A friend came to me, sobbing, explaining how broken she felt after her breakup. “I know I have to love myself first before I can be in a healthy relationship, but how do you do this?”
My friend isn’t alone. Like her, I’ve found it common among single women to feel ashamed for not being in a place where you “love yourself.”
“Love yourself!” is advice dished by many self-help books and easily quoted on pretty Instagram pictures. But here’s the problem with this advice: Too often we think of loving ourselves as a final destination, as if you flip a switch and suddenly you’re transported to some magical island of enlightenment and relationship bliss. The alternative is feeling ashamed—as if you’re not strong enough, or working hard enough, to get there. This mentality does more damage than good.
Loving yourself is not a destination. Loving yourself is a muscle you build. It’s a choice you make, every single day, in the same way, you must choose to love another person through the good times and the bad. You get better at it the more you practice, which is really good news! When we approach self-love as a way of living, rather than some elevated state of being, we can choose at this exact moment to start.
The more you choose acts of self-love, the more they become habitual, and they all add up, like putting coins in a piggy bank. Soon, your days are filled with more acts of self-love than negative habits. The more you build on that internal stability, the less your self-worth will be influenced by other people and external triggers.
You don’t have to dump your boyfriend or wait to begin dating again until you arrive at Destination: I Love Myself. Here are four practical tips for practicing self-love on a daily basis, while you are in a relationship.
1. Remove or limit negative relationships.
You can love your friends and family all you want, but this does not mean you should spend time with them. People who are constantly complaining, who create drama, who make a big deal out of everything, or who use guilt to manipulate you often wear down positive sentiment—not just in that relationship but in your relationship with yourself, too. Give yourself permission to take time away from people whose energy makes a negative impact on you. This may mean breaking up with your boyfriend if it’s not helping you or creating boundaries around how much time you spend with certain friends.
2. Choose to communicate your needs like an adult.
If you’re a giver, this is likely something you can identify with. You give and give, and when it’s not appreciated, you feel resentment. But instead of expressing how you need to be treated, you silently fume, withdraw, or punish. You become a victim without even giving someone a chance to be aware of how they are affecting you. You are an adult—ask yourself if you are communicating like one. Do you stonewall or give the silent treatment? Do you throw a tantrum? Do you punish? Most of the time, people have good intentions and are not setting out to hurt you. Give the person you are dating the benefit of the doubt and communicate clearly what you need.
3. Stop reliving hurtful events from the past.
When you are replaying a painful breakup or a terrible fight, your body can’t always decipher if the event is happening now or in the past (or in the future). As a result it creates the same chemical rush to your system as if it were happening for real all over again. This can lead to a negative pattern of thinking that can hurt your self-esteem. When your monkey mind is taking over and you’re about to go down a rabbit hole of traumatic events from your past, try to change your state by doing something physical. Do jumping jacks, go for a run . . . it’s a lot easier to change your mind from spiraling down when you change your physical state. This is also a great reason to go on active dates. If you are feeling an emotional downward spiral coming on, suggest bike riding and a hike instead of a movie night.
4. Do something that makes you grow.
When you grow, you feel good about yourself; if you’re stagnant, you feel bad about yourself. But too often when we fall in love, personal growth can take the back seat to cuddling and dinner date nights. So when you start dating someone new, make an effort to keep up with your own personal growth. Take a class, listen to an audio book, do something—anything—on a regular basis that makes you grow. You can grow your skills, your intelligence, your awareness—whatever it is, make it a habit to make evolving an intention rather than a byproduct of life.
Remember, the very desire to learn, grow, and be happier is an act of self-love. Don’t beat yourself up if you fall back into old patterns; the whole point is to try your best and be gentle with yourself along the way. Here’s to choosing self-love, on a regular basis.