I always wondered how to love oneself. I grew up knowing that I must behave the "right way" to please my parents; otherwise, they treated me with disgust. My childhood was hell - I was molested, beaten, slapped, and now I have PTSD from the trauma.
My mother used to say, "Why can't you be like your sister?" I never felt loved or accepted for who I am.
I'm 64 now, and I still don't know how to love myself.
I moved across the country to marry a man who I now recognize is a narcissist. He became emotionally abusive shortly after we married, so I left him after four months, and we have been separated since.
Being a Christian, I do not believe in divorce, yet to date, he is still abusive.
I'm scared, lonely, and I have no family around, but I am not going to take him back as I had in the past. I am finally able to make friends now, whereas I couldn't before because my husband controlled every aspect of my life.
I know that I should not contact him, but I am in pain. I don't understand how someone who claims to love me can treat me this way.
How do I start loving myself when I am so torn up inside? How do I learn to love myself when I wasn't loved growing up?
Please help, I need advice.
I am so sorry to hear about your situation, and you are courageous to separate from your abusive husband.
I don’t know if you’ve read about my childhood, but suffice to say that I also did not grow up with caretakers that know how to love themselves or me as their child, and I can relate to your struggles. A key part of my healing journey is figuring out how to love myself despite my experience growing up, and it is an ongoing process for me.
Can Christians Leave A Marriage?
Though I am not religious, I do read the scriptures from time to time, and the bible’s teachings on love and forgiveness resonate with me.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” ― Ephesians 5:25-33, Bible
The bible said husbands should treat their wives with kindness and respect. By abusing you, your husband has veered very far from this tenant, and you are wise to distance yourself from him.
As for when is appropriate for Christians to leave a marriage, Tim Fletcher, author, pastor, and therapist, gave an in-depth talk on this topic titled “Relationships – When to End” that you might find useful.
The First Step Towards Self-Love
To your question on how to love oneself, I suggest you begin with step one, “Be Our Own Best Friend.” Start here because it is straight forward to implement, and you can practice on your own.
“It is only a thought, and a thought can be changed.” ― Louise Hay
If you are consistent with positive self-talk, you will begin to feel better about yourself relatively quickly, and it would be easier to implement the other steps in my article.
I’ll use an example to illustrate this last point. A person who loves herself would naturally not allow others to disrespect her. She may not yet know how to pushback on the offender skillfully, but she will set boundaries nonetheless, and through trial and error, get better and better at it.
We need to be kinder to ourselves. If we treated ourselves the way we treated our best friend, can you imagine how much better off we would be?
To remember to be our own best friend, ask ourselves, “What would I say to my best friend if she is going through what I am going through now?”
Often, we carry a critical inner voice that beats us down. This voice is a carryover from the people who abused us. We were not born thinking negative thoughts about ourselves. It is a bad thinking habit we picked up, and like any habit, we can unlearn it.
How To Handle Negative Thoughts
Choosing the thoughts in our heads is the one freedom we will always have. We can be locked up in jail and lose all other freedom, but we have complete control over our thoughts. We are the only thinkers in our heads.
The work for us is to catch this critical voice, and without chastising ourselves for having it, gently replacing it with a loving, encouraging thought.
Let’s use watching TV as an analogy. If we see something we don’t enjoy on TV, we can “change the channel” to something better. We don’t have to sit idly and suffer lousy TV. We can do the same with our thoughts too.
As for how to stop negative thoughts, forcibly trying to stop a particular thought just makes it that much stickier. If someone told us, “Don’t think about a pink elephant!” Guess what, a pink elephant is precisely what we’ll be thinking about next.
Instead, get rid of a negative thought by replacing it with a positive one. If the thought “I am not good enough” comes up, replace it with “I love and accept myself, exactly as I am. I am my own best friend.”
“If you don’t love yourself, nobody will. Not only that, you won’t be good at loving anyone else. Loving starts with the self.” ― Wayne Dyer
Loving ourselves is the basis of healthy relationships. If we don’t love ourselves, we cannot, in all fairness, ask others to love us.
Not loving ourselves while expecting others to love us is like trying to sell a product that we don’t want to other people. How successful do you think we’ll be?
The work has to start with us.
In the beginning, it will feel odd and artificial to speak kindly to ourselves, because we’re not used to it. Whenever we try to build a new habit, the new way of being will feel strange for some time, but if we keep at it, very soon, the new will become familiar.
Is It Too Late For Me?
You mentioned that you’re 64 now and still don’t know how to love yourself. I sense some frustration. Perhaps you think you should know better by now, and you feel bad that you’re not there yet.
Let’s address this by trying a thought exercise.
Imagine standing next to someone your age who has everything you ever dreamed of – she is peaceful, blissful, and surrounded by people who love her. Notice though, that the same years are behind both of you.
These years are gone. They are no longer real. We can choose to rehash memories of the past in the present, but it is just a selective replay and not the real deal.
Similarly, the future is not real, either. We can guess what this future looks like and feel delighted or fearful depending on how we imagine it to be, but it is a mental concept too.
“The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.” ― Eckhart Tolle
This moment is the only “real” moment we have. Not a second before, and not a second after, but this moment.
You and this other person both have only this moment; you have not “lost” anything relative to her because your past was not as pleasant. The past is gone for both of you.
“The whole essence of Zen consists in walking along the razor’s edge of Now – to be so utterly, so completely present that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you. In the Now, in the absence of time, all your problems dissolve.” ― Eckhart Tolle
This concept took me a while to grasp, but once I got it, it helped me let go of the “I should have done better” narrative. After all, had I known better, I would have done better already, so to blame myself this way is illogical.
We have the opportunity to learn and become a better version of ourselves as long as we are alive. My mentor Shelly put it beautifully, “Life is love school”. We are all on this journey together, and we are always doing the best we can with the knowledge we have at the time. It’s good to be kind to ourselves.
My best wishes on your healing journey.
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My name is Yumay Chang, and I run Life Is Love School, a global support group for childhood trauma survivors. I had a challenging childhood, and I know what it’s like to feel not good enough and not lovable. I learned through over two decades of research and plenty of trial and error how to heal so I can live a life of joy, love, and purpose. Now I help women that are successful at work but are unfulfilled in their personal lives do the same so they can also shine their brightest.
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