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Love thyself: Practising self-love isn't as easy as it sounds



Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

Louise Hay, author of the best-selling You Can Heal Your Life, and founder of publishing company Hay House, died last month. She was 90 years old.

As one of the most prominent figures in the self-development movement, Hay wrote dozens of books, and dispensed plenty of wisdom, yet her philosophy almost always came back to the transformative power of self-love.

As she said herself: "I found that there is only one thing that heals every problem, and that is: to love yourself."

Self-love is far from a revolutionary idea, especially in the era of Instagram motivational maxims and 'because you're worth it' advertising.

The popularised, commercialised version of self-love promotes long bubble baths and hot stone massages, and suggests that loving yourself is something you can put on your to-do list, or an attitude you can embrace while on holiday.

Unfortunately it isn't that easy. Radical self-love isn't just occasional self-indulgence. It's a state-of-mind that can only be cultivated by deep, daily inner work.

We may tell ourselves that booking a monthly massage is self-love, but it's something else entirely if it's designed to counteract the effects of pushing the body too hard through overwork.

Likewise, you can post the 'if you can't handle me at my worst...' Marilyn Monroe quote to your Facebook page, but it becomes more a statement than a state-of-mind if you continue to hold on to self-doubt and self-judgement.

There is often a vast gulf between our inner lives and our outer appearances when it comes to the practice of self-love.

We may book spa breaks and treat ourselves to fancy things, but it's worth examining the inner conflict that can arise when we indulge ourselves. Are you spoiling yourself because it seems to be the right thing to do, or because you truly believe that you deserve it?

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Our inner speech, or self-talk, is one of the best indicators of our relationship with ourselves. Do you reprimand yourself when you make a mistake, or when you're behind schedule, or do you remind yourself that it's only a slight setback and you'll get there in the end? Do you say 'I need" and "I should" rather than "I can" and "I will"?

"Remember, you have been criticising yourself for years and it hasn't worked," wrote Hay in You Can Heal Your Life. "Try approving of yourself and see what happens."

It's also worth examining your core beliefs about self-criticism. Do you believe that you have to be your own tough taskmaster in order to get things done?

"I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren't more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they'll become self-indulgent," says self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff.

"They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be."

Of course, we can be hard on ourselves in many more subtle, yet persistent, ways. When we truly practise self-love, we have to examine our capacity for self-sabotage.

Alan Watts believed that the opposite of self-love is self-destruction. "Because you won't take the risk of loving yourself properly," he wrote, "you will be compelled instead to destroy yourself".

The trouble is that, just like self-love, we don't understand the complexities and nuances of self-sabotage. Just as self-love isn't as simple as putting on a face mask and relaxing in a bathtub, self-sabotage isn't always a foot-to-the-floor death instinct.

Self-sabotage can manifest as fear of failure or fear of success, catastrophising, procrastinating, quitting and refusing to forgive - both ourselves and others. It can also rear its head as a two-day hangover or a week-long food binge.

You'll notice that we are less likely to partake in these behaviours when we are pursuing our passions and living our most authentic lives.

Hay advised readers to "think thoughts that make you happy. Do things that make you feel good. Be with people who make you feel good. Eat things that make your body feel good. Go at a pace that makes you feel good."

It's not an exact definition of self-love, but it comes close.

Remember, radical self-love isn't a bumper sticker or a fridge magnet saying. It's a paradigm shift that is as challenging as it is rewarding.

We have to examine the relationship we have both with ourselves and others, just as we have to look at the people, places and things that we surround ourselves with, and the choices, habits and vices that may be holding us back.

When you "dare to love yourself as if you were a rainbow with gold at both ends", to quote the poet Aberjhani, you also have to be willing to ask yourself some uncomfortable questions.

Why do you feel like you don't deserve a healthy, loving relationship? Why do you feel like you don't deserve success or happiness? Why do you feel unworthy?

"How do you begin to grow your self-esteem?" asked Hay. "You start by recognising that you deserve to be loved. You deserve to love yourself."

Hay described self-love as a "seed that grows if you water it". Yet it will only grow if it's watered every day.