I have not lost track of my resolution to write more about self-love this year. It is such a big topic it has turned into a series (with no end in sight yet). Stay tuned for a very special guest blogger post, one survivor turned thriver’s story of how she got to the place of self-love. You can also check out the previous posts in the series here:
I’ve already covered why learning to love yourself is an important part of healing after trauma, so how do you go about it? How do you love yourself when you have been abused and betrayed? Children learn to love by being loved. What happens when your parents/caretakers
do not love you?
express love for you in ways that are destructive?
love you conditionally; only if you are/behave in ways they approve of?
love you but do not prevent others from harming you?
People in your life treated you in ways that were not loving. This includes not loving you in a way that put your needs first. As a result you learned to feel unlovable. Continuing with that belief keeps you stuck in that trauma cycle. You need to learn to give to yourself what you did not receive early on. Connection with others helps, maybe especially a therapist because that is where you can understand and work through the relationship issues from the past. The goal of connecting with others now is not to just stop there; you need to learn to internalize their positive view of you. Ultimately, no other person’s care or love can substitute for loving yourself. Until you get there something will continue to feel like it is missing.
Not knowing how to love yourself can set up a pattern of looking for others to fill that love hole, creating unfair expectations and disappointment. Those with dissociative identity disorder (DID or DDNOS) may have small child parts that look for parenting from others. It will be important to learn how to take care of and parent these parts of yourself. Looking outside of you for others to serve this function may result in difficult dynamics in your personal relationships. At worst it can set you up for further victimization.
If you’re a survivor of childhood abuse or come from a dysfunctional family, you may still be waiting for a parent to give you the love and acceptance you never got as a child. But the kind of love you need (or needed as a child) probably isn’t going to come from a parent who abused you or who looked the other way while you were being abused. But it can come from yourself.
Loving yourself, just like loving someone else, isn’t so much a feeling as a choice and series of actions based on that choice. You can decide to learn to love yourself and begin to act accordingly even before you feel very loving. In the 12 step world this is called “fake it til you make it”. This slogan refers to the idea that you can act as if something is true, in this case that you already love yourself, as a way to get there. This is not the same thing as being false or fake to look acceptable in the eyes of others. Too many survivors (or anyone who learned to put others’ needs ahead of their own) have had to live with this kind of false self. Working on loving yourself requires tolerating this dichotomy: you are aware that you do not yet love yourself and that you are choosing to behave as if you do anyway.
If you have a dissociative disorder, like DID or DDNOS, loving yourself means loving the others inside. And loving them means loving yourself. All of you together are you. Even if you are a long way from really getting that you are all part of one person, love directed to any part of yourself benefits all. Faith Allen at Blooming Lotus has a fantastic post (and entire Blog with many examples of self-love and compassion after trauma!) with some practical advice regarding loving other parts of you:
I send lots of internal positive energy toward alter parts. I will say things like, “I love you. You are safe. I’m sorry,” repeatedly in my head because these are the messages I most needed to hear as a child.
The following are some ideas of how to learn to love yourself. This is of course just a starting point. Take what works for you and build on it.Think of it as practice, as building your loving yourself muscles.
- Counter your negative self-talk with positive facts. Focus on what’s good about you. If you can’t generate your own ideas consider the input of trusted others. This can be as simple as “I knit well” or “I am good with animals”.
- Work with positive mantras or affirmations. Say it even if you do not feel it. Identify some of your core self hating messages and counter them. For example, if a recurring belief for you is “I am unlovable” then make your affirmation something like “I am lovable and capable of loving”. Get the idea?
- Learn to soothe and comfort yourself. Develop a list of behaviors that you use to reduce distress or to just plain treat yourself. Keep a list so you can see it and use daily or as needed. Some examples could be: buy yourself flowers, have a special kind of tea in a cup you love, take a hot bath, go for a walk in nature, wear your favorite or most comfortable clothes. Your list will vary and be as individualized as you! Stuck? Work on it in therapy or with a trusted support person. Ask friends what they do to soothe or treat themselves.
- Keep a daily list of 3 things you like about you.
- Praise yourself for what you accomplish, little or big. Add it to your daily list described above.
- Love your body. Feed it what it wants. Give it physical activity it enjoys. Get enough sleep.
- Focus on love, compassion, care in general. Is there someone you feel these things for? A child? A family of choice member? A pet? Reflect on how you experience and demonstrate love to others. Practice doing the same with yourself!
I’d like to end with a quote I love from Pema Chodron:
Compassionate action has to start with ourselves. It is unconditional compassion for ourselves that leads naturally to unconditional compassion for others. If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them.