Loving Yourself Is A Process, But You Can Jumpstart It With These Expert-Approved Steps

Once upon a Drag Race episode, RuPaul asked a seemingly simple question: 'If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?' That now-iconic sign-off resonated with people all over the world because, of course, he’s right—but loving yourself is easier said than done.

After all, it can be difficult to stay optimistic when you encounter obstacles in life, from going through a breakup to getting rejected from job applications. While those experiences can definitely be a knock to one’s self-confidence, putting in the effort to love yourself will ultimately pay off. 'Self-love can influence how you handle the challenges you face in different aspects of your life, your overall happiness, and your mental and physical health,' says Brian Wind, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and the chief clinical officer of JourneyPure, an addiction treatment center.

Ahead, find out why cultivating self-love is so important, signs you may be struggling to love yourself, and 9 (!) awesome ways to make yourself feel adored—and then some.

What is self-love?

'Self-love is the ability to care for yourself and nurture yourself and see yourself for all that you are,' says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist, the host of the Imperfect Love podcast and the author of Date Smart. In practice, this looks like holding yourself with an attitude of appreciation and affirming feelings about your abilities, which translates into an overall positive self-view, says Erin K. Engle, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

However, loving yourself doesn't mean that you automatically approve of all of your current choices or behaviours—it's just that you understand and value yourself. Rather, self-love is 'being able to see not just your strengths with a smile and joy, but also see your frailties as something that don't need to be hidden, but can be worked on and embraced,' Manly says. For example, if you look in the mirror and see a new wrinkle on your face, self-love it's telling yourself: Yup, another wrinkle—I wish it wasn't there, but I love myself anyway.

Also worth noting: Self-love is not static, says Manly, so don't feel like you need to love yourself perfectly 24/7. Instead, think of it as a constant process of evolution, so it's totally normal if your feelings ebb and flow over time.

Why is self-love important?

The practice boasts benefits beyond just accepting yourself. From helping you set healthier boundaries in relationships to feeling more joy overall in life, here are all the pros of loving yourself, according to experts:

1. It supports resilience.

Self-love translates to a feeling of attachment and worth within yourself, Engle says. When 'we have a relationship with ourselves that is positive, loving, [and] affirming, we're usually better able to modify or even withstand or come back from challenging or difficult situations,' she says.

Say you have a friend who's always saying the word 'should': I should be the top-performing person in my office. I should look like this Instagram model. My life should be super fun all the time. Someone consistently saying these kinds of phrases might struggle with self-love. Learning to love yourself helps to shift those kinds of negative belief systems into more of a 'growth-oriented way of being' where you believe you're supposed to evolve and change, rather than expecting perfection and being discouraged when it doesn't happen, Manly says. 'That automatically feeds resilience.'

2. It helps you take risks.

When you love and believe in yourself in an affirming way, that can help you navigate change more easily, Engle says. 'Sometimes, that translates into actually taking action steps that make you go outside of our comfort zone,' she says. For instance, someone who loves themselves and specifically believes they can navigate social situations well may be more likely to challenge themselves by walking up to a random group of strangers at a networking event and introducing themselves. By taking this risk, they've also opened up themselves to new opportunity.

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3. It can help you set boundaries.

When you love yourself, it's a lot easier to say no to things that make you uncomfortable, Engle says. People with self-love 'know their worth, they understand their value, and they want to preserve that,' she explains. 'They're not willing to let other people make decisions for them that otherwise might compromise that.' When you get good at setting these boundaries, you also tend to feel more self-respect because you expect other people to respect you too, Manly adds.

For instance, imagine you've been on three dates with someone, and suddenly they say they want you to meet their parents. Someone with self-love might be more comfortable saying I really like you, but I'm not ready for that yet. However, someone who struggles to love themselves might be 'willing to do things for love that compromise their values,' Engle explains. They prioritise pleasing the other person rather than themselves.

