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What is Self-Love? The Three Pillars of Self-Love

Written by Anushka Bose

We live in times of great contradiction, where history and tradition have undergone a sociocultural pilgrimage. This has resulted in the evolution of the self. Phrases like “find yourself” and “self-love” have never been more widespread. Self-help books aim to add insight to the canvas of the self: the entire industry profits from the quest to find ourselves. With the information overload of this market, we may ask, exactly what is self-love? Follow me as I explore the three pillars of self-love.

The Self in Modern Times

In the past, people lived in clearly defined structural communities that gave people identity, belonging, and connection. Even if there was a choice, many people opted for the confines of familiarity. With the advent of technology, cultural evolution, and globalization, social mobility has allowed us to shift towards an independent model of living, where, as relationship psychotherapist Esther Perel notes, “networks are loosely connected.” 

In the professional world, there could be 1 job opening but 700 applications. In the romantic world, we have more options than ever, hallmarking an era of romantic consumerism. The freedom driven economy gives us choices. 

Given these evolving dynamics in our professional and personal lives, where every rejection calls in a referendum of our self-worth, it’s only understandable that the attention to the self has become all-consuming. 

Self-Love: The Antidote for the Fragile Self

We show no mercy to ourselves when faced with moments of failure. These feelings of despair get compounded in a digital world, where our self-esteem gets tied to comparison, other’s successes, and unrealistic goals. We know every moment of our lives—and we compare each moment of our lives to glossy and filtered social media feeds.

No wonder the self has become so fragile and the demand for implementing self-love in our lives is higher than ever. Through my trials and tribulations, I have often pondered the meaning and practice of self-love—and how it can be our triage for recovering from the challenges and vicissitudes of life. 

What Is Self-Love? 

Self-love is a concept that many write and speak about. It is a concept that is executed in unique ways to each individual. This article is not intended to be a directive or to tell what the “right way” of self-love is—the article aims to only serve as a modicum for thought and curiosity on the topic. 

Underneath the mantle of adulthood, there are difficult experiences that cause growing pains and leave unseen scars. It is in these testing moments that I continue to explore the relationship I have with myself. In the process, through trial and error, I have realized that self-love encapsulates various components, and I narrowed them down to three. Self-love to me is the inclusion of three pillars: self-reliance, self-determination, and self-compassion. I argue that we need to implement facets of all three pillars for us to holistically love ourselves.

1. Self-Reliance

Often, advice on self-love entails doing small acts of kindness for yourself: cooking a meal for one, reading a book, taking a nice bath, treating yourself with chocolate cake, etc. But, as Esther Perel notes, this isn’t self-love—this is self-reliance and self-sufficiency. 

I agree with Perel. However, I do contend that self-reliance is a portion of the formula of self-love. When situations require me to be more independent, relying on myself to fruit momentary comfort and solace helps me feel more in control of my wellbeing. 

Self-reliance brews independence and empowerment. That is a part of the formula, but can we solely equate independence and reliance to self-love? There is more to it.

2. Self-Determination 

Self-determination is defined as the “personal decision to do something or think a certain way.“ To love ourselves, we also need to treat our welfare with responsibility, and thus, lead a determined life. 

We are much more likely to take care of someone else—and even our pets—than we are to take care of ourselves. Maybe this is because we are more accountable to others and others’ quality of life depends on our actions. Think about it: you feed your pet on time, give them their medication, take them out for walks, and make sure they get all their shots. If such is the case, maybe we can apply that framework of accountability to ourselves and admit that our actions also determine the quality of our lives.

The Need to Belong Versus the Self

In another context, recall moments where you have invested to please someone and have regarded their feelings more than your own. The fixation of people-pleasing behavior is rooted in the need to belong. Given that, let’s turn the lens on us: what if we started to value our feelings just as the way we value the feelings of others? The need to belong and to please would take a back seat and we would live more empowered lives. 

Practicing self-determination to improve our own lives is an act of self-love in and of itself.

Doing what you willfully know will improve your life—eating those greens, getting enough sleep, meeting that deadline, and applying to that job—are ways we can love ourselves more because we consciously know we are improving ourselves in some capacity.

3. Self-Compassion 

Perhaps the most important pillar of self-love is the pillar of self-compassion. Compassion has become a hot word in the modern era, with businesses and universities using the word in their codebooks in the context of extending compassion to one another. What about extending this olive branch of compassion and mercy to ourselves? 

We are merciless when it comes to ourselves, assassinating our self-worth in the face of pain when we should be safeguarding ourselves in the trenches of our dark moments. 

There is a strong relationship between wellbeing and self-compassion. People who have high levels of self-compassion seem to present less depression, anxiety, and a host of other negative emotions. Extending compassion to yourself is not vastly different than being compassionate to others. Think about a time when you showed a friend compassion. The process entailed you acknowledging their pain, and then finding ways to respond to their pain, usually through understanding, warmth, and comfort.  

Translating this process to be compassionate with yourself would evoke the same emotions: acknowledgment, warmth, and comfort. These three emotions build upon each other, in a process I call an echelon of self-compassion. 

Though building self-compassion can be unique to each individual, I find these 3 strategies helpful:

Practice Forgiveness

Self-Compassion requires us to forgive ourselves. To be still in the moment, and to be ok with what is. It can be difficult to do so, especially if we have adopted the practice of shaming ourselves for messing up. Remembering that we do not have to punish our present and future selves over mistakes from the past will ground us back in reality and prevent getting lost in the fog of “what-ifs.” Let it irk, grow from it, and then let it go.

Recall Moments of Renewal

During hard moments, time seems to come at a standstill. We feel frozen in place, unable to get our foot out of the mud. In these moments, recalling the renewal that took place once after the cloud passed, in our past troubles, will help us move through the discouraging thoughts of the moment. Once we remember that “this too shall pass” and there is light on the other end, we may feel empowered.

