Let’s Talk: Do we really know what self-love is?

By Clara How, Feb 25, 2021

The Beatles, clearly an authority on the subject, tell us that all we need is love. In many ways, it’s true. The love from the people around us brings us joy, support, and ballast. In the final story of our series The Things We Do For Love, we posit that the things you do for your loved ones, you should try to do for yourself. 

Self-love is a term that has been gaining more recognition as mental health care is increasingly (and rightfully) thrust into the spotlight. However, it is a term that is not always fully understood, or sufficiently put into practice. Perhaps because it seems a little silly to question self-love as anything but important and mandatory. Love yourself? Of course! We do! We should! But, do we really know how to?

This last installment seeks to give more clarity on what exactly it means to show yourself care, and why in reality, self-love can be painful, uncomfortable, but ultimately, necessary.

* * * *

Self-love. It’s a word that I’ve associated with little self-soothing things. I think of warming cups of tea, taking myself out for dinner, saying no to friends’ invitations when I’m tired. I see Instagram posts and hear friends’ encouragement, telling me that I am enough. I do know, unquestionably, how important it is to love myself.

The thing is: everyone knows self-love is important. I believe that most people do try to practice self-love, in their own way. But I also believe that when it comes to showing ourselves kindness, priority, and compassion, we’re barely scratching the surface. I know that when insecurity and self-blame cloud my judgment, the thought of showing myself grace seems like a distant concept, rather than something actionable. 

“When people talk about self-love, they don’t really know the specifics other than knowing that it’s about loving yourself,” says Stephanie Lim, a counsellor who runs a private practice called Autumn Steps. “People don't think about the execution, or what self-love really means.”

Self-love is pretty much what it says on the tin (to love and develop a positive relationship with oneself), but it’s also standing on the foundation of pillars such as self-care, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. 

Jennifer Chan, a counsellor at Mind What Matters, wishes to highlight self-compassion, a term that has been receiving more attention and research over the last ten years. 

The term self-love, she believes, is a blanket term for many expressions of love to oneself. Self-compassion, a subset of self-love, is “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, and experiencing feelings of care and kindness to oneself.”* It means taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude towards one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognising that these experiences are just part of being human. 

It seems straightforward enough to understand compassion: when we see someone in pain, we comfort them and we try to help, whether it is taking a friend out to lunch, or sending donations to people in need. To apply this to yourself, it means to acknowledge that you are suffering, and try to get yourself to a stable footing without casting blame.

This can and may manifest in little things like bubble baths – but a bath bomb is nothing if your headspace is not reconciled to the idea of opening up to the pain and addressing it.

It was then when I realised that I had created a Frankenstein’s monster out of multiple terms that were being bandied about. Self-love. Self-care. Mindfulness. And now, self-compassion. I had conflated them all into one, when really, I was forgetting that these are terms backed by research, and do have specific meanings. The mental wellness movement is a welcome and necessary one, but perhaps not everyone is aware of the nuance. 

I began to realise that by equating my little acts of self-care with self-love, I was putting a band-aid over a bigger problem. I never consciously thought about giving myself grace — I opted for Netflix, when I should have been asking myself: “How do you really feel?”

Perhaps the question to address is: Do we really know what it means to practice self-love? Has it just become a hashtag?

It seems like not everyone has clarity on the subject. “I thought self-love was taking time for yourself, and doing little things like putting on a face mask,” said Amanda Tan, 33.

Hazel Teo (otherwise known as @hzmz_ on Dayre), 24, admits that until recently, she had a skewed understanding of what the term meant.

“I thought people who had self-love were 100 per cent content in who they were. So when I was a teenager, I thought that I couldn’t have self-love, because I didn’t feel like I was the best version of myself. I thought it was more important to be critical, so I could push myself to be better.” This, I realised, was one big reason why there was a disconnect between our understanding about self-love, and actually practicing it — how can we, when we don’t know what it looks like? 

When I asked Tara Schofield (a program leader and lecturer at The School of Positive Psychology) over a phone interview about why it can be so difficult to practice self-love, she laughed. “How long did you say we had?” 

