“I Love Lucy” star Lucille Ball said it well: “Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.”
The commandment to “Love thy neighbor” is one that gets a lot of press; the commandment to “Love thyself” doesn’t get enough. Yet, this is one of the main gateways to self-esteem. It is particularly important if there have been emotional deficits in your past (especially your childhood) that have undermined your self-image, your confidence and your ability to realize your full potential. As an adult, then, you may still carry the legacy of inadequacy and feelings of inferiority – even the conviction of being unworthy of being loved.
If this is where you stand today, there are many paths to building self-esteem; one of the most important is to start by “becoming a good parent to yourself”. That means developing the willingness and ability to take care of yourself. A popular saying these days states it well: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”.
So, how do you begin to love and nurture yourself? The two-part answer may look simple: first, recognize your needs as a human being; and, second, start doing what it takes to meet them.
As human beings, we all have certain natural needs. These are not just the basic needs of oxygen, shelter, clothing, food, water, sleep -- in other words, what we require for our physical survival. They are also what Thomas Moore was referring to when he wrote, "The soul has an absolute, unforgiving need for regular excursions into enchantment. It requires them like the body needs food and the mind needs thought." Meeting these higher-order needs, which go beyond our primary concerns of survival and security, is essential to our mental and emotional well-being.
About a half-century ago, the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, set down this model of human needs:
1. Biological and physiological needs – the most important being air, food, drink, sleep, sex
2. Safety needs - protection from elements (shelter), security, order, law, stability
3. Love and belongingness needs - friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work)
4. Esteem needs - which Maslow classified into two categories: (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, independence) and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g. approval; appreciation; status, prestige)
5. Cognitive needs - knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning
6. Aesthetic needs - appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form
7. Self-actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences
Yes, all the above are “needs” common to all humans. Even the so-called “higher-order needs” – e.g., cognitive needs; aesthetic needs and self-actualization needs – are “needs”, not optional self-indulgences. Of course, it can be difficult taking care of higher-order needs if the lower-order needs are not first met to a satisfactory degree. Thus, it's difficult to satisfy esteem needs or realize your full potential if you're starving. (There are exceptions, however: many creative people, such as artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, lived in poverty throughout their lifetimes, yet it could be argued that they achieved self-actualization).
Are you being served?
The list, below, is not exhaustive, but it breaks down Maslow’s model into the main component needs. Go over this list carefully and ask yourself how many of these needs you are actually getting fulfilled at this point in time. What areas do you come up short? List them.
Physical safety and security
Expressing and sharing your feelings
Sense of belonging
Physically touching and being touched
Loyalty and trust
A sense of accomplishment
A sense of progress toward goals
Feeling competent or masterful in some area(s)
Making a contribution
Fun and play
Spiritual awareness -- connection with a "higher power"
Let us count the ways
Next -- what concrete steps can you take today, in the next few days, weeks and months to better satisfy those needs that are going unmet? Begin listing those, too. It is important to make time for small acts of self-nurturing on a daily basis. Flying a kite or giving your three-year-old a piggyback ride could, in a small way, meet your need for fun and play. Developing a new skill will meet your need for competence or mastery in a particular area. Taking a nature walk will help satisfy your need for spiritual awareness – connection with a higher power.
While you need to develop your own personal list of the ways in which you are going to start meeting your unmet needs, you may get some ideas from the list, below. Some are my own, others have come from conversations with friends, and some have been derived from lists made by my clients in therapy:
Allow yourself some private time each day, even if it is only a half hour.
Call your best friend and settle in with a mug of coffee for a long, lazy chat.
Make yourself a cooked breakfast for a change, and sit and eat it somewhere nice – like a verandah, balcony, patio or garden
Browse in a bookshop for as long as you want. Or visit an art gallery and linger, look, wonder.
Buy yourself something special that you can afford: a new book, item of clothing, wall hanging, portable barbeque grill.
Dance or move to music.
Daydream. (It’s not a “waste of time”, as you may have been led to believe. Daydreaming allows your mind to take a break, a mini-vacation in which to release tension and anxiety and “return” refreshed).
Write down a list of things you’d like to do some day, even if they seem absurd or unattainable.
Join a yoga class or a mindfulness course.
Treat yourself to a manicure and a pedicure.
Frame some of your favourite photographs and put them on display.
Slide on the park slide. Swing on the park swings.
Take a “mental health day off” from work. Have breakfast in bed. Even better: stay in bed for the entire day and switch off your cellphone. Read, do crossword or sudoku or kakuro puzzles, watch TV, eat a special food you’ve ordered in, have a movie marathon.
