What Is Self-Love, For Real?

Ever been looking for a common-sense explanation of what self-love is, without the glib, glamour, or emotionally bypassing nonsense? Let’s get real about it. Here, I explain this concept to people coming out of abuse and starting their healing journey. Like one survivor to another.




  • People who come out of prolonged narcissistic abuse struggle with self-love because of internalized self-abandonment and neglect.


  • The lack of self-love is a learned response, opposite to the inborn ability for unconditional self-love, and like any learned pattern of behavior, it can be unlearned and relearned.


  • Faulty and/or limiting thought pattern or belief can be changed by recognizing it, deconstructing it, and personal redefinition of the subject in question.


  • Self-love is an action, not just a feeling. It’s a behavior directed towards oneself characterized by basic respect, kindness, care, faith, and helpfulness. It’s based on correct and realistic expectations of oneself and life. It’s the opposite of abuse. And you don’t have to feel it to practice it.


  • Self-love is taking responsibility for one’s life and wellbeing without judgment, contempt, or resentment towards the self. This means cutting oneself some slack and focusing on helping oneself out.


  • Practicing and cultivating self-love is everyone’s right and responsibility.


The What and The Why of this Article


This text will explain self-love for those who experienced abuse in childhood and now don’t get it.


I used to go through the same struggle, so I’ll share not just scientific information but also real-life, down-to-earth knowledge I’ve developed that stands the test of time.


Earlier, I explained how love and self-love are related to each other and why there might be confusion about this subject in general.


In the next article, I will lay out the mechanics of developing the concept of toxic love as real love in childhood.


‘Just do it’ won’t do


The concept of self-love might seem quite mystified to people who have experienced narcissistic abuse in their childhood because the information they find online often feels vague and unrelatable. What you can come across often falls into one of two categories – the first one – spiritual approach with its too frequent emotional bypassing (i.e., ‘raise your vibration and feel the love of the universe now’), which sounds like ‘just do it’. The second one sometimes comes from general psychologists who direct their message to overachievers who get too caught up in a high-performance culture.


But this explains nothing to people who toxic caregivers have conditioned since childhood to deny their basic needs. These caretakers, instead of providing a safe environment for children’s healthy development, acted with determination to hurt them and make them dependent on others for a sense of reality and self-worth.


The survivors of abuse, now starting their healing and recovery process, need something more concrete than ‘just do it, you can’ because when they were building their worldview, they heard ‘no, you can’t and don’t you even dare’.


Abuse, CPTSD, and self-love


I’ve been recovering from CPTSD myself, and I can still remember getting these messages as if it was yesterday. 


For those unfamiliar with the term CPTSD, it’s a Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition developed by experiencing prolonged trauma, which can be living and growing up in conditions of domestic abuse (but not only, there are many types of abuse). 


The symptoms include: 

  • emotional dysregulation, 
  • emotional flashbacks that may look like:


    • outbursts of rage, 
    • fits of depression, 
    • a compulsion to people-pleasing, 
    • overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame 
    • dissociating (zoning out, inability to stay focused or concentrated, checking out of reality);
  • anxiety or feeling numb,
  • severe self-criticism, 
  • distorted and very negative self-image,
  • not knowing where our boundaries are and how to assert them,
  • lack of sense of safety, identity 
  • and a dark perception of reality – world and life.

For a more comprehensive explanation, you can look up my coaching website.


This condition is often a result of enduring narcissistic, emotional, physical, and/or other types of abuse for a long time, feeling trapped in a toxic relationship, or having no other option than to stay in it. It erodes the sense of self and the ability to keep oneself safe. It is detrimental to the innate ability to care about oneself and the ability to recognize one’s own feelings, basic and more sophisticated needs, and being able to provide for these needs, which stems from an injured sense of self-worth.


