Love Yourself First: What Does It Really Mean and How Do You Do It?

You’ve probably heard variations of the phrase “love yourself first” many times. It’s a mantra that gets tossed around a lot today, but on its own, it’s not all that helpful.

For many years, I would always think, “Sure, I love myself. So what?” But like many, I was making a mistake—I thought that treating myself, being proud of my accomplishments, and being happy with my general life meant I must love myself. 

Unfortunately, the task of loving yourself isn’t so simple as booking a massage or saying nice things to yourself in the mirror. 

In reality, loving yourself requires a lot of hard work. You have to look at yourself, truly and deeply—including the bits of yourself that you’d rather not think about. And then you have to find a way to not just accept those things, but honor and love them. 

Why do all that hard work? Because learning to love yourself enriches everything else: your mental health, your happiness, your opportunities, and your relationships. 

If that sounds good to you, then this guide will help you take practical steps to begin the journey of loving yourself first.  

 

Love yourself first: what does it actually mean?

Before we dig into the ways you can start learning to truly love yourself first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what this phrase means. 

There are three different aspects of loving oneself that you should keep in mind as you read this article: 

 

Improving your self-esteem

When talking about loving yourself first, the concept of self-esteem will come up a lot. Self-esteem is essentially your respect for yourself—how much confidence you have in your abilities, worth, and individuality. 

"Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your handbrake on." —Maxwell Maltz

Taking action to love yourself first also means you’re working on improving your self-esteem. Your ultimate goal is to feel more confidence and self-respect, which in turn will give you a much healthier level of self-esteem. 

Believe it or not, you have control over your self-esteem. Our upbringing and personal circumstances certainly play a role in how much self-esteem we have, but anyone can improve their self-esteem… if they learn how to manage their inner critic.

 

Recognizing and managing your inner critic 

Everyone has an inner critic—that voice of doubt and judgment that exists only within the confines of our own minds. For many, this voice is the biggest barrier to truly loving oneself.  

“Turn down the volume of your negative inner voice and create a nurturing inner voice to take its place.” — Beverly Engel

The tough thing about the inner critic is that it’s not always easy to recognize. Sometimes the inner critic’s voice sounds like the voice of reason. It can masquerade as an advocate for self-improvement, or it can take on the voices and words of things people have said to you in the past. 

Learning to recognize this voice, in its many forms, is the first important step toward loving yourself first. After that, you can learn how to deal with the voice—sometimes you may need to talk back to it, other times you’ll have to investigate what it’s truly trying to tell you.  More on all that later in this article.

 

Cultivating self-acceptance and authenticity 

It’s important that you don’t confuse loving yourself first with self-improvement. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve certain aspects of yourself, and there’s an entire industry dedicated to the concept of “self-help.” 

But when it comes to loving yourself first, the focus should not be on self-improvement. Instead, it should be on self-acceptance—when you love yourself first, you do it without conditions, even if you have self-improvement goals you are working on. 

As you learn to accept yourself as you are, you build up your authenticity. You stop living according to others’ expectations or your own perfectionist standards, and instead allow yourself to be who you are, as you are. 

Related reading: How to be cool (while still being your genuine self)

 

Common misconceptions about loving yourself first 

The concept of loving yourself first isn’t easy to grasp, especially because it can be confronting and discomforting at first. Your inner critic may even try to talk you out of loving yourself first, and on top of that, you’ll get messages from society that may discourage you from this path. 

Here are a few of the common misconceptions people have about loving yourself first.

 

Loving yourself first isn’t a selfish act

When you work on loving yourself first, you will naturally spend a lot of time thinking about yourself! And at first, this may feel awkward. Like most people, you’ve probably received the message that being selfish is a bad thing. 

But here’s a message you might not have received as clearly: You can spend time thinking and caring about yourself and still have space to care about others in your life. 

Just because you are investing the time in yourself, and striving to be more loving and caring inwardly, doesn’t mean you will ignore everyone else in your life. In fact, loving yourself first will give you a greater capacity to love others.

 

Loving yourself first isn’t as simple as treating yourself  

There has been a lot of talk about self-care in recent years, especially during the Covid pandemic, when so many people have found themselves facing new mental and emotional challenges. 

And often, when you hear people talk about self-care, they will discuss things like getting a massage, going on vacation, or indulging in a double-chocolate brownie.

 

I’m not here to tell you that treating yourself is a bad thing. But it’s not the same thing as truly loving yourself. After all, you can get a massage, go for a walk, and eat a brownie all in one day, and still allow your inner critic to tear you down when you get home. 