Try a new hobby. Something you've been really wanting to diy -- and don't be overly-concerned with the final product.
Give yourself more time than you need on a non-urgent task… in other words, let yourself dawdle.
Settle for less. Lower your expectations about being the perfect parent, the perfect spouse.
Learn to compartmentalize. When you get home, leave work at the office. When you’re with your spouse, don’t allow worries about the children to crowd your mind.
Take a nature walk and collect little bits of Nature’s bounty – pebbles, leaves, twigs, flowers; arrange them in an attractive display in your home to remind you of that walk.
Go for a drive to somewhere scenic.
Try some relaxation exercises.
Take time off to watch the sunset.
Pamper yourself at bedtime with a warm bath with some essential oils added.
Sleep under the night sky and star-gaze. Learn about constellations and see if you can locate them in the massive canopy of the heavens.
Wake up early just to watch the sunrise.
Do something nice for someone else. Help carry packages, smile, say hello, share a home-made snack with the building watchman just because. Doing something nice for someone else meets your need to love (not just to be loved), makes you feel worthwhile and liked by others. And that’s self-nurturing, too.
Improve your body image
Body image is an important component of self-image. Therefore, a special sub-category in the “self-nurturing” domain is taking care of your body. It is no accident that people who are overweight – or underweight, or who have poor energy levels – also have poor self-esteem. If you’re unhappy with your physical self, you tend to see yourself as inferior. In other words, if you value yourself, you will value the body that houses that self. You’ll take care to keep it healthy and fit. That means not only maintaining a healthy weight, but also exercising regularly, steering free of toxins like tobacco and harmful drugs, paying close attention to personal hygiene and grooming, getting regular medical check-ups – essentially, all the things you need to do to keep your body looking and feeling its best.
Exercise (apart from helping you to maintain a healthy weight, build strength and cardiovascular fitness, fuel energy and improve flexibility) helps to directly boost your self-esteem in another way: Mastery – becoming successful in a particular area – is key to boosting self-esteem, and exercise compounds the benefit of mastery by offering almost immediate, powerful feedback – in the shape of a trimmer, fitter, stronger body that you can see right there in your mirror. A number of studies bear out the positive effects of exercise on self-esteem, and specifically on “body cathexis”, that is, how exercisers feel about their bodies.
Stop being your own worst critic
And start being your own best friend. People with a low sense of adequacy keep putting themselves down. They have a mental roster that’s heavy with all the things about themselves that they “hate”, all the things they “need to change”. So much so that there’s precious little that they seem to like about themselves. But there are no two ways about it: each person has enough unique qualities, talents, skills that are worthy of recognition and appreciation. It’s just that most people tend to be dismissive about these attributes and abilities that they possess.
That’s the reason for the next step you’ll need to take on your journey to self-esteem. (It’s an approach that’s commonly used in counselling people with low self-esteem because it’s simple but, oh, so effective). Start putting down a list of all the things you like about yourself: not only all your gifts, talents, abilities -- but all the things you like about yourself. That includes things like the mega-watt smile that crinkles up your eyes, your compassion for stray animals, the fact that you promptly return calls and messages. You think those things don’t count? You’re wrong – everything you like about yourself counts. So, avoid discounting your strengths by saying, “That’s nothing” or “Anyone can do that”. Sure, others perhaps can. But you can, too – and that’s what counts.
And, how many likeable things about yourself do you think you could come up with on your list? 20? 40? 50? Typically, therapy clients of mine, as they go on adding to the list over the days and weeks, end up with as many as 200 or 300 or more things that they like about themselves! So many things to like about yourself – yet you spend most of your time being down on yourself.
Most people find this kind of list revelatory, some clients have even been moved to tears when they find out that there are so many lovable things about themselves, and that they’ve been so harsh on themselves for inadequacies in some areas that they’ve simply overlooked all that’s good. It’s worthwhile remembering that everybody has things about themselves they don’t much like – yet, it’s possible, indeed desirable, to keep loving yourself regardless of your perceived inadequacies.
So, keep that list close at hand: first, so that you can add to it as soon as a likeable quality about yourself occurs to you; and secondly, because it can serve as an instant pick-me-up during those times when you feel self-doubt or self-deprecating thoughts creeping up on you. And you’ll find that you begin to love yourself – really, truly, unconditionally – and more and more as Time goes by. And that’s the first step to loving others, too.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)