Self-love or Self-care First?

I see self-love and self-care as being equally important sides of the same coin. One without the other represents an incomplete cycle of acceptance, in my opinion.

Learning to love and accept and respect yourself is a highly personal process, and I’m sure that there are as many paths to self-love as there are people following them. Learning to care for and nourish and celebrate yourself is also a highly personal process, and countless actions and philosophies can lead us to cultivate those behaviors, too. No method is more correct or effective than any other, of course, but I’ve been thinking recently about how someone who is still mired in self-loathing might get started extracting herself from the mire. And it seems to me that there are two main ways to approach such a journey, and that they are, essentially, opposites:

LOVE YOURSELF FIRST

Those who start with learning to love themselves will likely find that, once they’ve made some headway, they’ll naturally feel inclined to become better self-stewards. Why would you nurture a body and soul that you hate? What would motivate you to care for a self that you don’t respect? It’s logical to think that self-care will flow naturally once self-love has been established.

CARE FOR YOURSELF FIRST

This was my path. Although I had plenty of self-respect in the intelligence and talent realms, I spent most of my young and early adult life hating my BODY so thoroughly that I had to do an end-run in order to establish a more holistic love for myself. I grudgingly accepted that no one else was going to keep me healthy or make me feel lovely, so I’d better figure it all out on my own. And learning to care for myself – eating well, dressing well, exercising, learning about my figure, tending my health – eventually led to acceptance and love. It sounds backwards in many ways, but it worked. I tended my garden, then learned to appreciate it.

I’ve tried in vain to decipher which starting point would work best for which people, but I believe both of them have merit. Hopefully – should you be stuck in that mire of self-loathing yourself – one will resonate with you so you can begin the process of becoming unstuck.

Image courtesy hall.chris25

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  • Yuh. Sadly, still learning both. I’ll let you know which comes first!

  • These two definitely build on each other. I’ve learned that when I’m feeling a bit down, a bit of self-care will often help bring my self-esteem back around. I’m also a believer in “fake it till you make it”; the practice can often help create the belief.

  • Becky

    Sometimes women instantly fall in love with their babies. Sometimes it can take some time. My mom (of the latter type) once told me that “it’s not yours until you take care of it.”

    The act of taking care of someone can, if we let it, teach us to love them, because we have to start anticipating their needs, which builds empathy.

    If we understand our own most common nuturing pattern (falling in love followed by care, or caring followed by increasing love?), that might inform our path.

  • andrea o.

    i have actually just gone through a major emotional and physical overhaul where i have learned to take care of myself for real and focus on holistic health and happiness, and in the process came to love and embrace and be proud of who i am, including the physical aspect. it was a rough road with lots of bumps and humps to get over but being on the other side and knowing what it takes to maintain my holistic health means that the little tricks i learned through trial and error are easier than ever to access and taking time to be grateful for all of the amazing things i can do, including physical activity, is becoming as easy as breathing! right now life is so very good and i feel so privileged to be here on this earth today 🙂

    • Glamdoc

      Wonderful and inspiring, thank you! 🙂

  • Jo

    When I finished reading Michael Pollan’s ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ it radically changed the way I thought about nurturing my physical body through the food that I ate. By caring about putting mostly local, organic produce into my body rather than overly processed food products, over a course of a few months I grew to love my body. Although I started from a mindful place as a yoga student and teacher (so physical and mental self-awareness is near and dear to my heart), something about this book changed the way I thought about food and sustaining my body. My physical body’s appearance changed from the changes in my food habits, but more importantly, I felt alive in my body, more connected with the choices I made and to the outcome they had on my mental well being. I’ve always struggled with self-acceptance and self-love as my weight has fluctuated. On one hand, I want to be able to love myself exactly for who and how I am in this moment, yet at the same time, I would love to be thinner/leaner/more toned. Ultimately, I think that caring for myself is the only way that I can love myself, because caring for myself is the only thing that ever brings me to a place where I am happy with myself.

  • These are interwoven, IMHO, and there’s not a right or wrong way to do it — it’s just grand when we get there. For me, acceptance came first, then a wavering affection. At the thought of having an illness, I started to love my body with devotion! Great post, Sal.

  • I’ve had a similar experience–I also learned to care for myself first. A few months ago, I made a big transformation in the way I eat, dress, and work out. Yes, I’ve lost weight and look better, but more importantly, I’m proud of my body and myself and the work I’ve done to take care of myself. That’s not to say I love myself every day, but I’m on the right path now, and choosing to care for myself got me there.

