For some, this may be a confusing question to ask, for many of us have never been taught to respond with self-love or even reflected much on it as adults. Without the awareness of what self-love is, one unconsciously responds in ways one picked up as growing up – perhaps healthy, or perhaps sabotaging in ways that have significant consequences on one’s ability to receive love from others, on the quality of one’s relationship with oneself, and on one’s health and well-being.
What is self-love? Self-love can be discussed as both a way of thinking and a feeling state. It is not a destination, but rather a practice. It’s not about having an overflowing positive self-regard or to always be soft and nice. It is about the intentional practice of reacting with compassion and a sense of warmth to oneself. Self-love could look like any one of these: not being so hard on oneself; having acceptance of who one is and how one shows up at any given moment; warmly wishing oneself health and happiness even when one has come to expect the opposite; honoring oneself and the messages from one’s body, gut, and heart, honoring one’s truth even when it creates conflict.
Practicing self-love offers the fast track to healing from old wounds and trauma. It is in the absence of self-love that we can harbor old feelings of hurt and anger that keep us victims of our past. Self-love is literally the foundation on which one builds a balanced, fulfilling, healthy life.
(side note: a common saying “you have to love yourself first before you can receive the love of another” is not entirely true for everyone. It seems some people need to feel moments of love or deep value from someone else (even a therapist), before they have the internal wiring to love themselves.
A variety of research supports the significance of practicing self-love.* While a key guideline of practicing any mindfulness meditation is practicing with a sense of warmth and gentleness to oneself, a meditation to specifically practice self-love is called Loving Kindness meditations. There are Loving Kindness meditations that focus on loving others and/or oneself. For many, it may be easier to start with developing a loving presence for a loved one past or present, or even a pet. From there, it can be easier to transfer that loving presence onto oneself.
Research has found that practicing Loving-Kindness meditation is correlated with: increased positive emotions of love, joy, gratitude, and contentment (which then had the effect of increasing a wide range of personal resources such as social support, clarity on life-purpose, decreased illnesses); increased vagal tone – a physiological marker of wellbeing; decreased migraines, chronic pain, anger, PTSD symptoms; increased empathy and emotional processing; allows practitioners to relax; increases markers indicative of relaxing and restoring; increases telomere length – marker of aging; increases compassion, empathy, prosocial behavior, and a sense of social connection while decreasing one’s implicit bias.
Kristen Neff is a leading researcher on loving kindness and I leave you here with a link to her loving kindness or self-compassion meditations to practice on your own. She also has a few other valuable guided meditations to which I encourage you to check out.