‘You and your evil self-love’


This may come as a surprise to the survivors of childhood abuse, but we are all born with the ability for unconditional love and self-love. A newborn baby doesn’t question itself if it did something to deserve a nice nutritious meal, if it’s good enough to ask for clean, dry diapers, or if it’s lovable sufficiently to see a familiar face and get a cuddle. It will yell loud and clear that this is what it needs – not later, right now! It takes prolonged trauma to teach us to ignore these instincts and learn to believe that our acting on self-love makes us evil, and expecting love to be fair and loving makes us less than bright. Some of us have read this message between the lines; some heard it explicitly.


But paradoxically, there is good news in that, because what is learned can be relearned, and thanks to the ability of our brains to keep our neuroplasticity for our entire lifetime, we can keep learning new things and keep changing the shapes of our brains with no time limit.


When the toxic gets labeled as love


Self-love is closely related to love. What we experience in childhood from our parents we will associate with love, thus developing the idea of what love is, how it looks like, and how it is experienced. That’s not so good for those of us, who have been belittled, overly criticized, and punished, who have been called bad people, been neglected, or emotionally abandoned.


Our parents are responsible for teaching us how to treat ourselves by how they treat us. If a baby is habitually neglected, it won’t think – ‘oh, I guess mommy has some issues’. No, it will start thinking – ‘if mommy treats me this way, there must be something wrong with me’. Similarly, when the baby is being usually nurtured and rewarded, it won’t go like – ‘nah, daddy is exaggerating right now cause he has a great day’, it’ll think – ‘yeah, it was awesome what I did, daddy says I’m amazing so it must be true!’ That’s because, for one thing, parents have god-like authority for infants, and for another thing – babies personalize, just like when an adopted child believes that their abandonment was their fault. We all know that it’s not true, but for small children, everything, on some deep level, is their ‘fault’, because their relationship with parents is personal, and their parents are an entire world to them at this point.


So the kind of love our parents show us will be the kind of love we will think we deserve. If they invalidate our feelings, ignore them, or punish us for them – we will learn to push them away, numb them or hate ourselves for having them. In short – if our emotions are inconvenient for them, they’ll become inconvenient for us.


This is why, after coming out of an abusive relationship, we need to reparent ourselves.


When a person is reparenting themselves it means that they take over the responsibility their parents had over them – they symbolically take it away from their parents and assume it by themselves. It requires us to learn to provide for ourselves the care, support, protection, nurturing, and guidance our parents failed to provide, to relearn about what is right and wrong, what is ok for us to do, think and feel, how to act on it, and what to expect in life. This is how we can undo the damage they’ve done and recover.


‘What’s love got to do with it?’


Self-love is love that we give to ourselves. 


This definition has two components right away – (1) love and (2) giving it to ourselves. 


‘What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me no more!’


First, briefly about love. To give ourselves functional and healthy love (as opposed to the dysfunctional love we already know), we must redefine what love is and what it isn’t. Perhaps it might come to you as a surprise (it sure did to me at first) that love doesn’t mean hurting each other or a struggle. Sometimes, we might struggle in love, but the struggle is an occasional guest, not a constant; pain doesn’t define love. 


However, this is how most abuse survivors recognize it – if it hurts, it must be real. Here is how I used to explain it to myself – if I feel pain and sadness in a relationship, it means I deeply care, so: it means that I am in love because a casual friendship wouldn’t get to me so much. Dear me. I would be intoxicated by, what I thought, was a beautiful depression, dark but deep, magical, passionate. Not some ordinary, shallow, drab feeling that gets boring over time. This misunderstanding about love was making me a perfect victim for a toxic person who didn’t even have to sell their pathology to me. I was unwittingly after it myself.


But the thing is, love – surprise, surprise – is loving (!). It has nothing to do with danger, threat, instability, dread, pain, or shame. It has everything to do with care, support, respect, kindness, security, responsibility, honesty, faith, and understanding. And reciprocity. Psychologists define love as unconditional positive regard, which means that we don’t reject someone when they make a mistake. Mistakes are a fault in behavior, not a person. They don’t define anyone – for a person can have a behavior, behavior doesn’t have a person. People can change their behavior because they have an infinite potential for change and growth. 


It’s not just a feeling


Now to unpack the second component – self-love as love directed towards oneself.


