Love it or hate it – February, particularly February 14th, is inextricably associated with love. Up to 91% of British people and 51% of Americans are expected to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year. In this blog, we make a case for caring for the most important love of all, self-love. Alongside self-care, self-worth and self-advocacy, it leads to better relationships all round.
Love and relationships: what’s the most important relationship in your life?
We are programmed, mainly through popular culture, to associate February and the 14th with love. Our attention is directed to the person(s) we are romantically involved with, and marketing encourages us to express our love with gifts and gestures. But, it can feel alienating to those who, for whatever reason, are not in such relationships. And, it fails to recognise the most important relationship you’re ever going to have: your relationship with yourself.
Valentine’s Day is not only for lovers. It’s achingly rare to hear your most intimate and enduring relationship, the one you have with yourself, mentioned. Hardly ever is it championed in the same way that we focus on lovers or partners. However, it is the only relationship that’s with you from your first breath to your last. No one else in your life, no one, travels with you every single breath of the way. We are the only ones who see all of who we are, whatever that may be.
So how is this relationship going? How are you getting along with yourself? What’s the quality of the time you spend with yourself, and what’s your self-talk like? Few of us have been taught how to care for this most precious connection, so let’s get curious.
What is self-love, and how do I practice self-love?
Love is about appreciation and acceptance, spending time together, sharing celebrations and tribulations, compassion, helping each other, bringing joy and expressing our feelings in gestures and gifts. If you have been or are in a love relationship with someone, you’ve likely experienced some or all of the above.
How many of us can say the same about our relationship with ourselves? Would you name any of the above qualities when describing your own relationship with yourself?
Here are seven questions to assess the state of your self-relationship:
- Do I appreciate myself and accept who I am?
- Do I want to spend time with myself?
- Do I share my celebrations and tribulations with myself?
- Do I treat myself with compassion?
- Do I help myself when I need help?
- Do I bring myself joy?
- Do I express my feelings to myself with gifts and gestures?
Maya’s story: mother’s love and self-love
Maya had been brought up to believe that true love, whether for her children or her husband, was to prioritise their needs over her own, always. When Maya came to The Helpful Clinic, she was in her mid-forties. She was struggling with work-life balance experiencing chronic stress and anxiety, and feeling tired or lethargic most of the time. She suffered recurring aches and pains and struggled with sleep. One of the key aspects she discovered, when we started Sherlocking what was going on for her, was that her relationship with herself was near enough non-existent.
When asked what she liked about herself, she drew a blank. When asked about her favourite activity, food, movie, music, she drew a blank. When it came to recognising her own needs, she struggled. Interestingly, she could answer all those questions about her husband and her children. Realising that her relationship with herself was practically non-existent was a sobering insight.
Asking about her relationship with her body provided another light-bulb moment. She realised that not only did she take it for granted, but she would also push her body beyond its limits to please other people and do what they wanted. This was true in her professional life as a self-employed consultant and in her personal life. Listening to her self-talk, Maya realised that it was mostly about giving herself a hard time or trying to convince herself that it was all going to be fine and to pull herself together. When asked if that was helpful, she paused and replied: ‘not really’.
The first step of change: awareness
You don’t know what you don’t know. Now that Maya had this awareness, we gave time to breathe and connect with what it felt like to be her at that moment. Looking at her choices, it became obvious that she had two choices: continue or change. If she continued in this way, she’d end up becoming bitter, even resentful, and, left unattended, the pain and fatigue would escalate.
We talked about the importance of placing the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others. This helped Maya realise that bitter, resentful and debilitated by pain and fatigue, not only wouldn’t she be there for herself, she wouldn’t be able to be there for others.
Four key areas to a great self-relationship
It became clear that Maya didn’t want to continue; she wanted to change. She set her aspiration and focus on improving her relationship with herself and her body. So how did she do that? In addition to learning how to interpret and respond to the information in her fatigue and pain, Maya learnt about the four key areas of this most important relationship: self-love, self-care, self-worth, and self-advocacy.
Self-love: she focussed on how she treats herself, her self-talk. She decided to treat this relationship like a new relationship and spend some time getting to know herself. She realised when she didn’t put herself under pressure to ‘rush’, she loved gardening and flowers. So she decided to carve out time every week to spend in the garden and to give herself a subscription to have fresh flowers delivered each month.
Self-care: thinking ‘start as you mean to go on’ she decided that starting her day well would help her focus on self-care throughout the day. Instead of instant coffee and drinking it on the go, she bought herself her favourite coffee and set the alarm ten minutes earlier so she could savour her first cup of coffee, looking out at the garden.
Self-worth: Maya gave herself the time to sit with the question: ‘do I have self-worth?’ She’d never actually thought about this before. Her focus had been more on being good enough in terms of some behaviour or other. She realised that she is a good person and deserves to be treated with respect. Actively cultivating her sense of self-worth helped Maya negotiate better with her clients, including an increase in her fee.
Self-advocacy: self-advocacy means speaking up for yourself and your interests. It can make so much difference to our sense of well-being and overall health, yet many of us struggle to understand, let alone do well. We need to understand it and do it well; it’s important. In fact, we think it’s so important that we’ve decided to make this the focus of the entire next blog. So, watch this space!
Watering the seeds: ways to improve relationship with self
Watering the seeds is a metaphor and practice taken from the Plum Village tradition of Buddhism. The act of watering is a metaphor for placing one’s attention on something. The seeds are the object of that attention. So, where are you placing your attention? What are the seeds you are watering? Maya decided to actively and mindfully water the seeds of her self-love, self-care, and self-worth.
She realised that she’d need to cultivate her self-compassion, her courage and her curiosity to improve these areas of her relationship with herself as well as her confidence. These qualities would act like nutrients for her growth. She knew from her love of gardening that she’d need to be patient. Seeds take time to grow. They need nurturing and watering to become strong and sturdy plants.
Maya now has the ability and skills to advocate for herself and negotiate what she needs, whether that’s with health professionals, clients, or with loved ones. She doesn’t always do it skilfully or perfectly, and that’s ok. This is stuff to practise.
Maya remembers how disconnected she was from herself at the beginning of this journey. She’s come a long way. This process hasn’t just improved her connection and relationship with herself and her body; it’s also improved her relationship with her husband and her children.
Our invitation to you
Remember, it’s more helpful to be curious than critical, so with that curious mind, our invitation to you is to get curious about the state of your relationship with yourself. Ask yourself the seven questions posed earlier to assess the quality of your self-relationship, jot down your answers, draw a mind-map, or whatever helps you get it outside of your head so that your eyes can see it. What can you learn from Maya’s story?
Remember, you’re the only one who is with yourself every breath of the way, given the longevity and inevitability of this most intimate and enduring relationship, it’s worth caring for it well. And having some fun along the way!
In the next blog, we’ll talk about self-advocacy, which includes the ability to negotiate your needs and wants. Most of us struggle with this to a lesser or greater extent, so do bear that in mind and go gently with yourself.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor