When working with depressed people, I’m amazed at how often there’s a theme of self-neglect. When I ask them about how they treat themselves, or what they do to care or have love for themselves, often I get the same strange look while they utter the same words: “Why would I love myself?”
I’m not saying it’s everyone — but many people have little sense of what it means to have love and acceptance for one’s self. I’m not talking about loving one’s self to the point of narcissism. That’s an entirely different thing, but often people think that’s what self-love is.
They’ll often tell me, “but that’s being selfish.” No, it’s not! It’s being selfish not to love yourself.
Depression often happens when people conclude they’re not good enough, or a failure. Most people I’ve worked with who are depressed are hard on themselves to the point of recklessness. The amount of pressure they put on themselves to be all things to all people means they spread themselves so thin that they have absolutely no time to care for themselves.
Doing things for others doesn’t make you happy. How you perceive yourself for doing things for others means you feel happy. There is a difference. Most depressed people I’ve worked with are conscientious, thoughtful, and like to help others, which is great. But they often do it to feel good about themselves because they have limited ability to feel good about themselves without others’ feedback. They are using the positive feedback from others to bolster their sense of being ‘good enough.’
If people had more self-love and self-acceptance, that feedback wouldn’t be so important. They would be able to do things freely for other people and not be so concerned with receiving positive affirmation. They would be more emotionally balanced because they have a healthier sense of what it means to be accepting of themselves – the good, bad and everything in between. If a person can only feel good about him- or herself by doing things for others, he or she is at the mercy of others’ feedback, and his or her sense of worth can go up and down like a yo-yo.
Let me give you a general example:
With self-love: if I give you a gift, I give it because it’s what I want to do and I do it without expectation. If you don’t like it I might feel sad or disappointed, but I can accept that’s your choice. Either way, I still know that what I did was a kind thing and I still have a good sense of self-love and self-acceptance.
Without self-love: if I give you a gift, I give it because it’s what I want to do, but I do it wanting you to like it and, by association, like me (with expectation). If you like it and praise me, I might feel warm and good about myself. If you don’t like it I might feel very sad and disappointed, leading to thoughts that I have failed and let you down. My sense of self has decreased because I didn’t fulfill my goal of you liking my gift and giving me love and acceptance back.
Learning to Love Yourself
So why is self-love important and how do I get it?
It helps to realize that you are as important as anyone else, and what you think and feel is valid. For many, this is the most difficult part. Maybe you’ve grown up thinking that others are always better than you, and you don’t matter, and people aren’t interested in you unless you please them. But that thinking will only lead you to conclude that others’ happiness is more important than yours, and it isn’t.
Self-love involves the following:
- Self-care.Self-care means you treat yourself just as kindly and thoughtfully as you would anyone else. If you are uncomfortable doing something, then you don’t do it and that’s OK. Just because somebody might be disappointed that you didn’t help him or her, that’s his or her choice to feel that way.
- Considering your needs.If that means others don’t get all of you, all the time, then that’s also OK. People can learn to adjust and be responsible for themselves.
- Caring for yourself with the same level of effort that you do for others.That might mean you don’t always fulfill your goal of helping others because you’d prefer to spend time doing something for yourself. That’s not selfish.
- Accepting yourself for all that you are — both your positive aspects and your human fallibility.You cannot be all good all the time. That’s OK. You can work on self-improvement, but that doesn’t mean you discount the parts of yourself you don’t like as much. Those aspects are still part of your whole.
- Saying no to others’ requests.That’s OK. You are not totally responsible for everybody else’s needs.
Working toward self-love and acceptance can take time. If you are somebody who has little regard for yourself, then you might want to start with self-like-a-little, working up to self-like. In time, you’ll learn to self-love and accept yourself for all that you are.