Loving Me, Loving You: how to learn to love yourself
Updated: Apr 18
I was teaching on a 5-day leadership programme recently and on the final day a participant from Eastern Europe said to me: “The key thing I’m going to take away from this week is knowing I sabotage myself by focusing on the negative and that receiving positive feedback is really painful for me. I know now I have to learn to love myself.” He then asked me to recommend reading material. I found some great books but they were primarily American self-help books aimed at women and this man was a very different audience. So I said I would write an article for him and all the others who sabotage themselves from reaching their highest potential and understanding what true success really means.
In an article I wrote Creating the Future: my 7 golden rules my first golden rule is: ‘You have to believe and it all starts with believing in yourself! This ultimately means believing you are worthy of receiving love. If you don’t love yourself, not ego love but deep inner love, then you cannot begin to love others and embrace your life. To paraphrase Ghandi, our Beliefs become our Destiny. If we don’t believe passionately in that optimum future we will inevitably create the self-fulfilling defeatist one we most fear.’
It has taken me many years to learn to love myself. Lots of therapy and too many experiences of what not loving myself does to me and to those I love, but still my ‘critical parent’ inner voice can be quick to condemn this as self-indulgent narcissism based on a fragile ego. Even when we finally learn to understand the difference between narcissistic ego love and unconditional inner love, what the Greeks called ‘Philautia’, we couch it in more palatable phrases: ‘self-esteem’, ‘integrity’, ‘self-worth’, ‘self-respect’ etc. To give ourselves permission to love ourselves is a step too far, partly because of fear of accusations of arrogance but beyond that…and this is what my Eastern European client was struggling through the week to express….it is too painful: it reminds us poignantly of who we were before life changed us and made us defensive and cynical. It reminds us of that younger self who believed in hope and love. So we reject it… and as a consequence we reject our self... as naïve foolishness.
Why does loving ourselves matter so much? Why do I teach this as core to the Champion Mindset and leadership? Let’s start with the great harm not loving ourselves does. In What does your 8 Year Old Self think of you? I wrote: ‘If my 8-year-old had met my 39-year-old she would have felt ok about what I was doing but she would have been disappointed with the woman I had become. I had become very dutiful, over-controlling, fearful and was stuck in a victim mentality. I had also stopped dancing and writing, both childhood passions of mine. I’m not sure my 8-year-old would have liked me very much.’
It causes great harm internally either through physical and/or psychological symptoms manifested in health issues, drug abuse, eating disorders, depression. Consequentially, if we are miserable, if our heart is not singing, then it is also externalized in how we connect with others: through bullying, being mean, playing victim, controlling and/or infantilising others. The more power we have as parents, bosses, partners, the deeper this negative impact, What we think is loving and caring for others is not. We cannot begin to love another if we do not unconditionally love ourselves. Otherwise it becomes conditional, narcissistic ego love: I only love you because of what you do for me, because of how you reflect ME.
So this is what I’ve learned about how to love myself:
1. I’ve learned that paradoxically loving myself brings joy to others, that the more my heart sings, the more I ‘dance’ and embrace my life, the more I bring that to others.
2. I’ve learned that caring for and loving me does not mean an either/or but that I love others more deeply if I include myself. And I’ve also learned that at times it’s not an either/or, that sometimes it’s ok to choose my needs over others. This has been the hardest learning of all and I’ve had to push through guilt and internal injunctions that I am being selfish. My whole identity as a nurturer did not understand or accept the concept: ‘I matter’. Even writing this article has pushed many buttons for me!
3. I’ve learned that to be kind to myself is the first step and so I keep tuned into my instinctual body: physical fitness, energy, nutrition, sleep, laughter and play. This is the root of our positive energy transforming into our emotional and psychological happiness.
4. I’ve learned that loving every aspect of myself, even my ‘shadow’ i.e. aspects of myself that I am ashamed or shy about, enables me to accept myself and reconnect with my Authentic Self, my highest potential as a human being. In ‘Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche’ Robert A Johnson explains why integrating our own shadow enables us to accept and love the ‘real me’ and, as a consequence, it has released my creativity and healthy power. As Johnson says: ‘to honor and accept one’s own shadow…is whole-making and the most important experience of a lifetime’.
5. I've learned I had to grow up and move beyond the victim, ‘good girl’ mentality which encourages co-dependence, fear and negative energy. Conversely, the other extreme of becoming too independent comes at a cost too. This is the push/pull paradox: we are social animals, born with a deep need for intimacy and connection and we are also hunters, born with a hunger for exploration, growth and freedom. It is proving to be a very exciting adventure and, as Batman had to learn after a lonely and hollow victory in the brilliant Lego Batman film, working with our loved ones/team to save Gotham City is infinitely more effective and much more fun!