  • I spent a lot of years taking care of my body — eating right, exercising, going to the doctor, surrounding myself with good people, etc.

    I still hated myself.

    I’m a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way towards self-love — not by using self-care in the physical sense but in the emotional sense. Therapy, learning to embrace my quirks, taking time to practice my hobbies and discover who I am were all a larger part of my self-love journey than physical care.

    • TK

      This was my experience too. Spent a long time hoping that if I cared for myself I would learn to love myself. But the self-love didn’t come until I decided to work on it specifically.

      I think an important distinction, Sal, might be whether self-care leads to a body that is closer to the cultural ideal or farther away. For me, recovering from an eating disorder that made me lose weight, self-care meant gaining weight, and in my mindset at the time that made it *harder* to love. Of course, I don’t know how self-care changed your body or the other commenters’, but I could imagine that the journey would be different if self-care meant losing weight and getting closer to a cultural ideal.

      Of course in the end true self-love shouldn’t depend on being close to a cultural ideal, but I suspect that culture still plays a role in the process.

  • GinaMarie

    I went the route of self care first. Literally woke up one day and decided I didn’t like too many things about myself. So I started changing things slowly, and one change brought about others.

  • I went through a period of time several years ago where I developed multiple health problems essentially all at once. Initially, this made me extremely depressed about who I am. After some time, I learned to help my body. I have come to believe that these different, so-called problems are my body’s way of letting me know that I was living the wrong kind of lifestyle. Sure, I still pay for it now by living 24-7 with the problems, but that’s just life. I’m at peace with it. And something about going through that massive lifestyle overhaul really altered my view of self-love. Maybe I attained some self-love via the self-care I practiced.

    I also experienced this with education. After earning my first bachelor’s degree (a B.A.), I honestly believed that I wasn’t smart enough to go back and get a B.S. But after several years in the program, I’ve proved to myself that I am capable of being a scientist (me, the girl who used to shudder at word “algebra”). So, this is the second example I can think of where self-care led me to a new type/level of self-love.

    I’m not completely there yet. But as I’ve cared for myself I have definitely come to love myself, faults and all, a little more.

  • It is fascinating to read the comments. It reminds me how different everyone is and how each person finds their own way. I am forced to remember my pledge (to myself) to be a good mother by letting go of my very strong desire to influence my daugher. All evidence indicates that she is very happy with herself (while I see less-than-healthy habits with food, exercise and drink). She is an adult and anything I say will just sound like nagging, I imagine. After all, I have been “trying to help” for about 10 years now, ever since she started expanding into plus sizes.
    For me, I have found self-acceptance through sewing my own clothes. It has neutralized my feelings about measurments that vary from the standard sized sold in stores. I believe it is the force of creativity at work. Being creative makes me happy, then I take good care of myself and it keeps a positive cycle going. I am not so much into the whole “I love my body” thing because it feels so forced. The opposite of hate is not love, it is indifference.
    I love your blog.

  • QuiteLight

    Self-care came first. I was convinced I was a huge, gawky, unattractive piece of androgyny. So at first, all I could manage was good grooming, afraid if I made an effort to look feminine, I would look like a fraud. Good grooming made me feel more calm & cared for, & made me look at the parts of myself I could appreciate.

    When nobody pointed or laughed, I moved on to more interesting makeup. Still no pointing or laughing (at least from anybody I cared about). OK, on to more interesting clothes…

    By this point, I was starting to like how I looked. If people didn’t like how I dressed (and some of them didn’t), I was strong enough to realize that I liked how I looked, and it was liberating! I felt more like myself, and felt that I actually didn’t require anyone else’s approval, nor would I shrivel up and die if I received their scorn.

    While I can still be hesitant about trying new looks, now it’s because I’m not sure if the look suits me & my style, rather than because I’m afraid I’m not pretty enough to wear it. This is such a HUGE shift for me, I can still barely appreciate it.

  • Cel

    I learned to care for myself first. I was overweight, out of shape, and unhappy. I knew a large part of why I disliked myself so much was because of my body, and I knew that wouldn’t change unless I did something about it. So slowly I started making little changes in my life (stopped drinking soda, drinking water instead of juice more often, walking or stairs instead of car or elevator etc.) and eventually it turned into a new and NATURAL lifestyle for me, because it was all little things that together made a big difference without being difficult.