“People know how to give themselves pleasure and have enjoyable moments, like a cup of bubble tea. But we also have an internal dialogue going through our minds that we absorb and believe is true,” she said.

For some of us, this internal dialogue can be harsh and judgmental. We may mistake self-love for selfishness, or that spending time on ourselves might mean laziness. 

For Hazel, that critical voice in her head was compounded by years of being in an unhealthy relationship with an ex-boyfriend, whom she always compared herself to. “I felt inferior, and did not feel as accomplished as him. I also never said no to anyone, but I just dismissed it as being part of my nature.” This inner monologue is one reason why attempts at being compassionate are met with resistance — because it flies in the face of our own self-judgment. 

There are so many things that factor into the conversations we have in our heads: upbringing, personality, social and cultural expectations. The idea of teaching our children the concept of self-love might be more present today, but generationally speaking, this hasn’t always been passed down. 

During childhood, I was encouraged to excel in school, but it was a motivation fuelled by fear. Fear that I would let my parents down, that I would not get into a good university, and success would be out of reach. My inner monologue was rooted in a fear of failure. 

As I grew older, I started to absorb all the other expectations that subliminally slid into my consciousness. Unfortunately, they were all confusing, and changed over time. A woman can have it all, but. A stay at home mother is noble, but. A good partner compromises, but. Love looks like this. Love looks like that. Add self-love to the mix, and I confess myself muddled.

“A woman tends to be the most complimented when she exhibits selflessness, because it is seen as an expression of love,” observes Tara. “Especially so when she is a partner or mother.” It results in a perception that love is measured by what you do for others.

“You may think that you want time off away from your family, but there may be a thought that you should not be doing this. This creates an inner tension, and we feel bad about it. But these thoughts are socially constructed.” 

Jennifer had an analogy that rang true. During in-flight safety announcements, adults are reminded to tend to themselves before their children in the event of an emergency. “We have a reflex to want to help our children first — this could be from our upbringing, or some underlying myth that makes us think we need to be superwomen. But we have to first check that we are in a good place.”

It is important to acknowledge that while singlehood tends to grant a greater bandwidth in terms of time for reflection and self-care, self-love isn’t something that stops just because one is receiving love from a partner, or children.

Working mother of two Srividya Gopal, 46, believes that she has practiced self-love at every stage of her life, though not consciously, by making her own decisions based on her views on advancement and well-being. She grew up in a conservative South Indian family, where she has seen women like her mother and grandmother sacrifice most of their comfort and luxuries for their family. 

 “For most Indian women I have seen growing up, the focus completely changes to family when they get married, and much more so when they become a mother,” she said. “While I was inspired by these super women in many aspects, I made a mental note when I was young on how I would be different.” Srividya knew that she would prioritise taking care of herself, and not compromising on her wants and needs, as she feels “Focusing on myself adequately will make me strong enough to be able to focus on others”.

 After she became a mum, she took a three-month break from work to spend more time with her two-year-old daughter. At this point, she was Vice President of Advisory Services with an international accounting firm, of which she was a founding employee for her regional practice. 

 Those months made her more aware of what really made her happy. She realised that the recognition she received when rising up to challenges at work (such as getting a new client, giving a talk or receiving positive feedback) kept her going, and being able to earn her own money to be financially independent gave her confidence and peace of mind. “I feel happy when I am able to balance family and work. I realised that my daughter would rather have a happy working mother who is there when she needs her, than a frustrated home-mom even if she gets to spend extra time with her.” 

 Her husband has always been very supportive of her points of view: “Marriage only helped me learn to love myself more. A key reason was the reinforcement and additional self-confidence I got from my amazing husband and his lovely parents. Because he did not want to compromise on aspects of his life such as interests and time with friends, in this same vein he did not want me to compromise on these areas either. Hence, we shared responsibilities and gave each other space to do things we love.” 

Self-love can take the form of making such conscious decisions about one’s lifestyle. It can also take shape in reshaping the relationships that we have with the people around us.

