A friend once told me that, when it comes to relationships, “giving more than you have to give makes the other person a thief.” It’s easy to lose ourselves in love when we take what little energetic resources we have and divert them into someone else. It can leave us feeling drained, faded and quite possibly resentful. The question is, does your “cup runneth over”? Is your well full? Do you have enough for yourself, let alone for anyone else?
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, a day dedicated to celebrating love, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the importance of self-love. By living in such a way that replenishes the self, we not only set the stage for our own well-being, but we set the stage for healthy, nourishing love to grow with someone else too.
The hardest part of self-love is knowing what exactly it means to practice it. Here are a few techniques I’ve added to my own self-care repertoire over time that I think are worth sharing.
1) Make the basics a priority
As kids, we need help feeding, hydrating and washing ourselves. Mastering those skills is an essential part of growing up, and by the time we reach adulthood we hardly give the basics a second thought.
The problem is, when we’re caught up in stress, depression or anxiety, eating regular, healthy meals, drinking enough water, taking our vitamins and medication, or getting into the shower become harder to do. They can even fall away all together. What makes it worse is the fact that it isn’t always easy to notice we’re letting things slip.
Online apps like Aloe or You Feel Like Shit: An Interactive Self-Care Guide are useful tools to get you asking yourself the right questions: Have you had anything to drink in the last two hours? Can you take a guess at how many hours you’ve slept out of the last 24?
The key to turning the situation around is to cut yourself some slack. These seemingly simple gestures take energy you might not have right now, but they are key to building your energy back up. Be sure to congratulate yourself for doing the small things. If you need help with that, Insta-artist Hannah Daisy’s feed is full of little celebrations for achieving what she calls “boring self-care”.
2) Think of your personal space as a temple
Your external and internal worlds feed off each other. Something as simple as staying on top of the washing up or taking your car for a deep clean can help make it feel like the world isn’t descending into chaos all around you.
Keeping your space functional is essential, but why not take it to the next level and make it pleasurable? Start small: grow a cactus, finally frame your favourite poster, or turn the chair in your room (a.k.a your clothes hanger) into a reading nook.
Your personal space is exactly that – personal – so think of it as a canvas on which to project your best self.
3) Avoid toxicity
When it comes to toxicity, the emphasis is frequently put on toxic relationships. While I cannot stress enough the importance of finding release from any unhealthy relationships you might be locked into, whether it be with a family member, colleague, friend or lover, there might be other toxic elements in your daily life that you’re not aware of.
The first is the news. These are dark and troubling times for world politics – especially as queer people! The Trump administration and the rise of the far right all over the world has marked the beginning of the backslide of minority rights. Listening to the latest on Trump can induce feelings of disbelief, outrage, and apocalyptic dread. Add to the mix a heavy dose of climate related crises, the latest on the demise of antibiotic potency, and a well written piece on how we’re slowly killing ourselves by working too hard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if your anxiety levels skyrocket.
Staying alert, informed and active in these trying times is a necessity, but it’s equally necessary to figure out how to do this in a way that leaves you in fighting form. Notice how the news makes you feel and if you walk away completely depleted then rethink the way you expose yourself to and interact with current events. Maybe that means simply limiting your daily dose, or maybe it could mean doing something radical like joining a queer femme fight club to release your emotions and to feel empowered.
Another sneaky source of toxicity is social media. While it has the power to connect and inspire, it can also isolate, overwhelm and ignite envy. What’s the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night? If it’s checking your latest likes on Instagram, scrolling through reams of tweets or watching wildly addictive and yet only mildly entertaining videos on your Facebook news feed, then be sure to check in with yourself. Does it energise you for the day ahead? Does it rest your mind and leave you ready for sleep? If not, then maybe it’s time to rethink your pillow rituals.
4) Reexamine your understanding of boundaries
It took a lot of Brené Brown videos for me to understand what boundaries really mean. As she explains, “daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
Not sure if you have unhealthy boundaries or not? Check out the list below:
If you said yes to any of the above, then hold on to Brené’s mantra: “Choose discomfort over resentment.”
5) Pursue and maintain rewarding friendships
As psychotherapist Esther Perel points out in one of her recent blog posts, we seem to be asking our romantic partners to fill every single role in our lives these days, and marriage vows are the perfect demonstration:
“I promise that I will always be there for you, honest with you, kind, patient and forgiving. For you are my lover and my teacher and I honor the divinity in you,” says the groom, with an uncharacteristic quiver in his voice.