4. It helps you manage stress.

When a situation feels stressful, 'the best thing we can do out of love for the self is to notice what in the situation we can actually shift, if anything,' Manly says. When you separate what you can and can't control, that stress tends to fade. It's as if you're telling yourself: I'm not going to have stress on me about this because I can't do anything about it.

So, if your mother and brother are in a huge fight, and it's stressing you out to see them during a family event or at Christmas, take a moment to reflect. Can you control this? Nope—it's not your problem, and you know this because you have self-love. That helps you decide which stresses you can shoulder, and which ones you can throw off to the side.

5. It helps you be yourself.

Self-love helps you do the inner work, a.k.a., the self-reflection that involves asking who you want to be and what you need in order for that to happen. When you work on yourself, you evolve and become the person you're meant to be 'that is often drowned out by the noise in the outside world,' Manly says. Remember, loving yourself and thinking about yourself in a loving and empathic way like this isn't selfish—it's just a requirement to get more in touch with yourself, she adds.

6. It helps you feel joy internally.

Everyone can get clouded by negative experiences in life, whether you were bullied as a child, struggle to stay close with your family as you grow older, or just feel lonely. It's like you're a votive candle surrounded by glass, Manly says—negative experiences can stick to you like soot in the glass. But as you do the work to love yourself, the soot gets wiped off.

'If we've never done self-love work, as we embark on it, we start wiping off that soot and we find more and more of that internal joy just waiting for us there—it's an inherent flame,' she says. 'The more you love yourself, the more you're keeping that internal joy alive.'

Signs you may be struggling to love yourself

Struggling to love yourself can show up in a variety of ways. Manly and Engle say to look out for these signs:

  • You're constantly comparing yourself to other people.

  • You're hypercompetitive.

  • You're a perfectionist and hold unrealistic standards for yourself.

  • You're very critical of yourself and others.

  • You often seek reassurance and external validation from others.

  • You don't stand up for yourself with other people.

  • You stay in abusive relationships.

  • You sometimes engage in self-sabotaging behaviors, like substance abuse.

How to love yourself

1. Recite mantras.

Also known as a mindful self-compassion exercise, mantras help you approach each day with some extra TLC. 'People can use positive self-talk and mindfulness practices with self-compassion to reduce perceived anxiety and improve confidence and well-being,' says Alan Chu, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and human development at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. If you feel anxious, try 'everyone feels this way sometimes' and 'may I be gentle and understanding with myself.'

2. Pursue a hobby that makes you feel good.

Sorry, Instagram. If you’re looking to increase self-confidence, experts say it’s important to fill your calendar with activities that you (a) enjoy and (b) are good at. 'It doesn't matter what they are, and it doesn't need to be in a professional space,' says Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, head of research at The Mental Health Coalition, and a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. If you're good at yoga, pull up a flow on YouTube. If you enjoy drawing, spend your free time filling up a sketchbook.

'Pleasure for pleasure’s sake is great, but is unlikely to bolster your confidence,' notes Amita K. Patel, LCSW, a New York-based licensed psychotherapist specialising in trauma and resilience. 'The key to building confidence is to engage in an activity that combines both pleasure and mastery.'

Maybe this means you turn to an activity you loved as a kid, like playing tennis or music. 'Returning to something familiar [and] utilizing a skill you already have increases your self-confidence,' says Wind.

3. Use all your senses.

Try this research-backed positive psychology exercise in which you scan through all five senses to halt negative thinking or invasive worries in their tracks. 'Slow down and notice the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and sensations you're experiencing in any moment,' Patel says. 'By consciously choosing where to give your attention, you’ll train your brain to stop replaying old stories that only keep you down.'

4. Do something you’ve never tried before.

This could be as simple as taking a walk through a new neighborhood, or speaking up in a meeting if you’re usually the last to talk, says Torres-Mackie. 'Doing something that's outside of your comfort zone shows you that you are tougher than you think,' says Torres-Mackie. 'These things help you trust yourself and who you are.'

You could also go out of your way to learn a new skill and try a tutorial on something totally outside of your wheelhouse (Swedish lessons on Duo Lingo, anyone?). After all, research has shown that women's empowerment and self-esteem are linked with education.