Making time and space to do things you enjoy and need is part of loving yourself. But it’s not the full picture.

 

Loving yourself first shouldn’t be about finding romantic love

If you’ve ever watched a single episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you probably know this familiar phrase: 

“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

 

I’m a big Drag Race fan myself, but this catchphrase of Ru’s has always rubbed me the wrong way. 

Ru is right that you really can’t love anyone else properly if you don’t love yourself first. But take it from me—if you are only working on loving yourself so that you can experience romantic love someday, then you’re doing the right thing for the wrong reason. 

If you want to improve your life by loving and caring for yourself in a healthier, whole way, then you need to do it for you—not out of a desire for a romantic relationship or simply to please others.

 

There is no final destination for loving yourself first

When you work hard at something, it’s natural to want a clearly defined endpoint. Our brains want to look forward to the moment when we will have finished that presentation for work, completed our workout at the gym, or snagged that second date with our crush. 

But when it comes to self-love, there is unfortunately no defined finish line; it is a lifetime practice. 

Loving yourself will get easier over time, and you’ll start to feel the benefits of it pretty quickly. But there won’t ever be a time when you can cross “Loving myself” off your to-do list and move on to something else. 

Don’t think of loving yourself as a singular task to complete. Think of it as a lifestyle change—you are striving to alter the way you think about yourself, to bring more peace, happiness, and fulfillment into your life.

 

What happens if we don’t love ourselves first?

At this point in the article, you may be wondering, “Why would I go through all of this trouble to love myself first, when it’s so hard?” 

And that’s fair enough, but consider this—the longer you go without working on loving yourself, the harder life will be. On the flip side, if you spend time cultivating self love, you’ll find that many of the issues you are facing day to day diminish or vanish all together. 

Here is what can happen if you don’t try to love yourself first:

 

People use you as a doormat

If you don’t love yourself, then you are basically wearing a big sign that says, “You can take advantage of me!” 

Unfortunately, there are people in this world who are looking for ways to use others to get what they want. If they know you are the kind of person who will always say yes to something, even when it might harm you, they will take advantage of you. 

For example, your boss may give you extra work that makes you stay late, because they know you won’t say no. Your partner may refuse to help out with tasks around the house because they know you won’t ask them to pitch in and instead will do it yourself. 

These little acts of sacrifice are examples of a failure to love yourself first—rather than leave early or share housework, you allow others to walk all over you. As a result, you have less time for yourself and start to feel resentful all the time. And that’s no way to live.

 

You don’t get what you want out of life

The less self-love you have, the easier it is for others to dismiss you, take advantage of you, or step on you to get ahead. And that means that you’ll routinely be held back from achieving your own dreams. 

Your inner critic is also working against you. This negative voice may say things like, “There’s no way you can do that,” or “Last time we tried that, we failed, so let’s not do that again.” 

If you allow these thoughts to control what you do, say, and think, your life goals will remain out of reach. 

 

Your relationships will suffer

 If you’ve ever been on an airplane, you’ve probably heard this prior to take off: “In the case of an emergency, adults should put on their own oxygen masks before assisting those around them.” In such circumstances, an adult won’t be able to help a child put on an oxygen mask if they can’t breathe themselves. 

This notion applies to loving yourself first as well. If you really want to be a loving, supportive person for your friends and family, then you need to love yourself first. Otherwise, you’ll feel too burnt out, depressed, or anxious to care for those around you. 

Of course, remember that loving yourself won’t be successful if you are only embarking on this journey for others. This is about improving your life and happiness—the ability to love others more wholly is an added bonus.

 

How to start loving yourself first 

Here’s the good news: If you want to love yourself more fully, you can start today. There are plenty of things you can do regularly to make it easier to find self-love and start feeling happier, more confident, and secure.

 

Don’t do it alone

When you embark on this journey of loving yourself, you’ll be doing a lot of internal work, listening carefully to your thoughts, and checking in with yourself. 

As this happens, you’ll learn a lot about yourself, and with these discoveries will come some complex emotions: confusion, excitement, fear, shame, euphoria. 

It’s easier to deal with these emotions when you share them with someone you know and trust. For some people, this might be a best friend, a parent, or a sibling. Alternatively, you can get professional help from a therapist, mentor, or life coach.