“I promise to be your greatest fan and your toughest adversary, your partner in crime, and your consolation in disappointment,” responds his bride, in almost perfect cadence. With unquestionable sincerity, he continues, “I promise to tell you everything, to have no secrets except those we share.”
“I promise faithfulness, respect, and self-improvement,” she declares. To which, he one-ups her by replying, “I will not only celebrate your triumphs, I will love you all the more for your failures.” Smiling through her tears, she says, “I promise never to wear heels so you won’t feel short. And to comfort you when your football team loses and drink with you when they win.”
Taking a small box of her favorite chocolates from his best man, he says, “I promise to always bring these at that time of the month, and never to ask you if it is that time of the month.” Having promised each other the heavens and the earth, they kiss to rapturous applause.
Being head over heels in love doesn’t mean our partners have to be everything to us. Trust me, I’ve been there and putting all my eggs in one basket like that didn’t make for a very resilient self. So much of my life was riding on just one person, and, as you can imagine, that person eventually left and took the foundations of my life with them.
That’s why it’s important to make time for the friends that you have and regularly put yourself in situations where you could make new ones. The beautiful irony is that, in the long run “research shows that people who have more social resources, and more people to talk to about various issues in their lives, do better in marriage.”
6) Think of yourself as your own lover
This might sound a little strange, but hear me out. Many of us go to great lengths to nourish and strengthen our intimate relationships, doing everything from giving affection and thoughtful gifts, to prioritizing quality time and vocalising compliments and encouragement. Step back for a second and think about how you could do some of that for yourself. What if you gave yourself a foot massage, treated yourself to a special something, took yourself on a little date to your favourite café, or told yourself how wonderful you’re looking today?
Applying the 5 love languages to yourself could turn out to be a fun and thought-provoking exercise.
7) Make a secret garden
It doesn’t matter if it’s a journal, a private Tumblr account, or a secret Pinterest board, creating a space for nobody’s eyes but your own is an excellent way to provide yourself with a little container that you can fill with you-ness.
Having a secret garden can feed your sense of identity, give you a place to safely pour out your emotions, and keep you grounded in yourself.
8) Watch The School of Life videos to get some perspective
The School of Life is a Youtube channel created by philosopher Alain de Botton that “is dedicated to exploring the great questions of emotional and psychological life.” The banner on the channel’s main page reads: How to Live.
If you’re struggling with something, browse through their selection of poignant videos which, while they might not magically dissolve uncomfortable or difficult issues, often provide a fresh perspective that can restore some balance to your outlook, and make things feel bearable again.
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9) Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a kind of meditation practice. Whether you’re into the Buddhist philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh, the gentle, guiding voice of Ian Gawler, or the simple, practical style of Mark Williams and Danny Penman, there is an approach to mindfulness for everyone. It isn’t about mysticism or religion, it’s about working with the body and the mind to help us spend more time living in the only time we’ve got – the present.
Think of it as a kind of mental training that can have a positive impact on everything from your emotional well-being, to physical pain, creativity, addiction, blood sugar, the immune system and more. If you need a little convincing, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World is full of scientific evidence to back up the advantages of mindful meditation.
Beyond its physiological benefits, by teaching us how to sense our bodies without judgment and watch our thoughts come and go, mindfulness teaches “observation without criticism,” which ultimately leads to “being compassionate with yourself.”
10) Spend time outdoors
There’s a big world out there full of other lives, other horizons, and other forces, where all of your imperatives don’t matter. Whatever is going on in your life, the waves will keep crashing, the sun will keep rising and setting, and wild animals will keep striving and surviving in universes that don’t obey human rules.
We too were animals like that once, and stepping back into Nature, however briefly, is a reminder of its indifference, which can come as an unbelievable relief from being ourselves.
To quote Sara Black McCulloch, “I think that initially, I had some misconceptions about the idea of self-care. To me, it was a way to build resistance to bullshit, disappointment, and a bit of depression — a way to ward off uncertainty. But I’ve learned, along the way, that this is impossible. You’re never going to be consistently happy and you can’t prevent sadness or life from running its course. Self-care is a way to at least strengthen yourself, find some inner core so that you’re ready when life comes at you.”