People sometimes think that having self-love means feeling nice things towards yourself. It leads to a train of thoughts that goes like this: ‘well, I don’t know anyone sane who is enamored with themselves, so this self-love thing must be some woo-woo, hippie-dippie nonsense made up by people trying to escape from reality by denial. Those poor fools.’ That would be true if that was what self-love is about, but luckily it isn’t.


When you love someone, it’s not just an emotion. In fact, the feeling, like any feeling, is temporary and comes and goes (and comes back again). You might love someone, but sometimes you might feel upset about them. Do you stop loving them then? No, you can feel anger and love them simultaneously; therefore, you’d choose to express your irritation in a loving, that is non-violent, respectful, and sensitive way.


That’s what you do when you love. Yes, love can be a noun describing a feeling and a state (I feel love, I am in a state of love). But there is also to love, which is a verb. So love is a behavior directed towards somebody, a particular treatment. You’re giving it, you’re showing it – it’s an action.


And self-love is a loving behavior directed towards oneself. 


Love is the opposite of abuse


What, realistically speaking, is unconditional love? To me, it used to be a fairytale, but now I’m a believer. To cut a long story short, it’s the opposite of being a negative, judgemental-no-matter-what, unforgiving bastard towards someone. Unconditional love assumes that in life, shit happens, and you’ll fuck up as much as the next person, but we never mess up on purpose, so it won’t treat you as if you did. It knows life’s tough, and it’s hard to always do right by everybody AND ourselves, and it knows everybody would do better with a little bit of help. Unconditional love believes that when you want to, and the conditions will be favorable – then you can. Can what? Anything.


Unconditional love is not the same as constant admiration. It’s more like everlasting non-rejection.


It means that we might be upset with someone we love and get very angry, but our punishment will never be the withdrawal of love.


So how do you DO treat someone with love? 


Consider this – every time you felt someone mistreated you and you wished they treated you differently – what was it? Like when you made that honest mistake, you didn’t mean it, but you received only blame and no mercy. You might have wished that they wouldn’t jump to conclusions, accuse you of being a bad person or having bad intentions but heard you out, not make things black-and-white, but that they could see the whole picture. And then took responsibility for their accusation and apologized.


When you treat someone with love, you treat them right. It’s the ability to see a person whole – not just the result of their behavior but also their real intentions and the bigger context of the situation. It is a trust that someone is intrinsically a good person, however imperfect. Unconditional love can acknowledge your shortcomings, but only because it wants you to grow. It will make you feel safe and encourage you to take responsibility and make amends. And when you do the right thing, love will notice, and it will let you know.


Love is a responsibility


How many people contemplate this? The number of divorces nowadays could suggest that probably not many, but when you look into different religious traditions, the marriage vows include the sacred promise of love forever. Would this promise survive since ancient times if it was unreasonable? Wouldn’t there be an update at some point (like there were many) if millions of people throughout the centuries figured out it’s just wishful thinking to feel this fire burn the same way for decades of marriage? Maybe it’s not insane, and perhaps because it’s not just about that fire, but mostly that behavior.


Ancient religious scriptures go even further than that, and most of them obligate their followers to love ALL people – thy neighbor, a stranger, etc. How can we love strangers? It’s not like we can be high all the time!


Consider the commandments in Bible, Tora, Koran, advice in The Vedas or Tripitaka, about self-conduct and how to treat other people. Now we have judicial laws that serve the same purpose – it’s an agreement we make with each other when we’re a part of the society that prescribes what conditions we need to coexist in peace. To not seek revenge, but rather to feel inclined to help each other. It is our responsibility as grown-ups to not step on each other’s toes, to have sensitivity to one another. If not, we can end up in court proving to someone that we have the right to be treated with respect.


If the right treatment was only dependent on our good mood and not a responsibility, living in society would be impossible. Good manners, common courtesy rules, or moral guidelines make us respect each other so that we can focus on living and not throwing punches. We expect politeness from each other because it helps us generate gratitude and goodwill so that instead of getting at each others’ throats, we actually feel like lending a hand.


