If I learn nothing else, let me learn to love myself first

We need to fill our own heart, so that we can love and change the world

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I know that loving yourself first might sound selfish, especially now, when so many people are in suffering and fear and when the world needs so much. But if we don’t love ourselves first, we may have nothing to give. If we don’t develop compassion for ourselves, we can’t really offer compassion to others.

Many of us – too many of us – didn’t receive the love we needed in our childhoods. We never learned to care for ourselves with an open and generous heart and may be coming from a “love deficit.” In addition, we’re surrounded with messages that remind us that selflessness and sacrifice are godly. Our society views “putting yourself first” as selfish and “being selfish” as bad. We’ve therefore mastered the art of putting ourselves last and judging ourselves harshly – even judging ourselves for our emotionally triggered responses to the current situation in the world.

But, again, if we don’t love ourselves first, we may have nothing to give. Or, at least, we may not be able to give as our best self.

I was raised in a religious cult. I was literally taught to suffer to pay for my ancestor’s wickedness (and to keep my descendants from having to pay for mine). I “knew” I was inherently sinful and that I needed to mercilessly seek out my faults and to push myself to always work harder and sacrifice more. Selfishness equaling evil was carved into my brain, and I lived by that decree in order to survive.

My “education” around the evilness of selfishness may have been extreme, but more and more I realize that nearly everyone I meet is saturated with that same belief. I see it in my coaching clients; I notice it in my friends; it’s, again, prevalent in our media. When I wrote my memoir, to the moon and back, I hoped to spread the message that as a society we’re too hard on ourselves – too self-judging, self-lambasting, and self-critical – and that we all need a huge dose of self-compassion and self-love. I firmly know that we all (or at least most of us) need a huge dose of self-compassion and self-love.

As we live through the challenges, stress, fear, and uncertainty of our new now, we are easily triggered (especially trauma survivors). Our worst selves emerge, and then we judge ourselves harshly for showing our worst selves. At the same time, we can be inundated with messages about meditating, reflecting, practicing gratitude, going inward, embracing silence, connecting in new ways, etc., and we may judge also ourselves for not using these tools “enough” or “well enough.” It’s a self-perpetuating negative loop.

Which is, again, why I need to love myself first, because that helps to stop my self-perpetuating negative loop. 

All of these practices are vitally important and essential to me right now. I am spending more time in reflection and meditation. I am writing gratitude lists morning and night. I am reaching out more and going inward more. But all these practices, to me, are built upon my growing belief that I need to come first for me. I need to make time for my spiritual practices in order to be my best self. I deserve to give myself the love, attention, and affection I crave. It’s okay to start my day with a “selfish” hand on my heart (which always soothes me), an “I love you spectacular” (which is how I now talk to myself), and moments of quiet meditation to find my heart and ease my triggers and fears.

When I take care of myself, I have much, much more to give the world. When I fill myself up first, I have more hope and love to share – and more energy, strength, and passion with which to share it.I really do need to love myself first. Then I can help bring love and positive change to the world.

Written by Lisa Kohn

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