    With the changes in my body, I became more confident in myself – for the first time in years I could run without being winded or getting a cramp – and I was discovering that if I nurtured my body, it would give back to me. When I saw all the things my body was capable of, and how GOOD I felt, I started loving myself more, and caring for myself more, and now it’s a happy love/care circle.

  • Rad

    Thanks for the great reminder. I read Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” on a plane ride, and one of the great points she made was that self-care and self-love, in the pursuit of our own happiness, also makes a better, easier, more likeable people to be around, which is a gift to our loved ones. I know that when I slack on these two things, my poor partner is probably the first to suffer (other than myself, of course).

  • i’m definitely of the “fake it till you make it” persuasion, so i’m with you that self care is the easier thing to start with. on some level you HAVE to take care of yourself, but you don’t necessarily have to love yourself. it’s great when the one leads into the other- i definitely see that happening for myself, though i also see it as a cycle, not an all-or-none thing. like, i go through phases of liking myself more and less. it would be great if one day it stopped being a cycle and just stayed on the positive side!

  • Anne

    It’s a bit of a chicken /egg issue isn’t it? I think the point is not which came first but to make the poultry a going concern. Like most of you, I took the self care route, though that is not necessary how I arrived at self love (at least not literally). I love my self the most when I feel a sense of accomplishment. Once my kids became preschool age I finally had a minute to reflect on whether I loved myself or not. The answer I arrived at was that I loved my potential. So, I started tested my self in various ways: physical, mental, spiritual (perhaps in a more universal sense of the word), and artistically. I grew to love myself for my accomplishments and, when I didn’t meet the goal, I learned to love myself for trying, learning from failure, and trying again.

    My best tip for learning to love yourself: take a lesson from those who love you best. They are smart people with good taste and they CHOSE YOU! Don’t insult their intelligence and faith by not agreeing with them. Once you’re there, the fact that you gained a pound or two, or got a bad haircut really doesn’t matter that much.

    • Anne

      oops, don’t love my errors, but try, try, again.

      • Eleanorjane

        Love the ‘make the poultry a going concern’ idea though! 🙂

    • “…take a lesson from those who love you best. They are smart people with good taste and they CHOSE YOU! Don’t insult their intelligence and faith by not agreeing with them.”

      I think I need to write that down on every available surface – everyone who knows me sees such great potential/characteristics/traits, but I can’t see the forest for the trees. Thank you for this: you’re 100% right, IM(not so)HO.

      I’m working on self-love at the moment, mostly because I know I can do the self-care when I set my mind to it (read: when I *like* myself enough to think I deserve to be cared for). It’s a tough road, though, especially after so much self-hatred for so many years.

  • GingerR

    Someone mentioned reading on a plane ride. I too thought of air travel and the many times I traveled with my children.

    In the beginning when they do the safety talk the stewardess says that if you are traveling with someone who can not care for themselves, a child or whatever, that you should but your own oxygen mask on first, then attend to their needs. You will pass out before you’re able to help those who need you and then you’ll all be dead.

    For story purposes we won’t consider whether any of use really have much chance if the plane is going down. In that case we might as well all pass into the next world unconscious. But, that’s not what the moral of the story is intended to show.

    You can not care or love others if you do not care for yourself. If you refuse to care for yourself you will be dead, and likely so will those in your care. It’s optional to love yourself, it’s not optional to care for yourself.

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  • I hated my body for years. One day I was whining to my husband who has always found me beautiful and he said something to the effect of “if it bothers you so much why don’t you do something about it.” Then a few days later i was watching TV when one of the biggest looser trainers said she treated her job as working with people who were choosing to kill themselves. While I don’t 100% agree with or even like most of the biggest looser the combo of the two kicked me into self care. I started eating better (not starving myself or starting another fad diet but eating healthy food) and exercising more. Over the next year I lost 60lbs and worked though a number of body image issues. A little less then a month ago I ran a half marathon in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Over these I think 2 or maybe almost 3 years now I’ve become comfortable in my own skin and am a much happier person. So for me it was learning to care for my body that came first but lead to way more then I could have ever imagined.

