The concept of self-love isn’t new. The ancient Greeks had a word for it — Philautia — but even then, it was something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it meant a healthy sense of self-regard; on the other it involved preoccupations with status and fame-seeking, touching into narcissism. This is one of its challenges. It can be hard to embrace a concept that is so fundamentally self-focused. After all, aren’t we supposed to put others first? Isn’t it rather indulgent or frivolous to give yourself so much self-attention? While the current mental health movement has firmly reclaimed self-love as a key component of happiness and wellbeing, those negative associations persist, albeit on a more subconscious level. So, let’s address those first and then explore the ways that self-love can help you find the professional success you’re looking for…
SELF-LOVE ISN’T SELFISH — OR SUPERFICIAL
Clinical psychologist Deborah Khoshaba described self-love as a dynamic ‘state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions that support our physical, psychological and spiritual growth’.
However, we live in a society where selflessness and self-sacrifice are applauded, and women often excel at and embrace the role of putting others’ needs before their own. The idea that we might be guilty of doing the exact opposite can prevent us from engaging with our own need to cultivate a healthier self-regard.
More helpful then, is to think about self-love as a win-win — a way for everyone to have what they deserve and to cultivate a more egalitarian workplace. Rather than caring about yourself at the expense of others (which would be selfish and leave those around you lacking), by paying attention to your own wellbeing, you’ll be better resourced, stronger and happier to lead, manage and support your teams. According to Emma Seppälä, Yale Lecturer, author and keynote speaker, it makes you better at decision making, increases your motivation, and improves your relationships too: all qualities that can empower you to bring more to your role and those you work with.
Another misconception about self-love is that it’s something that happens after work — a long bubble bath to ease the pain of a demanding day. But real self-love is not a sticking plaster or a glossy magazine self-care ritual. Self-love is a powerful way to prevent that stress rising in the first place. It ensures that the way you work supports your health and wellbeing — ultimately making you more effective.
According to Khoshaba: ‘When we act in ways that expand self-love in ourselves, we begin to accept much better our weaknesses as well as our strengths, have less need to explain away our shortcomings, have compassion for ourselves as human beings struggling to find personal meaning [and] are more centred in our life purpose and values.’
SELF-LOVE MEANS GETTING THE BASICS RIGHT
Looking after our bodies is the ultimate act of self-love. As author Elizabeth Gilbert points out: ‘What makes us think we’re so special that we alone — unlike any other animal on earth — do not deserve loving care?’
Eating well, sleeping well, drinking enough water, spending time outside and getting enough exercise are the essential habits of a healthy body and mind, but when we get too busy, too stressed, or too wired, they can fall by the wayside. However, when we neglect ourselves, it can have a massive impact on our health and wellbeing.
Carolyn Centeno Milton writes about the intersection between wellness, neuroscience and business, noting that recent research has found ‘a huge link between gut health and depression’. Pay attention to your diet, she says, and start watching your energy levels after you eat ‘to learn what makes you feel energised and what depletes you’.
No one can do this for you. Self-love is an act of self-responsibility and sometimes it may not be easy. But when you create a practice of looking after your body in a careful, considered and mindful way, focusing on what makes you feel good and strong and clear, the rest often takes care of itself.
The proliferation of ‘perfect lives’ as they appear on social media, accompanied by the idea that we can have it all too if we only work harder, is a breeding ground for insecurity, self-doubt and a deep-rooted sense of failure. In striving for perfection, inevitably we fall short.
Self-love and compassion give us back our sense of being enough, even if we get things wrong, don’t get that promotion, miss a deadline, or make a poor choice. It also allows us to make mistakes and not give up at the first hurdle when we’re trying something new because we don’t get it right. And when we’re not a slave to perfectionism, we can also receive feedback more easily and hold constructive criticism more lightly because we accept that there’s room for improvement.
As suggested by Kristin Neff, author and associate professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas and a pioneer in this field of research: ‘Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.’
By introducing self-love into the mix, you allow self-forgiveness and self-acceptance to soothe the painful realisation that, yet again, you’ve proved yourself imperfect — and despite this, you still have real value in the workplace and beyond.
THE ANTIDOTE TO SELF-CRITICISM
Most of us have a critical voice inside us that can drown out positive thoughts with a diatribe of put-downs and insults. It tells us we’re not clever, experienced or talented enough. It tells us we’re an imposter waiting to be exposed. It tells us to give up and stop trying because we’re not as good as others. It says things we’d never dream of saying to anyone else. It’s the opposite of self-love.
If you allow this voice to define you, it becomes a particularly effective form of self-sabotage. It can prevent you from stepping up when opportunities arise; it can hold you back in your journey to achieving your true potential.
And yet, as author and psychotherapist Bryan Robinson points out, this negative self-talk only adds insult to injury, particularly when we’re struggling. ‘Coming down hard on yourself after a misstep is like fighting the fire department when your house is on fire,’ he says. And that only reduces your ability to rebound and do better’.
‘Self-love and positive self-affirmations are the antidote to self-judgement, providing’, says Robinson, ‘the fuel that boosts our moods, job performance and achievement’.
Start noticing when that self-destructive self-talk kicks in, then take a deep breath and remind yourself it’s not the whole story. It’s perfectly normal to feel bad, to regret or to feel frustration, but don’t let those negative emotions take over. Pouring on the kindness and looking for what you can learn, how you could do things differently in the future or simply just forgiving yourself can prevent this being a repeating pattern that obstructs your creativity, productivity and progress.
A SPRINGBOARD TO ASSERTIVENESS
Genuinely assertive communication (rather than passive or aggressive) means standing up for what you need, while respecting the rights, beliefs and needs of others. Self-love gives you the clarity and confidence to voice what’s important to you because it’s something you value.
Without self-love, it’s easy to slip into a passive role and let your needs slide, or to overlook them completely because you’re focusing on the needs of others. It’s also common to downplay or soften what’s important to you because you don’t want conflict, or to appear too aggressive or risk offending anyone. This is particularly true of women — who may be more likely to shy away from being what they see as ‘confrontational’ or ‘difficult’.
By nurturing your own sense of self-love, you’ll gain the ability to fearlessly go after what you believe, allowing your voice to be heard, whether that’s in a project planning meeting or an appraisal.
KNOWING WHEN TO SAY NO
Self-love involves setting yourself clear boundaries and respecting them, behaviour that is deeply supportive of your health and wellbeing. The ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra is outdated. Striking a healthy work-life balance that gives you peace and contentment as well as dynamism and stimulation is essential.
This means not working late all the time because your boss does; giving yourself a lunch break to go for a walk; and making sure you have quality time with the people you love and who love you — as well as quality time alone with yourself and your thoughts.
Having good boundaries also means knowing how to say ‘no’ — and meaning it — as well as only saying ‘yes’ when you’re fully committed to the idea. Doing something half-heartedly or resentfully does no one any favours. You may need to reframe a situation in your mind to find the value in it for you — after all, not everything we do within our working day is going to set our world alight — but self-love requires us to find that value because it knows we need and deserve a meaningful life.
Carolyn Centeno Milton sums this up in an article for Forbes:
‘Your worth won’t come from having the best job, partner, life or any outside promotion, award, compliment or validation. Your worth comes from being your full and beautifully-imperfect self, valuing who you are, setting boundaries, and going after what you believe fearlessly. This type of acceptance is not narcissism nor arrogance. That's fear. This type of acceptance is much more powerful. It's self-love.’