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How to Cultivate Self-Love

The most important relationship you have in life is the one with yourself. After all, would you rather be at odds with the person you're tied to for the rest of your life, or would you rather love and cherish them? This is why cultivating self-love is an ongoing and important task. Here's how to do it. 

By
Jade Wu, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #351
The Quick And Dirty
  • Listen to your body and give it the rest, nourishment, and care it needs.
  • Allow yourself authentic experience of any emotion, even difficult ones.
  • Express yourself creatively, and gain mastery in something you care about.
  • Be patient and forgiving to yourself.
  • Set kind but firm boundaries and advocate for your rights.
  • Know your Guiding Stars - the overarching values that direct you through life.

Before we get into today's tips on cultivating self-love, I have a bittersweet announcement to make: Next week's Savvy Psychologist episode will be my last one as the writer and host of this show. It's been an incredible experience to share evidence-based psychology tips with you every week for the past two years. I'm so grateful for such a dedicated and kind audience. The feedback I've received from you has inspired me, encouraged me, helped me grow, and made me more committed to furthering the science of mental health.

Although I'm leaving the show, I'm not stopping this work - I'm working on a book on insomnia that challenges our conventional ways of thinking about sleep and provides a practical blueprint for improving sleep without medications. If you've enjoyed listening to my episodes, I think you'll like the book, too. I'm excited to share more about it, so please make sure to follow me on social media and stay tuned for an announcement soon. 

Meanwhile, I'm thrilled that I'll get to introduce to you the next Savvy Psychologist in next week's episode. Here's a teaser: Dr. Monica Johnson is an experienced clinical psychologist and expert in numerous areas of mental health, including trauma, growth, sexuality, and race-based stress. Next week, I will interview her about the future of mental health and officially pass the torch to her as the new Savvy Psychologist. Please make sure you tune into next week's episode!

Now, let's talk about something eternally important: Self-love. 

Imagine if you have to spend the next 60 years stuck in an unbreakable relationship with someone. You have to go everywhere together, do everything together, and experience life’s every joy and pain together. Would you rather this be a person you love, someone who also loves you…or would you rather it be a just-tolerable coworker you’re stuck on a forever project with?

Now the twist: This person is yourself. After all, you have to spend everyday with you, for the rest of your life. You can either put up with yourself, occasionally being at odds or maybe even frequently irritated with this anchor. You could be dismissive towards yourself or even put yourself down, sowing doubt in your dreams or sabotaging your efforts to grow.

Or you could be affirming and encouraging and compassionate.

If given the choice, which relationship would you rather be in? And if it’s the loving one, how can you go about cultivating that love? Let’s explore a few good places to begin:

Self-Love Tip #1: Listen to your body

Our bodies are our most valuable asset. Without them, we can’t enjoy wine, smell flowers, create masterpieces, learn new skills, fall in love, challenge our assumptions, hug our dogs…and bodies are precious because they’re irreplaceable. But we often go around using our bodies as tools, pushing them as hard as they’ll go, or making them run on fumes. I know I’m certainly guilty of not paying attention until something goes wrong.

What happens if we were more attuned to our bodies? We would rest during our busy days, and give ourselves the best chance for quality sleep at night. We would eat more nourishing food, spend more time in nature, and probably stretch more often. Precisely what your body needs only your body would know. And if you really listen, you’ll begin to rekindle a loving relationship with it.

Self-Love Tip #2: Give yourself permission to feel

We often say things like, “I know I should be grateful, but…” or “Why am I so irrationally anxious?,” or “I need to just buck up and be positive.” In other words, we think that our emotions are somehow wrong or bad, and we scold ourselves for having them.

But emotions are never inherently good or bad. They’re simply natural reactions we have to situations, and often the best tools our brains have for communicating danger, injustice, connection, desire, and need. If we label emotions as “bad,” we pile on shame and guilt and frustration simply for being human. If we allow and appreciate our emotions, instead, we’d have greater self-awareness and self-compassion. 

So next time you feel anxious, or angry, or hopeless, don’t automatically shut them down and try to manufacture “positive vibes only.” Ask yourself, instead, what this emotion feels like, where it sits in your body, and what it tells you about your current situation. You may find that there’s disappointment hiding under the anger, or self-doubt behind that frustration. These can be valuable clues about what you should do. You may choose not to act out what the hot emotion wants you to do (e.g., you don’t have to throw things just because you feel angry), but at least you are on the same page with yourself instead of fighting both your own feelings and the difficult situation.

