If we’re lucky, we grow up learning all kinds of “love languages” – not my term, Gary Chapman’s – for showing love to (and receiving it from) other people: such as carrying out thoughtful gestures; giving gifts; performing acts of service to make your loved ones’ lives easier. Spreading the love might mean planning quality date nights with a boyfriend or girlfriend, making the effort to show up at a friend’s birthday drinks or having regular phone check-ins with your parents. And that’s a wonderful thing, particularly given that the quality of our relationships determine so much of the quality of our lives as a whole. But there is a caveat. Because if we focus solely on our relationships with others, we’re neglecting the most long-lasting relationship of our lives: the one we have with ourselves.
Up until three years ago, self-love never held much meaning for me. I was in a long-term relationship; I had great friends and family; hell, I could fall in love with a roomful of strangers after a glass or two of Pinot Grigio. Self-love didn’t feel like something I really needed. I “got” it, insofar as I’d seen the Instagram hashtags and I’d heard the music of Beyoncé. But that was about as far as it went; it certainly wasn’t something I thought to consciously practice.
If we focus solely on others, we neglect the most significant relationship of our lives
It took a break-up, and a life reshuffling (where I found myself embracing, rather than avoiding, quality time alone), for me to start experimenting with self-love. In my ex-boyfriend’s absence, there was a gulf: gone was the loving stream of “good morning” kisses, lifts to the train station, little gifts from work trips. After exiting what had been a mostly healthy, respectful relationship, I didn’t want to rush into another relationship in a bid to replace that. Nor did I want to become overly-reliant on my friends to bolster me: I’d already done a rock star-esque tour of their respective sofas a week after my break-up, when I felt too sad to sleep alone.
So I approached my Plan B: for the first time in my life, I decided to show myself the love I was missing. This involved taking myself out for a delicious brunch-for-one, for instance, or making my home a tidy, beautiful space to inhabit alone. It felt strange, at first. Strange and guilty (who did I think I was – all this, for just me?) Yet, every step I took, every act of love I showed myself, felt like progress. A reinforcement to myself that I was enough. Really.
It was only through actively practising self-love – giving myself the everyday TLC that I’d once thought of as the “job” of other people – that I realised its value. Looking back, when I relied on other people for love, I was perpetually disappointed by my relationships. For instance, if a date night didn’t go to plan, or if my family reacted unexpectedly to what I considered good news, or if I wanted to go to a certain event and no one was available to join me. And it wasn’t actually their fault; not really. It was mine.
What I’ve since learnt is that self-love can not only co-exist with love for others; it actively strengthens it. When you begin to nurture your relationship with yourself, you no longer consider your basic needs and wants to be someone else’s responsibility. You begin to appreciate the love shown to you by others more, when it’s the cherry on top of the love you show yourself; a delightful surprise, rather than something you consider their obligation. And, in turn, having met your needs yourself, you might well feel you have more love to give to others.
How to get there? Self love is, more than anything else, a practice. We say actions speak louder than words; that goes as much for our actions towards ourselves as with people. And, like any relationship in your life, your relationship with yourself needs to be nurtured regularly in order to stay strong. So, if you feel you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling (towards yourself), here are four everyday practices that you can do to help.
1 - Treat yourself to nice things
Many of us suffer from “Only Me-ism”, characterised as the tendency to only allow ourselves nice things if there are other people involved. It’s almost our default to behave like this: making do with cereal for dinner rather than cooking an elaborate home-cooked meal for one. Or putting off seeing a film we’re really excited about because we don’t feel able to justify a cinema trip by ourselves.
Doing nice things alone is a powerful way to signal that you are enough
The trouble is, this regularly reinforces to ourselves that we’re not enough – which, at its worst, can lead to us staying in bad relationships, or friendships, simply because we think the world will be closed off to us if we’re left alone. So whether it’s setting the table for a solo dinner, burning that expensive candle you always save for guests, or treating yourself to a single theatre ticket, make sure you do nice things alone, too – it’s a powerful way to signal to yourself that you are enough.
2 - Look after your body
Drink water. Go for a walk. Stretch. Eat a chopped salad full of your favourite vegetables and toppings. Take a probiotic. All of these things constitute an act of self-love. It’s tempting, I think, to think of the idea of “self-love” as something that’s purely in the mind (I’ve definitely been guilty of sitting on my sofa searching for the best wellness podcast episodes, when really the main thing I need is to get some shine and fresh air).
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We’re not just our minds; we’re our bodies, too. And much of it comes down to looking after the vessel that we’re walking around in: our energy levels, our digestion, our skin and hair health. Through practising things that aid our day-to-day health and wellness, we’re truly showing love to our whole selves.
3 - Focus on the simple things
In my book, Alonement: How To Be Alone & Absolutely Own It, I talk about being the “Boring Parent” to yourself. Let me explain this analogy: it’s basically imagining what the run-of-the-mill parent would provide for a child who’s dependent on them. Because that’s what self-love, as an adult, effectively is: parenting yourself, depending on yourself to anticipate and meet your own needs.
More than anything else, self-love is a practice
It’s easy to over-glamorise – or commodify – what self-love should look like (I blame Instagram, and a trillion-dollar wellness industry). But really, it’s just treating yourself to the unsexy comforts a loving parent would recommend: think a home-cooked jacket potato; an early bedtime; clean bed sheets.
4 - Get journaling
Writing down your thoughts is a perfect way to identify negative patterns like rumination (focusing on the same negative idea again and again). For me, it’s both cathartic – allowing me to process my thoughts – and transformative. I’ll begin in a dark thought spiral, and move through towards a calmer, more self-compassionate approach.
Put simply, journaling is where I’ve learnt to be a friend to myself on paper – to respond to myself in a gentle way, and ultimately to rewire that voice in my head towards something that’s much kinder and sympathetic. And, ultimately, what could be more loving than that?
Francesca Specter is host of the podcast Alonement – all about the positive side of spending time alone. To celebrate this community, and the joys of solo travel, Flash Pack is giving listeners of Alonement £100 off their next adventure with Flash Pack.
To claim this offer, simply quote the discount code “ALONEMENT” when booking your next Flash Pack escape. Happy travels!
Images: Flash Pack and Francesca Specter