When I was a therapist, I met with many clients who nurtured others but spent a minimal amount of time offering love or care to themselves.
A former client I’ll call Dave worked hard at his job in auto sales, supported his wife as she completed her college degree, helped his mother-in-law, who could no longer drive, and showed up at school functions for his two children. Dave began to feel resentful, however, when he realized that his own needs weren’t being met.
You might relate to Dave. If you’re someone who makes chicken soup for a sick neighbor, sits for hours with a friend in the hospital, ferries children back and forth to activities, listens at length to beloved relatives on the phone, offers to take extra shifts for busy co-workers or makes time to help strangers with no expectation of having those favors returned, then you might find that you’ve put yourself at the bottom of a long list of people who need care. Like Dave, you might benefit from loving yourself more fully, more consciously and more frequently.
Think about how often you see family photos of children on social media, but far fewer photos of parents. The parents are busy creating experiences and memories for their families, but rarely include themselves in those photos. This “not in the picture” phenomenon happens more than just in photo albums, and it happens to people who aren’t parents, too. These people take themselves out of the picture of their own lives.
Loving oneself, putting oneself back in the picture, takes practice.
Like most skills, self-love can be practiced and mastered. It can be strengthened by creating routines. Here are five self-love exercises to incorporate into your weekly routine:
1. Treat yourself. Do something occasionally that is only for you, something you enjoy. This could be a movie, a good book, a bubble bath or a long swim. You know what brings you joy and rest. Make a list of those activities and incorporate them into each week.
2. Listen to yourself. Sit quietly and allow your mind space to know itself. Listen to what bubbles up in the stillness. If you pay attention without judgment, truths emerge. Make room for those truths, the same way you would if you were listening to a loved one. Let what you learn inform the way you understand yourself and move you toward greater self-acceptance.
3. Care for yourself the way you care for others. This might mean cooking yourself a favorite meal or slowing down to allow yourself time to rest when you’re tired. Think of the things you habitually do for others and make time to do those things for yourself.
4. Make a list of your good qualities. How many times do you hear people giving voice to their flaws, such as “I’m so fat,” or “I’m such an idiot” or “I’ll never learn?” It’s human and understandable to feel inadequate sometimes or embarrassed or frustrated with oneself. A good counterbalance is to routinely give voice to your strengths, even if you start by only writing them down on paper. List the best things about you. If you get stumped, imagine someone who loves you naming the top three positive things about you. Don’t give in to the temptation to argue against those points. Let those items stand proudly on the list.
5. Forgive yourself. We all fall short. But we can learn from mistakes rather than beating ourselves up over them or falling into a state of paralyzed agony. Beating yourself up will not improve your outlook, change the past or make you feel more lovable. My advice? Institute a Growth Mindset. That doesn’t mean you look back with pride and pleasure on past blunders; it means you move forward purposefully with an understanding that we all learn and grow. Then, if you’re still having trouble forgiving yourself, work it off. Do something to counterbalance your misdeeds. Spend some time at a soup kitchen, a humane society, a food bank or a local service organization to help you regain your sense of yourself as a worthwhile individual.
The good news is that the mere fact of shifting the focus back toward loving care will put you on more solid footing. Yes, love your neighbors, your friends, your family, your colleagues. And love yourself, too. Do it deliberately and with as much dedication and focus as you offer others. You’ll relax, you’ll be happier and you’ll probably have more to offer the world as a result.