoughts
Taking care of yourself mentally and emotionally through self-compassion has been shown to tamp down the tether between perfectionism and depression, according to a 2018 study published in PLoS One. A mental practice Atkinson swears by? Reframing your inner narrative. When you have an instinct to be self-critical, “it just gets really ingrained in your psyche,” she says, noting that making small changes in the way you think can be largely beneficial. Allen also backs the notion to monitor your thoughts. “Take notice of what they are, remind [yourself that] you are not your thoughts, and allow them to pass.” This can be a great practice to work on through meditation, which in itself is one of the best things you can do when learning how to love yourself and working through things like anxiety and lack of motivation.
One active tool to show yourself compassion when your internal critic won’t kindly STFU is something that’s used often in inner child healing, according to Atkinson. This type of therapy is essentially acknowledging and working through the traumas you experienced as a child, however big or small they might be. “Separate yourself from yourself,” she says. “If this were your friend ... what would you say to them? Because we are way harsher to ourselves than we are to other people,” she notes. “And then take it one step further and ask, how would you talk to your 10-year-old self?” This opens your mind to a more nurturing, tender, and understanding approach.
Check Your Humor
Another way Atkinson suggests correcting a negative narrative is by taking a look at the way your sense of humor reflects the way you feel about yourself. Do you tend to be self-deprecating? Sure, kidding around about how you’re “lazy” or “unsuccessful” can be “super funny and relatable,” Atkinson points out, “but it gets to a point where it’s kind of coming from a dark place.” It can become so instinctual you may not even notice, but try to catch yourself in these moments. Atkinson says to ask yourself, “Why would I say something like that? Where is this thought coming from? How can I make it productive rather than just beating up on myself?”
Practice Affirmations & Journaling
Affirmations and journaling are powerful ways to engage in self-love, but what’s often overlooked is how challenging it can be to start, especially if you’re coming from a difficult place. “It’s kind of hard to just ‘fake it ‘till you make it,’ and look at yourself in the mirror and be like, ‘I’m beautiful’ and ‘I’m strong,’” Atkinson tells Bustle. “It feels like you’re lying to yourself.” With that in mind, she suggests starting small, as it can take a while to build up confidence. Try something easy like smiling at yourself in the mirror instead of getting really close and looking at your imperfections. “It tricks your brain into feeling happier, so smile at yourself [or] give yourself a compliment,” Atkinson suggests. And if you’re not feeling the formal “I am beautiful” sort of affirmations, that’s OK. “It can just be like, ‘damn girl, looking good,’” offers Atkinson, “and then move on with your day.” Or, you can take the self-love mantra route and sit down for a peaceful mindful meditation.
When it comes to journaling, the benefits are plenty. According to a 2016 study in Psychotherapy Research, gratitude journaling specifically has the power to improve mental health over time. “When we get wrapped up in that narrative of self-criticism,” notes Atkinson, “it just drowns out any positive thoughts.” To counter that, she suggests using journal prompts like listing 10 things that you love about yourself. “You can always just start from the ground up,” she offers. “‘I’m happy I have two legs that work that carry me around all day,’ or ‘I’m grateful that my heart beats and provides oxygen to my body without me having to think about anything.’ And then, more things will come to mind.” You can also ask yourself things about who you are, like what you think makes you a good person.
Taking time to notice what you love about yourself primes you to start seeing the best in not only yourself, but other people as well, because you can stop comparing, Atkinson tells Bustle. “There’s that quote, ‘Their success is not your failure’ ... It’s easier to take inspiration from other people when you love yourself rather than resent them.”
Make Time For Yourself
It’s easy to feel like the days and weeks are moving at a faster pace than you can keep up with. But self-love means making your happiness a priority and setting aside time for the things that bring you joy. “Make the time for yourself — not just on the weekend or vacation — but daily,” Allen tells Bustle. “Five to 10 minutes in the morning, mid-day, and at night.” It’s OK to carve out time for your own joy and not feel guilty about it, whether that’s a hobby like reading, playing an instrument, or just having some uninterrupted alone time.
How To Practice Self-Love Physically
Physical self-love habits are tightly wound with mental and emotional ones — it all comes together as an overall sense of wellbeing. “Doing little things to take care of your body, [like] taking a shower — that’s one of the most radical acts of self-love,” Atkinson tells Bustle. “Literally and metaphorically, washing away all the dirt, all the grime and negativity can be so powerful and so transformative sometimes.”
Get Excited For Your Routines
When it comes to physical self-love, sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself to actually come through with the workout or the healthy home-cooked meal. “People, in general, respond better to positive reinforcement,” Atkinson tells Bustle. You’re more inclined to repeat a behavior following a positive response, and vice versa. She suggests instead of thinking about little caring acts as things you have to do to check off your “list of self-love,” think of them as things you get to do for yourself.
When you’re doing your skin care, for example, make it an intentional time and space for gratitude. “While washing your face, think, ‘How lucky am I that I get to take care of myself in this way?’ ... Looking at it as ‘What are some little favors I can do for myself?’ Rather than ‘Oh my god, what do I have to keep up with today? ... They feel less like chores and more like treating yourself.”
Exercise In A Way That Works For You
Moving your body is always a great demonstration of self-love, but in order to make the practice feel more like an exciting gift to be grateful for (and one that you’re more inclined to do), Atkinson says you need to find a routine you enjoy. “Find something that works for you, [whether] that’s just a walk, an easy stretch, [or] just some way to move your body that makes you feel like you’re expressing yourself and maybe even being creative in that practice, like dancing,” she tells Bustle. “Find something that you like and then your mental attitude will just change around it and you’ll actually want to do it, rather than it being this looming thing on your to-do list that you hate,” Atkinson adds.
Another way to be there for yourself is with self-touch — which isn’t necessarily about masturbation (though it is a tried-and-true way to practice self-love). “If you’re feeling lonely or sad, self-touch is a way to self-soothe,” notes Atkinson. “Literally give yourself a hug, or ask yourself, ‘What do you wish someone was doing right now?’” Assess what you need in the moment, and find a way to give it to yourself. Whether that’s stroking your arm, playing with your hair, self-massage, “or just any way that you can make yourself feel good, there [are] so many ways to practice self-touch,” Atkinson tells Bustle, adding that it’s a great way of connecting with yourself and being your own source of love.
Give Your Future Self Favors
Just like you might show love to a significant other through acts of service, you can do the same for yourself. Ask yourself what you can do now that will benefit your future self. “That could be as small as picking out your outfit for the gym the next day so you’re a little more motivated to go,” notes Atkinson. “Just little things when you think of them as doing something nice for your future self. It’s a little easier than just trying to find that motivation in the moment when you feel like maybe your actions have been futile.”
Starting a self-love practice doesn’t mean you have to do all the things all the time. Just being patient with yourself and holding space for kindness and acceptance is enough to start loving yourself better, little by little.
Ferrari, M., Yap, K., Scott, N., Einstein, D. A., & Ciarrochi, J. (2018). Self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and Depression link in both adolescence and adulthood. PLOS ONE, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192022
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy research : journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192–202. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332
Dr. Marissa Franco, Ph.D., psychologist and speaker