Before you can love anyone else. Before you can care for anyone else. In fact if you want to be any use to anyone long term:
You have to love you first.
I used to think loving myself was selfish. I thought prioritising my needs was self-indulgent. Surely it was better to sacrifice what I wanted to make others happy?
I was a classic people pleaser, believing I would be loved and accepted only if I behaved and performed as others’ wanted me to. So I morphed and changed according to who I was with. I tried to keep a lid on any part of me that might offend or cause conflict. I tried to hide any part of me that needed anything from you.
Over time I lost myself.
I struggled to know when I was being true to myself and when I was pretending, it had become second nature. Maybe pretending is too strong a word, because none of this was done consciously, but my desire to be liked meant I forfeited pursuing the things I loved to do, I stopped vocalising the things I felt strongly in my gut.
Knowledge precedes intimacy. I couldn’t love myself because I didn’t know who I was.
Eventually I reached the point of no return. I stretched the elastic band of my capacity too far until it snapped back and hit me in the face. I couldn’t eat without worrying I would be ill. I didn’t like to go out. Anxiety ruled my days and depression had swallowed my energy whole. I was miserable. I thought everyone else could cope and I was a failure.
Finally, I asked for help.
(Truthfully, my husband asked for help on my behalf. Then made sure I kept the appointment.
I thought it was all a bit much. I wasn’t ill. I just needed a rest. It was just a stage of life thing. I wasn’t ill. I’d be fine.
Obviously, to him if not to me, I wasn’t.)
Through those first few weeks and months, through snotty tears and medication, through uncovering the truth about how I felt, my therapist started talking to me about loving myself.
This was a completely new idea to me. What did it even mean?
That was nearly ten years ago and since those first few tender weeks I have been learning what it means to love myself.
As I took the time to get to know myself, to uncover the me under all the pressure and expectation and guilt and shame, I found I could love myself.
Maybe I had been resistant to loving myself before because it is hard to love someone you know is insincere, is faking it.
It is much easier to love someone who is indefatigably themselves. You know what you are getting.
At the beginning of this journey of self-discovery and self-love I was encouraged to start by making sure my basic needs were met.
But what were my basic needs?
I had spent so long pretending I didn’t have any, I had a lot to learn.
Human Givens therapy* describes how we are all born with certain physical and psychological needs.
The physical needs are as you would expect: air to breathe, water, nutritious food, sufficient sleep. If we went without any of these we would soon know about it.
But it is the psychological (or emotional) needs we often end up believing we can live without. This is where we can really get into trouble. Extended time not meeting these different emotional (psychological) needs can cause us significant distress, impacting us (through depression, anxiety, anger etc) and those around us.
So what are these emotions needs?
- Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
- Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
- Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
- Emotional intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts ‘n’ all”
- Feeling part of a wider community
- Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
- Sense of status within social groupings
- Sense of competence and achievement
- Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think.
When I was first introduced to this list I felt such a sense of relief. These needs were legitimate! I was allowed to want and need them to be met. To want privacy or a sense of autonomy was not selfish or unreasonable – it was essential to being well.
This was how I began to love myself. Through the painstaking work of looking at these needs and thinking about where I was lacking. The list was long. I had allowed things to get very out of hand. Pursuing a sense of well-being through others’ affirmation and attention had left me depleted.
It was time to learn I could love myself and this started by articulating where I had emotional needs that weren’t being met.
It was a painful process. But it was good.
As I identified what I needed, I began to discover what I wanted. I started to get to know myself and learn how to love myself.
If the thought of loving yourself seems selfish and self-indulgent, take it from someone who knows, loving yourself is the best thing you can do for yourself and for those around you. Why not write out the list of needs (above) and think about how you are getting them met. Jot down some notes about where you are doing well and were you are lacking. As you start to see the areas of lack you will begin to have ideas for how you can start to meet these needs. Where you need to say no, or ask for help. Where you need to take time for yourself, or allow yourself a rest.
If you are struggling to see a way forward find a trusted friend, or a therapist and ask them to help you navigate this new terrain.
Maybe you are at the very beginning. Or maybe you are at the beginning again, in the full-throttle despair of a relapse (I have been there).
Take heart. Take your time.
You are worthy of love and attention, and you can start learning this by loving yourself.
*Human Givens is the kind of therapy I first accessed. If you would like to know more about Human Givens Therapy the best place to start is Human Givens by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell.