Words by Rae Witte. Photography by Lucas Ottone.
There are only so many pastel infographics one can take in about the importance of self-love before we must truly look inward. Sure, we can accept and even love our bodies or we can love attributes about ourselves—we’re a good friend, a loving child to a parent, a loving parent, etc. While that view of self is important, it differs from the process of actively loving ourselves.
“Having a general love for yourself needs to be the beginning. It needs to be the first inner work that you do to see yourself as worthy or valid to pour into,” licensed psychotherapist and mental health expert Dr. Akua Boateng says. “That’s where the recognition that there may have been a disparity in either you learning how to love yourself and what is the action that’s required in caring for the self that you love.”
In a time where many of us have collectively experienced great loss, whether it’s of our old lives, old selves, or loss of loved ones during the pandemic, healing is a part of the package for loving on ourselves, but when you have love for yourself and maybe you feel like you’re managing fine enough, starting the process of loving ourselves can be nearly as daunting as the endlessly scrolling through Instagram.
There’s meditation, yoga, journaling, therapy—so many options. And what does it even feel like once you’ve established your process?
“The process of knowing how to love yourself begins with self-awareness. In order to love yourself, you need to know what you best respond to, what aspects of your soul need to be refreshed, revived and tended to. And so, self-awareness is the beginning after you’ve done the inner work,” Dr. Boateng says.
Bambi Galore, a student attending seminary at Lancaster Theological Seminary and whose faith is Unitarian Universalism, is working towards ordination with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Their “day job is working for an organization that educates clinicians about STIs and I specifically help train in reducing stigma amongst marginalized communities.” Galore has also learned about the juxtaposition of self-love and faith in their studies, something they pointed out isn’t normally addressed in a church or congregation setting where giving oneself to the community is celebrated and focused on. “I’ve had to take a specific course just on boundary training, on just saying no so I’m putting up barriers between myself and taking on projects and being there for people in all ways in which I’m not able to fill my vessel.”
Circumstances where our healers and faith leaders are not taking the time to recenter themselves is where abuses of power can result. “If you’re not filling your vessel, that’s when behaviors that are going to be harmful to yourself and others. When you see pastors and clergy men taking advantage of their congregations in any sort of matter—sexual misconduct, financial misconduct—they’re not taking time away from their congregations to do that self-care and to do that self-love,” they said.
We know that we’re supposed to love ourselves; we know that love for oneself is a healthy thing to have, but how do you actually accept that love?Bambi Galore
Also a mother, Galore pointed to children’s books The Giving Tree and The Rainbow Fish as being more about self-sacrifice. “They’re stories of love in which the character gives up so much of themselves until there’s nothing special about them left. In The Giving Tree, she gives of herself to the point that there is nothing left at that tree. She has given her entire life to make someone else happy, because that’s the only way in which she knows how to love.” Such storylines manifest as a societal norm where our worth is not placed simply in ourselves, but on what we produce and what we give to others.
Galore said truly accepting our own love from ourselves is essential. “We know that we’re supposed to love ourselves; we know that love for oneself is a healthy thing to have, but how do you actually accept that love?” They say, “It’s much easier to pour love into someone else or into something than it is to accept it, because we live in a society where our worth is not placed on self. Our worth is placed on what we produce and what we give to others.”
It’s much easier to pour love into someone else or into something than it is to accept it, because we live in a society where our worth is not placed on self. Our worth is placed on what we produce and what we give to others.Bambi Galore
In the same vein as reflecting on our childhood experiences to see how society glosses over the importance of actively loving oneself, we can look to our own discouraging moments from our childhood to see things that once brought us joy and explore that.
“You may come across something like, ‘Man, I really loved drawing pictures when I was in eighth grade, but my art teacher told me I had no talent. You know what, I’m 30 something years old now, screw my eighth grade teacher. I’m going to draw and it doesn’t matter if it’s good, because I’m not making it to be produced, I’m not doing it to be something out there in the world,’” Galore says.
Finding something that is focused on a process void of result can be a way we pour into ourselves, as it’s purely about the time spent in the journey with ourselves rather than completing something to be perceived or given to others. We have to release ourselves from the idea that our process of self-love has to result in something tangible outside of further understanding and acceptance of self.
We have to release ourselves from the idea that our process of self-love has to result in something tangible outside of further understanding and acceptance of self.Rae Witte
So, we know that learning to actively love ourselves includes time spent looking inwards and finding comfort in learning our evolving selves and also accepting love from ourselves to ourselves, but there’s still determining what that looks like.
“It’s about learning to listen to yourself before you ask. Listening is having an open mind and heart to what your intuition is telling you that you need. Oftentimes, our intuition guides us towards things, whether it be telling us that a relationship is no longer serving us or that we need to slow down and take less, or that your body signals that you need water,” Dr. Boateng says.
There is a difference between physical self-maintenance centered around self-care and self-love for your soul.Rae Witte
However, there is a difference between physical self-maintenance centered self-care—think skincare and exercise—and self-love for your soul. “There is a steady caring, consistent loving that is the texture of pouring into yourself that we can think of as a range that is always there. It’s the process of maintaining loving attention that you give yourself, as well as moments where you have a lavish kind of extravagance donning yourself with care that could happen as well.”
She says this can look like advancing ourselves toward personal goals through education, taking care of your mental health or ourselves psychologically to add value and depth to the way we see the world.
This cannot come without reflection and, much like Galore pointed out, it requires acceptance of not only the love we need to give ourselves but the time required to determine that. Dr. Boateng says, “Reflection is giving yourself concentrated time to do that. I can say I can do that moment by moment, but sometimes it’s really helpful for me to do that 30 minutes in the morning so that I have a practice, a practice time where I sit with myself and I reflect on what I need, and most importantly, how what I need is ever evolving.”
Before anything is established as a way of life, it needs to be manually put into our lives as a practice. A sense of community or having your tribe that speaks a similar language of maintaining a process of self-love can also help in staying aligned in what may seem unnatural to put into practice.
The process of loving yourself is an ever-changing, life-altering, lifelong process that requires trust, commitment and connection to ourselves.Rae Witte
Finally, Dr. Boateng says to set a time frame for check-ins with yourself to take a step back and look at the big picture. “Whether that be quarterly or half birthdays are a good time to check in, looking at things like how am I doing with caring for myself? To what degree am I supposed to care for myself this year and coming into the following year? How did I do? To have that marker check in ensures that we have a process that’s now more established.”
Ultimately, the process of loving yourself is an ever-changing, life-altering, lifelong process that requires trust, commitment, and connection to ourselves–no matter if it looks like a routine solo walk in the park or taking 30 minutes to journal three days a week—it’s yours for you and by you, forever.
Note: This story was updated on November 9, 2021 at 12:10 p.m. PST to clarify Galore’s studies and experience.
“Reflection is giving yourself concentrated time to do that. I can say I can do that moment by moment, but sometimes it’s really helpful for me to do that 30 minutes in the morning so that I have a practice, a practice time where I sit with myself and I reflect on what I need, and most importantly, how what I need is ever evolving.”