 

Listen to the inner critic (and talk back to it) 

Here’s the big one—if you want to love yourself first, then you have to learn how to recognize the voice of your inner critic. And as I mentioned above, this can be tricky because sometimes the inner critic sounds quite reasonable. 

For example, let’s say you’re learning how to play the piano. After a few hours of practicing, you are feeling proud of how far you’ve come. Then you hear a little voice in the back of your head say, “Yes, but you’re still messing up a lot.” 

At first, that voice might sound reasonable. You’re still learning, and you did make a bunch of mistakes. But if left unquestioned, that negative thought can begin to fester. And soon, the inner critic may start to say things like, “If I keep making mistakes, why am I even trying this?” or “I’ll never be as good as….” 

Here’s another example: You have a dear friend who you haven’t seen in a while, so you reach out to them with a text message. They don’t respond for three days, and you spend the entire time wondering what you did or said to make them angry with you. Later, when they respond, it turns out they lost their phone and actually do want to see you soon. 

In both of these scenarios, your inner critic is working hard to sabotage you. The only way to combat this is to recognize the voice, and when you do, pause and talk back to it. 

One of my favorite phrases to say to my inner critic is, “Who told you that?” 

When your inner critic says you aren’t good enough, or is making up scenarios about how others feel about you, ask yourself, “Who told you that?” If there is no answer, then odds are your inner critic made it up. And knowing that, it will be easier to ignore that voice and move on. 

Related reading: Relationship anxiety: How to spot it and limit its impact on your life

 

Practice setting boundaries 

I know what it’s like to be a people pleaser. For most of my life, I would say yes to almost anything anyone asked of me. As a result, I became resentful, burnt out, and bitter. 

Learning to set boundaries and say no hasn’t been easy for me, and you’ll likely find it challenging too if you are the kind of person who likes to be thought of as helpful and agreeable. But without the ability to create boundaries, you’ll never find the path to truly loving yourself. 

With this practice, the key lies in being patient. When someone asks you to do something for them, resist the urge to say yes right away. Ask them if you can have time to think it over, and give yourself the space to check in with yourself about the whole thing. 

For example, let’s use the example of the boss from earlier. At 4:30pm on a Friday, they approach you and ask if you will stay late to finish up a last-minute project. 

Your initial instinct is to say, “Yes, of course!” You want your boss to be happy with your work. And you don’t want your colleagues to judge you for not being a team player. 

But instead of jumping to help, ask your boss if you can get back to them in a few minutes, then pause and check in with how you’re really feeling about it the whole thing. 

First, think about how you will feel if you say yes. Will you be frustrated? Disappointed? Exhausted? How would you feel if you said no? What would you do with the extra time to yourself? How would you feel in the morning? 

Next, think about the other perceptions you may be putting on this situation. Have any of your colleagues actually told you they don’t think you’re a team player? Or is that your inner critic at work? 

As you ponder these things over, you may find that your instinct to say yes diminishes. And when you politely tell your boss that you won’t be available that night, your boss will learn that perhaps they can’t always count on you to stay at the office beyond your contracted hours. 

Fair warning, when you start to set boundaries, expect some people in your life to push back. Disrespecting boundaries is one of the most common traits of toxic people, so keep this in mind: If someone doesn’t want you to draw a boundary, it’s likely because they are taking advantage of you.

 

Be kind, forgiving, and patient with yourself

Here’s a handy mental trick to keep in your back pocket as you’re practicing self-love: 

When your inner critic pipes up with some negative comment, ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone said that about my best friend?” 

For example, let’s say you’re laying in bed awake one night, berating yourself for the low grade you got on your last exam. You might hear thoughts like this: 

“I’m so stupid. How could I screw up like this? I’m never going to graduate at this rate.” 

When you hear these thoughts, pause. Now, imagine someone saying those exact things to someone you love—your best friend, perhaps. Certainly, you wouldn’t let someone talk so negatively to your best friend. Instead, think about what you’d say to defend your best friend: 

“Don’t worry, it’s just one exam. You’ve gotten excellent grades before. Don’t beat yourself up over a little mistake.” 

And just like that, you have a mantra to silence that inner critic and help you be more accepting, forgiving, and kind with yourself. Over time, you’ll find it becomes easier to pull up these words of self-comfort, which will in turn allow you to love yourself more deeply. 

Remember, learning to love yourself is not a journey with a final destination. You will hit road bumps along the way, and sometimes it will feel like you are taking two steps forward and one step back. 

Be patient with yourself, and soon you’ll find that learning to love yourself first was the best decision you ever made.