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What is self-love?

Let’s talk science08.02.21 4 min. read

As we broach the topic of self-love, Instagram seems to provide a visual definition of the concept. Search for the hashtag #selflove and we find an infinite feed of pizza, wine and smiles of people binging on the 90s sitcom ‘Friends’.

Yet in our unfiltered reality, it quickly becomes clear that this kind of self-love is, at most, just part of the answer. The topic is anything but insignificant and it can influence how we go through life, day in and day out.

So what else can self-love look like? Is it something we actively learn? Let's go on a little rendezvous with our inner life and do some soul searching.

Unconditional self-love

The word self-love is so multi-faceted that it’s tough to put a finger on a precise definition. 

Merriam-Webster’s English Dictionary ventures to call it ‘love of self’ such as ‘an appreciation of one's own worth or virtue’ and ‘proper regard for and attention to one's own happiness or well-being.’

To put it another way, just like how a baby doesn’t have to do anything to be loved, we are still always worthy of our love. This holds true when we’re doing well and feeling good, but also when we’re going through a difficult time and need our own love even more.

As a thought exercise, it’s often said that we should treat ourselves like we would treat our best friends. What would happen if we followed this idea and took it a step further?

No rose-tinted glasses: Why self-love is so much more than a cliché 

We all go through struggles. It can be healing to have someone around who wraps us in their arms. Who asks us how we’re really doing. Or who just listens when we need to vent. Who joins us to eat junk food and watch our favorite movies for the umpteenth time. 

Sometimes it can be wonderful to become that person for our own selves.

Other times, however, we might not feel like getting up from the sofa at all. We settle into the four walls around us. We get to know the characters of our Netflix series better than we know our own friends. That’s when it can be beneficial for someone to open up the blinds and clear out the pizza boxes. Someone who gets us to take a walk around the block and a much-needed shower in the meantime.

‘Tough love’ is what we call this kind of disciplined approach to caring in English. It, too, can be a form of self-love — and in the right dose and under the right set of circumstances it might be even more effective than engaging in other, more indulgent forms of self-love.

What’s important is that both kinds of self-love are present in our lives, based on the little (or not-so-little) voice inside all of us that tells us what we need.

Because taking responsibility for our own lives has a wonderful flipside: We get to decide for ourselves; no one has to tell us what we should or must do. Especially not when it comes to something personal as self-love. 

Love is complicated? Sometimes self-love can be, too

Unconditional love and tough love don’t have to contradict each other. As is often the case, the answer isn’t black and white; real life is much more vague. Let’s hope that one thing remains clear from this article: There are always two sides to the equation.

Pizza is self-love… and so is a vegetable smoothie. It’s taking a vacation, as well as working toward that dream job. It’s relaxing into comfy slippers, and also lacing up to train for a marathon.

Reality isn’t always all that rosy but every now and again it is — and sometimes we even have the power to make it that way. Because yes, we’re allowed to have a good time. As good of a time as we need it to be.

What we can do: Routines to anchor ourselves in self-love

There are a few things we can do — pretty much always — for body and mind. A few basics that tend to make us feel better. A kind of default guide that can help us when we can’t immediately understand our needs. And in the best case scenario, get us back in touch with ourselves.

At the end of the day, it comes down to factors that sound mundane at first, yet can make the world of a difference: How are we sleeping? Are we drinking enough water? What are we eating? How is our breathing? How are our social relationships? 

Routines can help us keep our focus. On good days, they permit us to relax. On difficult days, they build up our strength and resilience. And the best thing is that we can start doing these routines every day. We can lay the foundation for one starting right now. It’s essential not to rush anything; just start by doing one new practice.

This can be a meditation exercise or another mindfulness activity. A bedtime ritual with a cream that might help us sleep better. Or it could be as simple a note or an app to remind us to drink enough water. 

What does self-love look like for you?

We can’t give a definitive answer to this question either. We can only learn to listen to our feelings and hopefully realise that the solution is often not far away, but rather somewhere deep within us. 

Only one thing is for sure: If self-love is a commitment, then it's one of the best kinds of commitments. Because just like in a partnership, it applies to both the good and the bad times. If we can give ourselves our full support one day and only 10 percent the next day, both are still valid. It doesn't change a thing — we always remain true to ourselves.

What’s most important is to see and acknowledge yourself as you are — at your own pace, fulfilling your own needs. Maybe it does exist after all, your very own definition of self-love.