Jae L. Ross, PsyD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist - Lic # 37386

Certified National Register Health Service Psychologist

What does it actually mean to love and care for yourself?

What It Really Means to Love Yourself: 3 Aspects of a Deeper Self-Care

By John Amodeo, PhD 
~ 3 min read

We often hear that it’s important to love yourself. Sounds good, right? But what does it actually mean to love and care for yourself?

For some people, self-love might mean taking a warm bath or pampering themselves with a massage or manicure, which might help us. Yet, the elusive self-love that we seek requires something deeper.

Self-love means finding peace within ourselves — resting comfortably within the depths of our being. We might find temporary respite by doingsomething to nurture ourselves. But a deeper inner peace requires cultivating a certain way ofbeing with ourselves — a warm and nurturing attitude toward what we experience in life.

The suggestions that follow are derived from Focusing, developed by Dr. Eugene Gendlin. Sometimes called the Focusing Attitude, this is simply a way of being nonjudgmentally kind, present, and mindful toward whatever we happen to be experiencing.

Gendlin has stated, “The client’s attitudes and responses to the felt sense need to be those of a client-centered therapist.” In other words, we need to have empathy and unconditional positive regard for whatever we are experiencing inside.

Being Gentle with Ourselves

It’s often easier to be kind and gentle toward others than toward ourselves. Judgmental voices from the past may have left a hidden residue of toxic shame, which blocks us from honoring — or even noticing– what we’re really feeling.

Being gentle with ourselves means being kind and friendly toward the feelings that arise within us. It is very human to feel sad, hurt, and afraid sometimes. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to become mindful of these feelings and allow a friendly space for them.

When challenging feelings come up for clients, I often ask, “Is it okay to be with that feeling right now? Can you be with it in a gentle, caring way?” I might help them find some distance from painful feelings so that they are not so overwhelmed by them.

An attitude of gentleness toward feelings is one way to find some distance from them. We can “be with” our emotions rather than merge with them or be overwhelmed by them.

Psychotherapist Laury Rappaport offers some gentle inquiries into our feelings in her book, Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy:

Can you be friendly with that (felt sense)
Can you say hello to that (felt sense) inside?
Imagine sitting down next to it…Can you keep it company much the way you would keep a vulnerable child company?

This gentle way of being with ourselves is an antidote to shame. Rather than battling ourselves or trying to fix or change ourselves. we find more inner peace by simply being with our experience as it unfolds.

Allowing Our Experience to Be as it Is

When I invite clients to notice their feelings, they sometimes reply, “Why would I want to feel that?” I explain that when we push feelings away, they often come roaring back. Or they get acted out in ways that are destructive to ourselves or others, such as by drinking alcohol or through other ways of numbing out or transferring our pain to others (such as by raging or blaming).

Loving ourselves means allowing ourselves to experience our feelings just as they are. Often we push away unpleasant experiences and try to cling to pleasant ones. But as Buddhist psychology suggests, we create more suffering for ourselves when we try to cling to pleasant things and maintain an aversion toward painful feelings.

A subtle sense of fear and shame may prevent us from allowing our experience to have its life inside us. For example, if we feel (or show) sadness, hurt, or anxiety, we might think we’re weak; or perhaps we were given messages not to feel. We’re afraid that others might judge us.

Embracing the Wisdom of Not-Knowing

As we explore personal concerns, we might recognize that we’re not clear what we’re feeling. Our experience inside is often vague and fuzzy. If we can allow ourselves to pause and make room for ambiguity and patiently welcome our blurry, vague feelings, they may gradually come into clearer focus (thus the term “Focusing”).

For example, we might notice anger toward a partner, but something deeper might lurk below. We’re aware of the tip of the iceberg, but in order to see what lies beneath, we need to look more closely.

Our society values knowledge and decisiveness. But often we’re unclear about what we’re experiencing. Politicians who don’t mouth strong opinions about everything often are seen as wishy-washy. It actually takes strength and wisdom to say, “I’m not sure about that. Let me think about it.”

Conclusion

Human feelings are gifts to be welcomed. But we need to find a way to be with them so that they become allies, not enemies. Emotions such as grief allow us to release pain so that we might move forward in our lives. Other feelings may be more fuzzy, such as a clutching in our stomach or a tightness around our chest. As we bring an attitude of gentleness toward it, we might begin to have a sense of how it relates to something important — perhaps how we’re not honoring ourselves or have a fear of looking foolish.

Feelings may contain wise messages, if we can only decipher what they’re trying to tell us. If we can cultivate a warm and friendly attitude toward our feelings, they’re more likely to become friendly allies on our life journey. New meanings, insights, and openings arise and our lives move forward in a more fulfilling way.