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How to practice self-love

By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts

So often in life, we gravitate towards people and things to feel that we are loved and lovable. We’ve grown up seeking external validation from parents and caretakers, so it makes sense that we’d also crave affirmation from a romantic partner or praise from a boss. But if we require that validation in order to feel positive about ourselves, we place our happiness and confidence on shaky ground. Our belief in our own value starts to crumble if that partner leaves us, if we have a challenging day at work, or if we ever face criticism.

That’s why it’s important to practice self-love. Through simple daily actions and a mindfulness practice, we can cultivate a sense that we are worthy, valuable, and lovable, no matter what is or isn’t happening around us. We can learn to interrupt our default thought patterns and instead show ourselves the care we all deserve.

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In this article

What is self-love?

Self-love, like the very idea of love itself, is a tricky thing to pin down. But we can think of it as the act of connecting with ourselves to better tune in to our truths which, in turn, shapes how we show up in life. We practice self-love by being kinder and gentler to ourselves, without indulging the inner-critic and without judgment.

In other words, self-love involves shifting our focus inward not outward, setting healthy boundaries we might not be used to setting, no longer denying our innermost needs, and adopting a new perspective, removed from the stories in our head that are dependent on the actions or words of others, or the rigid expectations we hold on to in our mind.

It’s also about acts of self-care — rest, pampering, and participating in activities that improve our mood or bring us joy. But it’s important to remember that self-love isn’t self-indulgence, and isn’t an excuse to let ourselves off the hook. We can still hold ourselves accountable to the goals we’ve set for our growth. All in all, we can take the steps to fuel our self-love, rather than allowing negative thinking to fuel a self-perception that isn’t very loving, and is often shaped by our upbringing or relationships. So while a deficit of self-love is often the cause and effect of circumstances outside our control, we can use awareness to understand our conditioning, and then start to turn things around.

Self-love begins with the simple act of appreciating ourselves. Too often, our minds become overrun with critical mental chatter and limiting beliefs about what we are or aren’t capable of. When we’re consumed by these thoughts, it’s difficult to offer ourselves gentleness or recognize our strengths. “If a really close friend was having a tough time, there’s no way we’d speak to them the way we speak to ourselves in our mind,” says Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe. To practice self-love is to find that same friendly compassion for ourselves.

And that word “practice” is important. Self-love is more than just an absence of negative self-talk or a sustained state of positivity towards ourselves — that would be unrealistic and unsustainable. Self-love is learned and cultivated through daily intentional actions that support our development.

Of course, the way we have been programmed to think about ourselves isn’t going to transform overnight. Loving ourselves is the same as loving another — it requires work, time, and a commitment to choose love. That’s why we practice, and keep practicing, until the positive reinforcements, as well as the acts of self-care, become an ingrained part of how we view ourselves. So even when we revert to type — as is inevitable — our awareness kicks in and we let go of any negative chatter. Gradually, we start to see how we are thinking and responding differently.

Why is self-love so challenging?

There are many reasons that it can be difficult to practice self-love. Some of those reasons stem from a misunderstanding of what it means to do so. The very notion is often conflated with narcissism or selfishness. Some of us might worry that if we express positive feelings about ourselves, we’ll appear self-absorbed or arrogant. But there’s a difference between these character traits and the experience of genuine confidence in, and gratitude for, who we are. It’s not about elevating ourselves above anyone else, but rather about appreciating our own uniqueness separate from others and their opinions.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how we’re socialized. We live in an achievement-oriented world in which we’re taught to measure ourselves against external markers of success. And when we fall short of those touchpoints, we can fall into mental storylines around inadequacy or failure and become overly self-critical. When we lean into such negative self-talk, research shows that we remain stuck in a physical state of stress.

So much of self-criticism stems from recognizing ways in which we’d like ourselves to change. Perhaps we want to feel healthier in our bodies, or become less attached to our anger. The truth is that the more we resist things as they are, the more likely they are to stay the same. Many of us have experienced frustration when we’ve faltered on a new exercise regimen, only to let that frustration cause us to give up entirely, or experienced the shame that comes after losing our temper when we promised we wouldn’t. When we follow our missteps with self-punishment and reproach, we ensure that we’ll stay stuck in that cycle of negativity.

But when we shift perspective, we can reframe our errors and learn from our mistakes. Treating ourselves with kindness can have a powerful impact on our thinking. That's where meditation comes in.

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Using meditation to fuel self-love

Each one of us is worthy of self-love. But knowing this and integrating this are two different things. If self-love doesn’t come easy, that’s usually because our mind has been trained – through childhood, relationships, or other circumstances — to think otherwise. So the root of self-love, or the lack of it, can often be found in our thinking.

When we meditate, we take the time to sit with our thoughts and emotions. We observe the mind’s behavior. We notice how busy the mind is, and how easily thoughts or storylines take us away from the present moment. Most people usually notice the mind’s negative bias, too — it seems we are built that way. And that’s when we start to realize how we are the ones causing ourselves the most difficulty, based on the lens through which we look at life … and ourselves.

That’s why meditation, like self-love, is a constant practice. It’s also why the Headspace app offers guided meditations, so that the voice of one of the in-app teachers offers instruction throughout. What we are cultivating when we meditate is a place beyond thought, beyond feeling, beyond bias — a place of comfort, calm, clarity, and compassion. A place we can always return to with self-kindness in mind.

