Self-love: More than simply treating yourself

A person staring at their reflection in a bathroom mirror pxhere

Learning to love myself in my love languages

Few mental health tips have captured the attention of the media in the way self-care has. Part of this would be due to relatability; even if you aren’t living with a mental illness, you can relate to being bogged down by life and to feeling a boost once you start doing the things that make you excited about life again. It could also be due to the profitability of the fad which business models have picked up on, with the anthem of “treat yourself” being pasted on all modes of advertising so that their business can profit off of your self-care.

While treating yourself can give a boost, it also puts you in that business model’s cycle and you condition yourself in a way that doesn’t line up with the purpose of the practice. Woke up feeling defeated? Buy something to feel better (so they make money). Everything went wrong at work today? Buy something to feel better (so they make money). Had a fight with your partner and you need to unwind? Buy something to feel better (so they make money).

That’s not to say that it’s inherently wrong to treat yourself if you’re having a rough day; sometimes that little boost can be enough to bounce you back to the right headspace so you’re better able to problem solve. The pattern I’d like to point out is that the “treat yourself” method doesn’t actually address what got you to a place where you had to treat yourself just to feel okay again. It gives you a habitual behaviour to perform that temporarily makes you feel better, but it does nothing to improve the circumstances that brought you to that low.

Desmond Tutu said “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” In regards to mental health, that means that when we see this many people spending money that they don’t have just for the dopamine boost, we need to do more than help them through it in the moment. We need to take a critical look at the factors that are causing people to be swept up in this cycle of behaviour, and at what can be done differently.

We do need the reactive approach of helping people out of the river when they fall in, but we also need to be proactive in minimizing opportunities for people to fall in. To balance this hot take with some constructive content, I will share some of the things I’ve recently learned on building a habit of self-compassion through intentional self-love, not just self-care. You have my unwavering, research-supported, 100 per cent guarantee that this approach will not work for everybody. Part of the “intentional” aspect of self-love is discovering in what ways you need love, and I can’t do that for you. What I can do is share how I’ve been making progress by exploring so far, with the hope that it can set a guard rail against the river for a few folks at least.

The idea of love languages is what I’m going to be drawing on, using the ways that I’m learning to show love to myself through my own love languages. There are five areas in love languages – quality time, acts of service, gifts, physical touch, and words of affirmation – and each person has a slightly different preference for the areas they use to give and receive love. To figure out which I preferred, I thought about examples of experiencing each and how those experiences impacted me both short-term and long-term.

For example, if you find you really benefit from the treat yourself method, chances are that gifts and acts of service would be in your preferences as you’re choosing to go out of your way to do something for yourself, and you’re putting in the thought to get yourself something that will make you smile. However, when it’s a habit behaviour rather than intentional self-love, all it does is regulate your emotions in the moment (which, again, is sometimes needed).

The easiest way for me to stay intentional in my self-love is by making sure I’m not doing whatever I’m doing based on external motivation. I have had people tell me for decades that I need to go easier on myself and talk to myself like I’m someone I care about because, I’ll admit, that is not one of my strong suits. I even found a quote in high school that summed up the advice: “If there were someone in your life who talked to you the way that you talk to yourself, how long would you put up with that treatment?” The quote and the conversations with friends helped to bring my awareness to the issue, but I needed to be intentional to understand.

Words of affirmation is possibly my top preference for both giving and receiving love, but I’d never thought to intentionally love myself in that way. Normally when I’m responding to my thoughts or observing my own behaviour, I am frustrated with myself and taking it out on myself. When others take their frustration out on me I can recognize it and communicate that it’s inappropriate, but I was blind to the fact that I was doing it to myself until I stopped to think about it. I also love thoughtfully complimenting and encouraging others, but I realized I hadn’t been taking that constructive approach with myself.

The good news? The way that I talk to myself is in my control. I am still imperfect in my practice, but sometimes when I start getting frustrated with myself now, I can pause and ask myself how I’d talk to a friend with the same issue and then take that route. When I choose to talk to myself in that way, I’m actively deciding to show myself compassion. In a world where we’re condition to critique ourselves and pursue an ideal, self-compassion is a revolutionary act.

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