JulieAnne Cross of Stanton was 24 before she began to love herself. She had struggled during her younger years, always feeling that she didn’t measure up—that she wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough. No matter what others told her, she just didn’t believe them.
“I had grown up in a situation in which many of my family members valued the superficial—your looks, your clothes, your possessions. They judged a woman by her looks and her ability to attract a man, but I didn’t date much when I was younger, and I never felt that I was as attractive as others,” Cross, now 43, says. “And the longer I wasn’t part of a couple, the more I doubted myself. ‘Why doesn’t anybody love me?’ I wondered.
“I remember when I finally made the transition from being insecure to being secure,” Cross says. “I came to a situation where I was forced to go out and socialize by myself. I didn’t want to go alone, but I did. After that one event, my whole world changed. By forcing myself to be secure, I really did become emotionally secure.”
Sometimes, the idea of loving yourself can get a bad rap. After all, when we want to say that someone is self-absorbed and narcissistic, we say, “He’s in love with himself.”
But that’s not at all that psychologists mean by self-love. To love yourself means to accept yourself as a person worthy of care and respect—from yourself and others.
“People have a strange notion that loving yourself is narcissistic, but it’s not the same thing at all,” says Wilmington psychologist Julie James. “I recall talking to one woman who was embarrassed to admit that she really likes herself and who she is. Rather than be embarrassed by liking ourselves, we should all be striving for it.”
“How we feel about ourselves and how we perceive ourselves dictates most of our lives—our decisions, our perceptions of the world,” James says. “If we really like ourselves, we will make choices from a more entitled, strength-based place. To love yourself means you believe you have something to offer, that you deserve things, that you have a sense of worth and value.
“People who don’t feel good about themselves lose their voice and are tentative about their own worth,” says James.
In most cases, loving yourself is not an either-or proposition, but a continuum. Some people have achieved a high level of self-acceptance, and some people truly loathe themselves, says psychologist Kim Champion of Pike Creek Psychological Center in Newark. “But most people fall somewhere in the middle. There are things they like about themselves and things they don’t like. There are times when we accept ourselves and other times when we are too hard on ourselves.”
Very few people don’t have any areas where they feel insecure and vulnerable, James adds, and the ability to love yourself is “something that’s always in motion.”
Learning to love, respect and value yourself starts in childhood, but for many of us it is a journey that continues throughout life, experts say.
Your parents and your upbringing have an influence on the base that you establish, but other people and experiences matter as well—how you are treated by peers and other adults, what experiences you have, particularly if you have traumatic experiences like sexual abuse. Your personality also affects how you process and respond to your experiences, and different people will respond differently to the same experiences.
“It kind of starts with what we’re given as children, but we have to build on it,” says Todd. “We have to be able to accept our own goodness.”
Stefani Williams, 55, of Frankford, is one woman who learned to accept and love herself as she is. She says she had the inevitable challenges with accepting her body as she was going through puberty, especially since by eighth grade she was already taller and “more voluptuous” than her peers, but she learned early on to embrace herself for who she was.
“The foundation had already been set by the way I was raised, and by the positive reinforcement I received, particularly from my father,” Williams says.
Williams raised her son and daughter to have that the same self-acceptance, and she sought to instill it in others as well during her career as a social worker. She taught her children, the young girls she dealt with as a social worker, and now her granddaughter, “that you are beautiful just the way you are, perfect just the way you are, and that you are capable of anything.”
For Wilmington University senior Mary (Mary is a pseudonym for a source who prefers to keep her identity private), the trigger for self-doubt came the day she turned 18 and had her first panic attack.
“I was a very capable person, intelligent, with a lot of good friends, but once the panic attacks started, I had a hard time accepting that it wasn’t my fault. I began to doubt myself and feel like an outcast,” she says.
She began receiving counseling, and that’s when she started to learn about the importance of accepting your strengths and weaknesses, of setting goals, and congratulating yourself when you achieve those goals.