Once we become comfortable with the coming and going of thoughts — letting them arise and then letting them go — we come to understand how our thoughts and emotions can be fleeting, and that we give them weight and meaning with all our ruminating. And so it’s easy to see within this understanding how meditation creates a perspective shift.

When we understand that we are not the way we think, then we also realize that we are not what we do, and we are not what we look like on any given day. These are old thoughts and old ideas about ourselves. There is freedom within all of this — and it’s from that freedom that our self-love can grow.

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How to practice self-love

When we practice self-love, together with meditation, we offer ourselves the opportunity to find internal ease in the present moment, no matter what might be going on around us.

But self-love has benefits beyond our relationships to ourselves. The more we’re able to validate and nurture ourselves, the easier it becomes to offer compassion and generosity to the people around us as well.

Like the love we offer others, the ways we show love to ourselves will vary depending on who we are and what we need. But ultimately it’s about cultivating compassion, which is an innate quality we all have and can tap into. It simply gets buried underneath the pace of life, and our own internal dialogue. It’s only when we quiet the mind through meditation that our compassion can find some spaciousness to blossom.

Being compassionate to ourselves doesn’t mean replacing all our negative mental chatter with positive thoughts. Instead, it’s about learning to see through the nature of thought altogether. Meditation teaches us that it doesn’t matter what thoughts crop up about ourselves or what other people might think about us — there’s still a quiet confidence that’s unimpacted by external events or opinions.

Here are 6 practices that can help each of us be more loving toward ourselves:

  1. Embrace meditation and mindfulness.

When we meditate, we are cultivating self-love. But that’s still only 10 minutes of the day, or maybe up to an hour for seasoned meditators. Transferring that quality of mind into the rest of our day is where mindfulness takes over — the ability to remain aware, without getting caught up in our ancient patterns, without getting fazed by what’s happening around us. The mind we train in meditation is essentially the mind that learns to be mindful, not falling into old ways of thinking. Research shows an association between meditation/mindfulness and elevated self-esteem and happiness, as well as lowered anxiety — each of which makes it easier to practice self-love. What’s more, it becomes easier to recognize the negative thoughts and feelings that often get in the way of us appreciating ourselves. Three weeks of using the Headspace app has been shown to increase compassion by 21%.

  1. Express gratitude to yourself.

When we express gratitude — for the qualities we possess or the day we’ve experienced — we are connecting with the things we value about ourselves. Self-appreciation is one route to self-love. Whether we say these things quietly to ourselves, or keep a list in a gratitude journal, the practice of acknowledging our strengths and achievements will help build that self-love over time and allow us to redirect our desire for external validation inwards.

  1. Practice self-care.

Self-love blossoms when we take care of ourselves. This can be something as basic as attending to our basic needs — eating well, hydrating enough, exercising, and sleeping as much as we need — but it can also look like doing a little extra. We might carve out an afternoon to do an activity we love or pamper ourselves in some way. Self-love centers around how we think and feel about ourselves. Self-care is those thoughts and feelings put into action, however we choose to treat or spoil ourselves.

  1. Set boundaries.

Nothing is more loving than recognizing our own limits and protecting ourselves from running past them. When we don’t love ourselves enough, we can tend to come from a place of people-pleasing and put the needs of others ahead of our own, in pursuit of validation. When we bring awareness to this trait, we can start to make changes and set healthy boundaries. Though it can feel challenging to do so, we show ourselves love by saying no to people, things, and experiences that don’t feel good and by asking clearly for what we need from our loved ones.

  1. Let go of comparisons.

Comparing ourselves to the external success or achievements of others is a sure-fire way to cultivate negativity. Each of us has our own path in life, and we practice self-love by reminding ourselves of that when the desire to compare arises.

  1. Forgive yourself.

Challenges are inevitable. Each of us will make mistakes or behave in ways we regret. We can practice self-love by extending compassion and kindness to ourselves in these moments. When negative self-talk shows up, we can notice it and acknowledge it without giving into the self-criticism. We can extend the grace and forgiveness we’d extend easily to a dear friend in the same situation.

Try 9 meditations for learning how to practice self-love

Looking for more meditations for practicing self-love? The Headspace app offers members several courses and single meditations on self-compassion, self-esteem, and self-care, including:

Uncover self-loving already existing within you and practice friendliness towards your mind.

Healing from a big loss isn’t a linear process.

Move to a less judgmental inner life; creating space in your mind to observe negative thinking.

We all have the capacity for self-love. Learn to use it as a resource that can help you show up better in your daily life.

Discover a sense of positivity and empowerment to lift yourself up when you’re feeling down.

Practice skillful compassion as a way to show up for yourself, your community, and anyone who may be facing difficulties.

When we make mistakes, it’s easy to let our harsh inner critic take over. But showing ourselves kindness can help us show up better for our families.

It’s easy to get lost in day-to-day responsibilities, but we all deserve a break for self-care. Take the next few minutes to nurture yourself.

Don't forget to thank yourself for the big and small ways you show your family love.

As Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe once put it: “To seek happiness is natural. But to look for it outside of ourselves, as though it is dependent on something in the future, is one sure way to never find it.” Learning how to practice self-love can be challenging, but developing that strength within is paramount to finding joy and ease in life.

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