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Defining Self-Love in My Life With Physical and Mental Illness

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“Self-love.” Everywhere I see these two little words. Especially, mind you, in relation to self-care and self-advocacy. Especially in regard to illness, and disability, and mental health. But one day, it occurred to me that I didn’t know what self-love was. I knew what love was. No one needed to remind me that love is patient and kind; I knew how to treat others the way I wanted to be treated, to love others as I loved myself. I’m a decent friend, I’d say. Really, I’ve always loved loving others. Who doesn’t like to feel complete? One might say, however, that part of me had missed the point.

It was in Catholic school, at a spiritual retreat, that I realized something I would never forget. We had been asked to meditate on the sins we had committed, and, to my surprise and chagrin, my mind drew a blank. I thought back to how I had treated those around me. I had been kind, and honest, and forgiving. I had loved others as I loved myself. Or had I?

It occurred to me, miraculously, that I too am a person. Thus, if unkindness to others is sin, so must I not be unkind to myself. I thought back to the times I had told myself I was a waste of space. The times I had worked myself to exhaustion, telling myself that I wasn’t working hard enough, that I could never be good enough. I had slapped myself in tired anger, when my physical and psychological illness overwhelmed me. I had cut myself in desperation. And then I cut myself as a punishment for self-harm.

I realized, tearfully, that I wasn’t loving others as I loved myself. Because while I loved others, I didn’t love myself at all. While I treated others the way I wanted to be treated, I did not treat myself the way I treated others. I treated myself much worse.

It was on that night, in the silent chapel, that I began to understand the meaning of “self-love.” Self-love is not spoiling yourself. It is not being selfish or self-obsessed. It is simply loving yourself as you love others, because you too are a human being, worthy of love, including your own.

As I’ve battled mental and physical illness, I’ve learned that I need myself as an ally. There are some things that only I can do to help myself. Only I can choose to take my meds, to be open in therapy, and to get up in the morning. When I moved away to college, I realized that sometimes I’ll feel alone. I realized that sometimes I’ll need to be my own advocate, my own inspiration, my own best friend…instead of my own and only enemy.

It’s hard, of course. It can be easier to love others because you often only see the best sides of them, whereas you may be the only person who sees what you feel are the ugliest parts of yourself. You have to love yourself completely despite knowing yourself so well—but think of it this way. You are interesting and worth getting to know. You are capable of being a good friend. You are lucky to have someone like yourself in your life, and you will never leave your own side—in sickness or in health.

Think of the person you love most. What would you do for that person? You would tell them to take a break when they’re tired, because they deserve it. You would tell them that they’re beautiful, because they are. You would care for them in their sickness. You would love them even on a bad day. You would forgive them for their mistakes. You would tell them that if they need anything at all, that they shouldn’t hesitate to ask, because they are loved.

You are worthy of this love, and this is a love you can give to yourself. Take a break when you’re tired. You deserve it. Tell yourself you’re beautiful, because you are. Take care of yourself in your sickness, and love yourself even on the worst of days. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. And ask for help if you need it.

Because you are loved. And you have every means to be complete.

Those “three little words”…we all long to hear them. But we can start with pairs of two.

Self-love. Self-care.


Love yourself as you love others. Treat yourself the way you want to be treated.

Love starts here. Love starts with you.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock image by Blackzheep

Originally published: March 9, 2017
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