5. Start a self-love journal.

Journaling can be extremely helpful when you're in a low mood. Maybe you write about a time you ~crushed~ a goal. Aced a course? Nailed throwing a surprise birthday party for a loved one? Volunteered with an organisation near and dear to you? Reflect on it.

'No matter how big or large the accomplishment, each time we move through a challenge—and give ourselves credit for persevering through something difficult—we are wiring our brain to be more self-appreciative,' says Manly. When journaling these memories, make sure to include positive emotions you felt in the moment that helped you be resilient, such as pride and joy, Engle adds. 'Reflecting on our strengths reminds us that we can rely on ourselves during trying times,' she says.

You can also document one thing that you're grateful for every day, says Chu. Better yet, read your entries aloud to yourself after jotting them down to really make 'em sink in. You can also return to this list when you're feeling especially low.

6. Meditate.

'Meditation can certainly build self-love through fostering self-awareness, inner peace, and simply space,' Manly says. This practice can also help you be more aware of your thinking, including helping you highlight negative thought patterns, Engle adds. She recommends trying self-compassion meditations that can help promote kindness and appreciation for yourself.

And if you have a hard time sitting still, try a moving meditation, Manly suggests. 'Almost any act can be turned into a meditative space' if you are in a zone of being present for your emotions, body, and any thoughts that arise, without getting attached to them, she adds. So, if that act is taking a moment to breathe while pulling weeds in your garden or washing dishes in your kitchen, that totally counts as meditation.

7. Stick to the facts.

Say you got laid off from work. 'The jump from ‘I lost my job’ to ‘I’m a loser’ not only damages your self-confidence now, but impacts the choices you make in the future,' says Patel. To avoid a spiral, stick to the facts. 'I suck' is an opinion, but 'my company was downsizing' might be an objective truth.

8. Phone a friend.

Simply draft a short message explaining something you admire or appreciate about a pal of yours, and fire away. Then, do it for two more friends. 'Complimenting a friend means complimenting what is authentically true, while also holding realistic, not perfectionistic standards,' says Engle. 'When we view others through a compassionate and complimentary lens, we are more likely to view ourselves through that same lens.' The more you appreciate the beauty in yourself and others, the more you'll release the craving for perfectionism and genuinely build self-love, Manly adds.

9. Treat yourself like you treat your friends.

On that note, think of how you would describe a friend. Kind? Funny? Smart? And how would they describe you? We're often much nicer to those around us than we are to ourselves, so try seeing yourself through the eyes of a loved one. They love you for a reason!

Is there a difference between self-love and self-compassion?

Self-love and self-compassion are related but distinct concepts, Engle says. 'When we are compassionate towards ourselves, we can empathize and show kindness to ourselves instead of criticism,' which helps alleviate suffering, she says. Self-love, on the other hand, is more about appreciating yourself with feelings of love, affinity, and care that recognize your self-worth. 'Self-love can be thought of us a more stable or enduring construct than self-compassion,' Engle adds.

Self-compassion arises from having self-love, Manly adds. When you begin to love yourself and embrace your imperfections and the fact that they're normal, you're growing empathy and compassion for the self. For instance, if you make a mistake at work, you can take a moment to forgive yourself—that's self-compassion. However, self-love is built up over time as you work on your overall relationship with yourself, Engle says.

Remember, loving yourself won't happen in a day—it's okay if it takes a while to genuinely embrace all the different parts of yourself. Take a breath, practice these steps, and you'll get closer to having self-love each day.

Meet the Experts: Carla Marie Manly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, the host of the Imperfect Love podcast, and the author of Date Smart. Brian Wind, PhD, is an adjunct professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and the chief clinical officer of JourneyPure, an addiction treatment center. Erin K. Engle, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Alan Chu, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology and human development at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, is head of research at The Mental Health Coalition, and a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Amita K. Patel, LCSW, is a New York-based licensed psychotherapist specializing in trauma and resilience.

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