Amanda has spent the last year practicing self-love, which for her, involved self-reflection and digging deeper into her feelings. Most importantly, it was about establishing boundaries, and changing the way she spoke to herself and to other people. One of the biggest (and hardest) changes was to adjust the way she communicated with her mother. 

“I used to believe that to be a good daughter, I had to agree with my mother. But whenever we argued, it would be a battle that could not be won,” she described. “I started to tell her how I was really feeling, which was that I’m not feeling good about the conversation, and walk away.” It wasn’t to break a decades-long habit of swallowing her words, but by responding and not reacting, she tried to establish new boundaries that weren’t there before. 

Wanting quick results, it was disheartening when nothing seemed to change. But she reminded herself that she had to be realistic. It took six months of constant reminders to speak more kindly to herself and verbalising her needs before she started to see results. Her mother began to respect her boundaries, and be more careful with what she said. Seeing this change, Amanda realised that she had broken a pattern.

“If something makes you feel hurt or uneasy, then you need to question it. Self-love can be tough, and sometimes draining. But I learnt so much more about myself, and began to acknowledge little milestones. Instead of thinking that I could be better, I’m able to be grateful for where I am at this moment.”

Amanda and Hazel credit therapy for helping them gain clarity, and while there are clear benefits of seeing a professional, self-love is something that we can still explore on our own.

“People have the cognitive ability to be introspective, and one way to become more self-aware is to constantly ask ourselves questions,” suggested Stephanie.

“What are the things that make us happy, and what are things that make us sad? What do you want to focus on? What exactly do you not like about your job? It’s about constantly asking yourself why, and going deeper into what we need.” Jennifer also recommends mindfulness apps such as Headspace, Calm, and Smiling Mind to learn how to quieten the mind and consciously listen to the beliefs you have about yourself. 

Another form of self-reflection is to also pay attention to what loved ones are saying to you. In a society where we tend to be self-deprecating, sometimes compliments are easily dismissed. 

Unpacking these comments were what changed Hazel’s mindset about herself. She spent years believing that she needed to be the best at what she did, and these unrealistic expectations meant she was always setting herself up for disappointment. She began to screenshot encouraging messages from friends as a way to cheer her up, and reflected on what they said. “A friend commented that I was thoughtful, which wasn’t something I considered before.” Hazel turned these words over in her head, and as her album of screenshots grew, started to see herself through a new lens. 

If all this sounds like hard work, it is. It intimidated me, especially since I was accustomed to thinking about self-love and self-care as just spending time alone, and doing little things that make me happy.

But I realised that an essential aspect of self-love is about confronting fears and deep-seated insecurities, and rewriting patterns of how we relate to other people.

The benefits of pushing past this discomfort is clear. A positive and kinder relationship with ourselves affects all aspects of our lives: our relationships with the people around us, our performance at work, and just how we feel about ourselves when we sit with our feelings. 

Tara pointed out that a constant practice of self-love has both immediate and far reaching effects. For the former, it could be learning not to react badly to a negative event. “Research has also shown that treating ourselves with compassion and understanding increases our life satisfaction in older years, especially when we begin to struggle as our bodies change.” 

Stephanie left me with food for thought. The term “love” encompasses so many meanings and connotations that she prefers to use another word instead: cherish. To treat yourself as if you are something precious, and something to be protected. It can mean a spa day, if you’ve had a punishing time at work. It can be saying no to people who are trying to assert themselves over you. It can mean that when the chips are down and thoughts start to spiral, you anchor yourself with your belief system. 

Tara had laughed about how long we had on our call to talk about this topic. We had an hour — a short time to talk about a lifetime of self-commitment. But she, and everyone else I have spoken to for this story, urge you to try, and to take as much time as you need.

*As defined by Neff K.D. in her research, The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. 


This is the final part of our four-part Valentine’s Day series The Things We Do For Love. Click here for the first, second and third stories. 

For last year’s Mental Awareness Day, we published a mental health resources guide, which can be read here

Writer’s Note:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about my mental health journey, receiving therapy, and how to be kind to myself when in the grasp of anxiety. 

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