She began volunteering, which helped instill self-confidence. She started to earn straight As in college and stopped associating with negative people. And when she found a boyfriend who respected her and thought she was great just as she was, she began to believe it herself.
“Because of the panic attacks, I had gotten lost,” Mary says. “I just wasn’t proud of myself. I guess now I really do love myself, and that has enhanced my life in so many ways.”
As Mary’s experiences prove, there are things you can do to work toward self-love and acceptance. Willetts notes that we can begin to succeed by taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.
Internal self-talk is very important, she adds. You should talk to yourself as a coach, not a critic. She suggests finding support from family and friends who are positive and encouraging and honest, who will help you to see yourself in a realistic light. Feeling that you are part of a broader community, whether it’s a faith-based organization or some other community, has also been shown to be important, Willetts says.
For some people, especially women but increasingly men, too, self-love requires ridding ourselves of expectations about how we should look that are often based on the air-brushed images we encounter in magazines. “Society saturates us with pre-defined notions of happiness, success and beauty,” James says. To battle that, we need to develop and trust our own standards.
“It’s very American to want to always be bettering ourselves and sometimes we need to stop and be grateful and just enjoy what we have,” Willetts says. “I see lots of people who think they should be able to choose and do everything and do it well, and that’s not healthy.”
Learning to love yourself, James says, begins by recognizing what is getting in the way of self-acceptance. “You need to turn inward instead of outward and do an inventory of who you are, to recognize your strengths and identify things that interfere with feeling good about yourself. It’s about giving your voice as much volume if not more than everybody else’s. You need to trust your gut and not make decisions based exclusively on what others say.”
For some people, the journey to self-love will require professional help. “If lack of self-love is causing hopelessness and depression, if it’s affecting your quality of life and the direction you’re going in, you need to seek help,” Todd says.
Cross made the journey to self-love successfully, she says, because she learned to reject the standards that others set for her and develop her own rules for life. Now a business owner, wife and mother, she has a career she enjoys and people in her life who matter to her and make her feel joyful, she says. “I feel way better about myself now than I ever did.”
Although loving yourself is a constant struggle, it is one worth continuing. Self-love plays into physical and mental health, as well as the ability to have strong, healthy relationships. When we love ourselves, we are more likely to take care of ourselves by eating right, exercising, getting the rest we need and getting regular medical care. Conversely, when we don’t appreciate or accept ourselves, we are more likely to do things that are unhealthy, like over eat, or do everything for others and nothing for ourselves.
“Health is not just physical health. It is mind, body and spirit,” says Uday Jani, M.D., a Lewes internist who recently completed a fellowship in integrative medicine. “Feeling positive about ourselves has a positive influence on health. If your mind if peaceful, your body is happy,” he says, “but if you lack positive self-esteem, you tend to be very self-critical.”
Being hypercritical and feeling too much stress and anxiety can increase the likelihood that you will suffer from physical ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, asthma and a variety of skin rashes. A lack of self-esteem can even make it more difficult to rebound from an injury, Jani says. If you lack belief in yourself, you might give up too easily on the recovery process.
The lack of self-love has ramifications for mental health as well. It can interfere with motivation and cause isolation, anxiety and depression, says Lewes psychologist Richard Todd. Some people try to distract themselves from their feelings of self-worth by engaging in activities that feel good in the moment but are ultimately addictive and destructive, such as drugs, alcohol and food.
When we lack self-love, it becomes difficult to have healthy relationships with others as well. People who lack self-worth tend toward “friendships and relationships that are destructive and tear you down, because you don’t recognize that you deserve more,” says psychologist Kim Champion.
Psychologist Judi Willetts, Champion’s colleague at Pike Creek Psychological Center in Newark, agrees. “To have healthy relationships you need to have positive self-esteem,” she says. “You can only extend love to other people when you love yourself.”
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