Practice Gratitude 

Gratitude reminds us in hard times to find solace in the givens and what we are grateful for—and those givens will be unique to each individual. Remembering the blessings we have can help us zoom out of the tunnel vision of suffering and navigate us to a kinder place. 

My Journey Toward Self-Love

Two summers ago, I was on a beautiful summer getaway with my parents. I was supposed to relax and have fun. Instead, the muscles in my body started firing with involuntary contractions. I was suddenly twitching everywhere. It started with muscles around my eyes, then my calves, thighs, arms, stomach, elbow, etc. Non-stop. My muscles were also cramping up and I had weird sensations throughout my body. Being the hypochondriac that I am, I googled my symptoms and some of the scariest neuromuscular diseases popped up.

After sleepless nights over this, many visits to the clinic and medical evaluations, the doctors concluded that they are unsure what is causing my body to act out this way, but it bottled it down to “anxiety.” I was so relieved, but I couldn’t pinpoint the source of “anxiety” they kept alluding to. I was not consciously anxious at all—If anything, the twitching was giving me anxiety itself! Then 6 months later, the childhood eczema that had disappeared for years came back with a vengeance.

Does Self-Love Only Happen Under the Right Conditions?

I later realized that the flare-ups, whether it’s my skin or my muscles firing, are loosely correlated with my anxiety and stress levels.

Even when my mind was not consciously aware of anxious thoughts, my body was trying to tell me otherwise. It was asking me to listen, to decrease the stress, be still, and have mercy. 

Through the ups and downs of this journey, I know I needed to incorporate self-love in dealing with these health annoyances. When my twitching occurred, self-determination pushed me to visit my doctor, even though I was boiling with fear. What will the diagnosis be? Am I okay? With my eczema flare-ups, when I do not feel like engaging with anything, self-reliance pushes me to do small acts of kindness for myself. Lastly, and most of all, having self-compassion and mercy for myself in such situations reminds me that I am human, this will pass, and it is okay to be upset and hopeful at the same time. 

These health incidents made me look at compassion in a whole new light. They made me think, do we only feel loveable under all the right conditions? How can we love ourselves when we feel weak and powerless? It is in these testing moments that we need to be even kinder with ourselves. 

The Journey to Self-Love Never Ends

Even in the process of writing this very article, I went through some serious rollercoaster moments in my personal life. Then I came across T.S Elliot’s East Coker poem. These lines of the poem resonated deeply with me. 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

This poem made me realize how the stillness of the moment is something I needed to embrace on my journey to self-love. In writing this article, I was writing—but I could not bring the words to life. I felt scatterbrained. I had created these high expectations for my writing, but once I let these expectations go, it enabled the words to flow. So, I said to my soul, be still, and I wrote, without pitting myself against my expectations or hope of any kind. 

The stillness of six a.m., when most of the world is just waking up, helped bring these words to life. I let the words weave into each other, without waiting for thought to show up. 

Self-Compassion: The Elixir of Self-Love

I truly find that self-compassion is the elixir to the monkey mind that makes you feel restless. There come moments in your life when you realize you have no control and it makes you feel powerless. But as Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love notes, “you find mercy in moments of surrender, once you give up illusions of power, control.” I remember this when the voices in my head want to create deeper trenches and when I feel scared over moments of uncertainty. So, I wait, with faith—because the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Self-love cannot exist without self-compassion. Being compassionate to yourself is the strongest pillar of self-love, it stands strong, especially in moments where we have to surrender and let go. Perhaps, it is this very stillness that my body was trying to guide me to when it acted out in a call for attention two years ago. 

Self-Love: The Takeaway 

The phrase “love yourself” has always felt distant to me, a place I can see but can’t reach. I could not grasp the cusp of its meaning until I was confronted with situations that warranted it. As Elizabeth Gilbert notes on the Tim Ferris show, a better way to think about the concept of loving yourself is to “be friendly” with yourself. To “begin to treat yourself with stewardship and friendship.” I feel that I could reach this definition. I aim to do so daily. 

Modern times have evolved our belonging in society and the “self” becomes the centrality of our identity. The digitalized world has made it all too easy to compare ourselves to others and to make us feel small. Given this competitive market, the concept of self-love is important, but what it means can be unique to each individual. For many, the process of self-love begins with self-awareness.

I find the most meaning and resonance when I implement the variables of self-love into my life: self-reliance, self-determination, and self-compassion. Self-reliance can help us be more empowered. Self-determination can remind us to work on our shortcomings and improve our lives. Self-compassion can be a blanket of comfort for moments where we have no control and have to surrender. 

Some days, cooking that meal for one is the most self-love you can give yourself. Other days, waking up with the discipline of getting things done is the best way you can show up for yourself. But every day, trying to be friendly with yourself is the most wholesome way to truly love yourself. 

Let’s aim to not allow the charlatans of our minds, that feed us lies about ourselves and self-worth, to gain the upper hand. Let’s not forget that we always have power over the way we choose to react and recalibrate the trajectory of lives. Let’s aim to be at peace in the stillness of our thoughts and be more merciful to one anotherand most importantly, to ourselves.

About the Author

Anushka Bose is a Graduate Student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Writing is her favorite hobby, as it helps her bring stories and reflections into life. She enjoys reading and writing on personal growth, health and wellness, and expat life. She considers her third-culture-kid identity to have played a big role in developing her character, where despite all the differences we have, there is always some similarity to be found. When she’s not writing or immersed in the doings of grad school, she appreciates spending time in Colorado’s beauty, music, playing volleyball, and a good sense of humor. You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn

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