  • Ritika

    If I had to choose, self care was first. My interest in fashion and style began in the middle of high school. I read loads of style books and became MUCH more polished in my appearance. Somehow I gained more confidence each day, and joined the tennis team junior year. It was truly when I found Already Pretty that the seeds of self-love began to blossom around senior year. I had a magnificent transformation and have never looked back. It’s not a battle anymore as I have trained to think positive thoughts and surround myself with positive people. I am forever grateful for the work put into this website and I enjoy reading it every morning! I hope it empowers other women daily just as it did for me a couple years ago. 🙂

  • Mandy Clarke

    I think I started on the road to self care first. When I was younger and naturally slender, I neither hated nor loved my body; I didn’t think about it a lot.
    I became frustrated with it as I got older and my weight wasn’t stable, and the turning point came for me when I finally decided weight be d**ned, I was going to dress nicely and be done with it.
    I was also coming out of a very dark period of depression at that point.
    With the easing of my depression the bad habit that accompanied it ceased as well.. The drinking too much.
    (the previous time I’d been hefty was due to too much soda and cake.. Lol)
    Anyway, as the main excess calorie contributor was removed, I started to lose weight- more than 40 pounds over 2 years.
    I’m now a good weight for me, and reading your blog and a couple like it were inspiring me.
    I’d not really worn nice clothes for some time- my early adulthood took place in the grunge period- and I realised how much I missed dressing nicely.
    I’m still a little shy sometimes, coz I’m actually quite pretty and have a decent figure, so dressing nicely turns heads- however, I have been really enjoying playing with cut, colour fabric and prints.
    Some days I still go for jeans and a knit sweater, but I’m ok with that.
    The main thing is- I love my body and I think I look good!
    Thanks to you and some others like you, I can see that my imperfections are quite alright.
    If you made it this far, thankful for being you. You’re fantastic!

  • I like that everyone has their own path. Though it seems like I’m in the minority, I started with self-love, and am still struggling on the path to self-care. Mentally and psychologically I know how to care for myself to keep myself sane (which is probably why I’ve got no problem loving my body and who I am), but physically, I have yet to grasp self-care in a way that actually changes my daily habits. I do think, however, that I’ve increasingly begun understanding self-care and how and why I need to do it.

  • For me, caring for my body is partly about survival and partly about aesthetics. To me, looking “better” has very little to do with self-love. Some days, the most loving thing I can do for myself is to release myself from the belief that I have to meet a certain standard in my self-presentation. On those days, some people might see me and think I’ve stopped caring for myself, but actually the opposite is true.

    I do strive to practice healthful eating and exercise because I want to live a long life. I’ve been near death before, and it wasn’t fun.

    I also want to achieve and maintain a fit look, because I like the way clothes look on my body when I’m fit. And I like fashion, and I feel like I have more options fashion-wise when I’m thin. And I like the way my face looks when it’s not puffy from excess weight. So I see my fitness effort as a way to achieve a certain aesthetic.

    But I don’t feel very emotional about it. In my life, self-love has more to do with standing up for myself and feeling free to express myself. So I guess fashion does play a part, but body image just doesn’t feel like a big part of it.

  • I am still in the process of learning to love myself. Like you, I find it easier to take care of myself before learning to love myself. I used to hate my body, but now I take better care by doing yoga, and putting more thought into the way I dress. I think taking little steps to take care of yourself is a big step towards self love.

  • Sarah

    Caring for myself came first absolutely.

    I found it a bit like when I bought my first car, it didn’t really feel like mine until I had scrubbed it from top to bottom, inside and out. Those few hours I spent going over every inch and caring for it somehow made something go click in my brain and it suddenly felt like I owned it!

    I had a similar moment after a few weeks of really really taking care of my body and trying to work out what it wanted, not just what my head wanted. Something just went click and for the first time since I was a kid my body truly felt like mine, and like I belonged to it as well, a caretaker of this tiny part of the universe.

  • I am going through a very hard break up, and I am very depressed. I don’t love or care about myself at all, I am at the point where I totally let myself go. I spoke with my friend about my problems, and the amazing thing she told me, is that I have to be able to love myself before someone else loves me. This was last night, before I found this site.
    Do I want to love or care about myself? I think what I want is to feel better, to not suffer and not feel any pain. I wish it was a pill you could swallow and all goes away. Where do I start, how do I start.
    Help anyone,

    • Sal

      Alexandrina, if you want to drop me an e-mail at sally@alreadypretty.com, maybe I can suggest some resources. Sending you lots of hugs.

  • Thank you Sally, for the nice words, I send you an e-mail already, and what do you know, I purchased your book as well. I am excited about that, I can’t wait to have it in my hands. Thank you again.

    Alex