Nobody in their sane mind (except us, abuse survivors) will have love for anyone who treats them bad. And if it wasn’t for our social agreements, we’d be still living in trees, throwing stones at each other. But we’re not. We don’t just let each other live; we cooperate. We further the progress of society to everybody’s benefit.


Rules of the game


The rules of social coexistence, morality, politeness, common courtesy, and etiquette dictate that we treat each other with fairness, respect, honesty, kindness, compassion, appreciation, support, forgiveness, and good faith. That’s our mutual responsibility, and if someone doesn’t offer it to us, we feel inclined to turn on them.


What could we say about love? Could we agree that it should be based on fairness, truthfulness, kindness, compassion, appreciation, respect, support, forgiveness, faith? If a marriage partner doesn’t offer it to the other, it might be difficult to sustain the relationship.


There’s something to these cliches if you take the fluff away


The last thing I’d like to mention is that self-love is the ability to take responsibility for living the best life you can and for realizing your potential. This doesn’t mean we need to lead a huge, epic life on display. It means asking yourself – ‘what’s the best choice that I can make today for myself?’ It means looking down at your own feet, seeing where you stand, and taking a breath for a start. Then you can look around and see how you could make living your life right now a little bit easier for yourself. How would a person like you achieve that? What could be the tiniest thing you could do right now to feel the difference? Something you could actually be able to act upon, something doable for you in this moment?


As time goes by, we should make our lives more simple, not more complicated, because this will help us realize our potential. What potential? To do something good, grow and develop, love and protect, help ourselves and others, learn something and give others value, heal and share it with somebody else. This is what gives our lives meaning.


Who gets it and why? 


It’s not evident for many people talking about this subject, but people like us, who had their sense of self and self-worth deconstructed and destroyed and now hear – ‘just love yourself’ – might first need to figure out how is it that they deserve it and no one can take it away from them?


So how is it possible (read: permissible) for you to have self-love?


Because you are neither less important nor more important than others. As a living being, you are just as important as anyone else, and everyone else is just as important as you are. That means that if everyone deserves respect and justice – so do you. And if there are people out there capable of healing significant traumas and turning from self-hate to start slowly, over time, practice a modicum of self-care – it means it can be done, so you can do it too.


Also, as a living being, you can experience pain and suffering, and since everybody in their suffering deserves compassion – you do too.


And lastly – maybe you don’t feel love for anything or anyone right now. Even so, there is a capacity in you to be loving, and the potential of you giving that love to someone makes you have the most fundamental value to others – both human and animal. Having that seed of goodness in you, even if you haven’t seen it realized in the world yet, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. If you haven’t already, you might someday see it manifest itself in the world, and until that time, you need to take care and protect yourself so that this potential can survive until the time’s right.


So when will you start noticing a change?


Do you have to wait until you feel that self-love or believe that you have it? No, just ACT AS IF you loved yourself. It is about behavior anyway. No feelings will do anything if that’s not there.


You are the only one in your entire life who will always be with you. It will help you beyond measure if you’ve invested in developing a healthy, supportive and reliable relationship with yourself. Imagine what you could do, who you could become, how you could change your life and others’ if you knew you would always have your back, you would never give up on yourself, you’ll always be there for you, supporting yourself through struggles and championing your accomplishments. Think what it would be like to always have a nice word for yourself and count on your own kindness. How trusting, peaceful and confident, you could feel in life knowing you will always do your best to find a way out of any circumstances. To see it over time that you can always pick yourself up. Imagine where you could get if you knew you can keep going because you have help all the way.


Life is built mainly from small things, and we rarely make significant steps at a time, so keep things in perspective and give yourself credit when it’s due. Keep making these baby steps. It beats going around in circles, staying stuck in one place, or worse – going backward. Every step means progress, be fair with yourself and notice that. You’ll thank yourself for it. That’s gratitude towards the self, and it’s a part of self-love.


In the next couple of articles I will let you know what practically you can do to develop a sense of healthy self-love in a way that might be manageable for an abuse survivor.