If we label emotions as “bad,” we pile on shame and guilt and frustration simply for being human.

Self-Love Tip #3: Express yourself, gain mastery

We humans are restless, creative creatures. We simply need to express ourselves. You may not think of yourself as creative because you’ve never taken art lessons or been confident with a musical instrument, but not all creativity fits into the box of traditional arts. Maybe you’re the dinner party comedian who cracks people up. Or you’ve always got the best Halloween costume. There might be an incredible brewmaster living within you if only you’d turn your appreciation into effort. Perhaps your dream is to hike the Appalachian Trail.

One of the greatest ways you can love yourself is to give yourself the satisfaction of mastery and the freedom of expression. Dig into something you care about and give yourself the permission to fail. After all, you wouldn’t refuse to give your best friend a birthday gift on the off chance that they might not like it, right? The gesture itself is what builds love.

Self-Love Tip #4: Forgive yourself, and be patient

Of course, when we give ourselves the chance to flourish, we also risk failing and making mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes are grave. They rupture our relationships with people we love, change the course of our financial or physical health, make us question our own moral integrity.

Shame and guilt can really sting. There’s a good reason for that. For us social animals with moral brains, these self-conscious emotions hold us accountable to ourselves and to each other. But they’re not very helpful when they linger, fester, make us withdraw, make us turn against ourselves. It’s hard to make true amends or grow from your mistakes when you’re weighed down by this self-hatred.

How do you forgive yourself? Start by fully taking responsibility for your role in the mistake, and also letting go of the parts that were not your responsibility. Be realistic about this. Then, acknowledge why you did what you did - perhaps you acted with good intentions but didn’t do adequate research before making the risky investment. Perhaps in a moment of impulsive defensiveness, you insulted a partner without considering how much your words would hurt. Maybe you were feeling so low about yourself that you took solace in someone in a way that betrayed your partner. These are not excuses for your mistakes. They are honest acknowledgements that will help you to understand what happened so you can begin to make things right.

Last but not least, be patient. Just as it takes time to forgive someone else. It takes time to forgive yourself, too. But do actively show yourself compassion and take actions to make amends. Don’t punish yourself, because I bet you don’t need any more reminders about the weight in your stomach.

Self-Love Tip #5: Set boundaries and be your own best advocate

Loving yourself means valuing yourself. When you value someone, you respect and advocate for them instead of taking advantage of them. Often, we’re good at valuing other people, but stumble when it comes to ourselves. For example, we could be indignant on behalf of a friend who is not getting paid fairly, but make excuses to procrastinate negotiating our own salary. Maybe we’d never think to arrive unannounced at a family member’s house and guilt-trip them into doing us yet another favor, but when someone else does this to us, we have a hard time saying, “No.”

What we’re telling ourselves, in these cases, is that we’re not worthwhile, that we don’t think we deserve respect. How can you love and treasure someone if you don’t even respect them?

Set boundaries even with your closest family and friends. Stick to them kindly but firmly. Practice assertive communication skills any chance you get.

So, set boundaries even with your closest family and friends. Stick to them kindly but firmly. Practice assertive communication skills any chance you get. Practice saying “no” to unreasonable requests in the mirror. Practice asking for what you need in the mirror, too, whether it’s a salary commensurate with your expertise or your partner’s acknowledgment of a past hurt. When it feels tough, pretend you’re standing up for your best friend.

Self-Love Tip #6: Know your "guiding stars"

One of the greatest love gifts you can give yourself is direction. Existential direction. What does that mean? Well, you know how people who know themselves are just more... attractive, somehow? Their passion, their confidence, and their steadfastness in the face of uncertainty make them simply charismatic. You can tell that they are at peace with themselves, no matter the flavor of their passions in life. 

This doesn’t mean they have the answers to everything. But they know their Guiding Stars - their overarching values in life. These can include compassion, innovation, fame, faith, achievement, beauty, power, duty, generosity, peace, connection...There are no right or wrong ones. You just have to know which ones you want to follow. And when you know what your most important Guiding Stars are, you will start to find clarity with difficult decisions and feel more peace in the face of life’s messiness.

With this note of hope and optimism, I thank you again for being a wonderful audience for the past two years. Let's keep in touch! You can subscribe to my minimalist newsletter at www.JadeWuPhD.com, and follow me on Twitter @JadeWuPhD. I'll be doubling down on mental health content with a focus on all things related to sleep. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.