“No matter what, you gotta find a way to love yourself,” she says. “Because self-love’s where it’s at. That’s where the real good stuff is.”
And yet every time I talk to her, she confesses that she’s unhappy with other people, in spite of nailing the self-love stuff. “I know I’m the shit,” she says. “But other people can’t see it, and it makes me mad. It’s like they’re always trying to get on my bad side.”
I think about this. “I don’t know if they’re trying to get on your bad side so much as they’re thinking of themselves first. And not taking steps to make sure it doesn’t hit you wrong.”
She nods. “You know what makes me sad about you?” she says.
“You’re always saying wise shit like that, and yet you don’t give yourself any credit for it,” she says.
“What I just said? You think that’s wise?” I ask. “That it’s more likely that people are self-absorbed and not focused on attacking you? Rather than actually targeting you?”
“See,” she says. “Right there, you don’t think it’s wise,” she points out.
“Yeah. I guess I don’t.” Because I’m not filled with a feeling of profundity when I say it. It’s just something I see a lot. Something I’m sharing. I also feel like it’s something that I’ve observed, not something I’ve made up or discovered.
She starts to talk to me about self-love. How important it is. How I should strive for it more.
“You’re right about one thing” I say, after she finishes. “I don’t love myself. Not the way that a lot of people mean when they use that term. But I tried that, and it never really worked for me. And then I found something else that did…. I decided to stop trying to love myself and instead work on being compassionate toward myself.”
Self-compassion is the ability of a person to feel compassion for themselves when they’re suffering or fail at something. In circumstances where someone low in self-compassion would mercilessly judge and criticize themselves for making a mistake, a person who is higher in self-compassion might be more likely to forgive themselves. Research has found that self-compassion is a vital part of overall emotional health and well-being, even more so than other more widely known measures such as self-esteem (or popular ideas like “self-love”).
In essence, it’s about extending the same compassion to yourself that you would to someone else you care about. One of the most basic self-compassion exercises involves considering how you would normally look upon yourself when you’re suffering and then turning around asking yourself “How would I treat a close friend in this same situation?”
If there’s a big difference, if you’re way harsher on yourself than you would be on a dear friend, then that’s an opportunity to stop and examine whether this self-criticism is warranted. Probably not.
I Found Self-Love Unrealistic and That Trying to Have it Made Me More Defensive
Like anything else, your mileage may in fact vary, but I struggled for decades with trying to work on self-love, only to find it backfiring over and over again.
It seemed unrealistic and even bizarre to me to work on loving myself as a goal, framing it in those terms. A bit like trying to shake my own hand and noting that the experience looked and felt nothing like shaking someone else’s hand, self-love never felt as natural or as successful to me as other-love did.
It never really worked. Even though I could successfully go through the motions, something always failed to stick. It was like trying to play every character in a multiplayer versus game. Exhausting. Everything seemed forced. And I couldn’t even enjoy “victories” since I’d played every part of the process (the magic was sucked out).
I also found myself growing defensive as I focused and worked on self-love. Because anything critical that came my way from others would challenge a self-view I was trying hard to force-inflate.
The work I was doing had the opposite effect. Instead of becoming happier and more self-assured, I was more exhausted and miserable than ever.
Giving Myself Permission to Be Imperfect Worked Much Better for Me
It wasn’t until I stumbled onto the research on self-compassion that I actually found something that helped me.
Most of the people I’d met who advocated for self-love suggested to me that it was about convincing myself that I was special, unique, or somehow better than other people.
With self-compassion, I didn’t have to do any of that. In fact, it was about accepting the fact that I might be flawed or imperfect.
I could even — gasp — make mistakes — and NOT BE A HORRIBLE HUMAN BEING.
The idea was radical to me, revolutionary. It changed everything.
Some People Would Argue Self-Compassion IS Self-Love
When I consider my relationship with myself, this is how I see it: I don’t love myself, but I AM compassionate towards myself. If I mess up, I can forgive myself. And instead of pretending it didn’t happen, scrambling to pin it on someone else, or beating up on myself and feeling like I’m a terrible person, I start trying to fix it and start asking myself what I can learn from it.
And some people might hear this and argue that self-compassion IS a form of self-love, so that the statement I made before is untrue and therefore I AM practicing self-love, just a different kind that the form I was introduced to earlier on in life.
In all fairness, this is probably a reasonable statement. But since the self-love movement is rife with practitioners of the other kind of self-love, who preach what I’ve found to be unrealistic self-love standards that backfire for me (believing that I’m “the shit”), I’ve found it considerably more helpful just to step away from the idea of self-love as a goal altogether.
If that’s self-love, fine. And perhaps that would mean that the moment I stopped trying to love myself and focused instead on forgiving myself for being human was the moment I actually succeeded.
For more reframes and tools to maintain healthy relationships of all kinds, please see Dealing with Difficult Metamours, a guide to troubleshooting challenging polyamorous dynamics as well as guidance on how to not create them in the first place.