Self-love is not all 'me time', massages, bath bombs and wine

I could not face and embrace my own vulnerabilities until I became older.
I could not face and embrace my own vulnerabilities until I became older. Photo: Stocksy

Throughout my twenties, I didn’t love myself. I hardly knew myself. I gained any sense of identity and worth through the regard and admiration of men.

My authentic self, my core and my vulnerabilities, were hidden to me. I couldn’t bear to look at them. I was porous, brittle, without boundaries.

This lack of self-love, conversely, made me shallow and narcissistic. I was the centre of the universe, burning sun to countless lovers’ upturned gazes. I could never get enough.

Now in my mid-forties, self-love is less about indulging my short-term wants than figuring out my long-term needs and working toward fulfilling them. Sometimes self-love looks a lot like self-parenting.

You guide and cajole yourself to do things you may not desire in that moment but know will be good for you in the long term. You go to bed early even though you want to watch that last episode or finish that book.

You drag yourself out of bed at dawn to practice yoga or exercise, or in my case swim in cold seas through the year.

You do that last push-up although your muscles are screaming. You try to be kind – or at least not as horrible as usual. You keep your mouth shut even when you want to rage and shout. Self-love can be tough love.

For women in particular, it’s hard to work out what self-love actually means. Contrary to popular opinion it’s not all ‘me-time’, massages, bath bombs, dark chocolate and wine. Nothing is ever that simple.

It can be hard for women to truly inhabit self-love in a culture which expects us to be perfect, in control and "on" for everybody, all the time. We’ve been groomed to be the caretakers, to feel our loved ones’ pain as if it is our own.

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We haven’t learned to protect ourselves. We still haven’t learned to say a guilt-free, compassionate "no". I asked friends what self-love means to them.

Denby, 49, believes that "self-love differs from self-care or self-acceptance. The word 'selfish' has historically attracted negative connotations, but at its essence this is the key to each one of us rediscovering deep and lasting love for ourselves."

I remember in the schoolyards of my 80s childhood, the worst insult you could say of someone was that "she loves herself". Since birth, women have been encouraged and even coerced to put others’ needs above their own. To be seen as selfish and self-sufficient was – and still is – the equivalent to being disliked and ultimately unlovable.

Lani, 53, has pondered the question: “How do I love myself when I don’t love myself? And the answer for me is to start by doing loving things for yourself. It’s a kind of “fake it until you make it.”’

Acts of self-love become habit, without the mind twisting itself into knots about whether you "deserve" those gestures of tenderness or not. Selena, 47, questions "what love really is and the notion of the self. I think love is a state we reach of comfort, trust and confidence."

Laurence, 56, says "it all boils down to realising that being down on yourself is not doing you any damn good! That realisation only comes with maturity for many people."

Right now, real self-love, for me, is less about indulgence than it is about slowly learning to accept myself totally, with all my flaws, idiosyncrasies and shadow selves. How many of us truly do this?

It’s hard slog; the path of radical self-love, of unconditional friendliness. Being kind to yourself even when you’ve been mean or underhanded or manipulative. Forgiving yourself. Believing you can be better.

It's about believing, also, that you’re lovable just the way you are. Amanda, 47, chose her own mental and physical health above “being a good girl and keeping quiet”.

"I needed to let myself know I was going to keep loving myself even if nobody else would meet my needs ... saying 'no' when necessary, calmly and with no self-judgement. I can be a receiver as well as a giver."

Seeing myself clearly — my need to be right, to look good, to triumph, to "show them" — is the bravest thing I’ve done. Sometimes it feels as if I’m looking down into a pool of sludge brimming with junk: the rusted, broken bikes and deflated tyres of my self-delusions, knowing that the face I present to the world is not the whole picture.

Yet sometimes that pool is serene and beautiful, dappled with my hard-won shadow and light. And with that expanding clarity, that wide and deep perspective, comes responsibility. Only with the lightness and grace of this full self-acceptance can I begin to change and grow.

So, let’s go for a run. Put on a face mask. Have a pedicure. Buy ourselves a bunch of roses at the farmer’s markets this week. But let’s not forget to fully embrace the thorns.

Katerina Cosgrove is an Australian novelist.