When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to fall in love. I always imagined the experience would be dripping in romance, with a backdrop of twinkling fairy lights, red roses and grand gestures of affection. It would be the best feeling. Finding ‘the one’ would complete me.
Of course, it didn’t take too long to learn that’s not how life works. I spent my twenties in three different relationships. None of them worked out. Then at the age of 28, another relationship ended and I, surprisingly, loved my new-found freedom. It was instantly liberating to go anywhere and do anything without worrying about someone else. I attended every event, said ‘yes’ to more work projects and made new friends. At home I decorated my flat how I wanted to, booked solo travel adventures, bought only the food I needed and slept in for as long as my body craved. Life was great.
Then, the novelty wore off. As my 30th birthday loomed, most of my friends were getting married. I was regularly questioned on whether there was a special someone in my life. Family dropped hints on how I “needed” to settle down soon “before it was too late”. It was tiresome – more so because I genuinely hadn’t met anyone I liked enough to be with. But also, because it made me question my inability to find someone to share ‘forever’ with – after all, everyone else seemed to be managing it. At every wedding, there was that awkward moment where everyone led their partners to the dance floor, and I would slink away at the back hoping no one would see me. ‘Is this it?’ I would wonder sadly. ‘Am I on my own forever?’
One day, after a particularly successful few months at work, something struck me. Why was I upset over being on my own when, actually, life was going well? For the last few years, I had been focusing on me and as a result, I was thriving in my job, travelling solo – my favourite thing to do – and spending ample time with family and friends. I’d learnt to be independent, run my own home – and, I was doing well at all of these things. So why was I now equating a relationship to ultimate happiness?
Unfortunately, I am not the only one to feel such inadequacy. At some point in our lives, it is likely many of us will compare our achievements and goal posts to those of the people around us. The acceptance of people we love or respect tends to matter more than we care to admit. When we aren’t meeting the ‘norms’, it can feel like we are failing – even though the truth is completely the opposite and we are simply living an individual life.
According to Psychologist and Counselling Directory member Laura Vowels, many people feel this way and it can lead to us “modifying our preferences – and sometimes, behaviour” to match those who surround us. Women, in particular, can face this when attempting to balance a successful career with finding a partner and even planning for children all within the same few years. It can feel as though everyone has an opinion on what we should be doing and when, and this can be upsetting. In extreme circumstances, it can lead to anxiety or depression.
“Realising that our identity might be based on the expectations of others is usually the first step in extracting ourselves from such negative thoughts,” explains Laura. The next step, letting go of needing approval from others – whether that be family, friends or colleagues – can be tough. “It is difficult to shake off the shackles. But going through a journey of discovery – and accepting what we truly want can be life changing.”
In this situation, being brave enough to challenge stereotypes or expectations can feel liberating in its own right. Talking confidently and honestly with loved ones could also help them understand. After all, those who genuinely care for us would want our happiness first and foremost, so discussing our individual hopes might help break any expectations.
“Often, we are so focused on [achieving] the next thing, we forget to look back and see how much we have already lived and experienced,” continues Laura. “If this is the case, keeping a journal [of successes] and reading through it as a reminder can be useful. Thinking about all the things we have done and concentrating on what has made us happy can help shift that focus onto the positive.”
While many of us may have trouble putting aside other people’s expectations, others might struggle with negative thoughts we are feeling towards ourselves. Perhaps we don’t like how we manage our emotions or feel overwhelmed by them. We may feel guilt for how we have behaved towards someone or we might be unhappy with a physical attribute. Either way, it can be extremely distressing to feel this way.
“As a society, we have long shied away from our feelings,” says Laura. “However, listening to ourselves and understanding what our emotions are trying to tell us is important in responding to problems constructively. Accepting the parts of ourselves that we don’t like is also key to being fulfilled and happy. We can’t expect others to accept us for who we are unless we accept ourselves.”
To do this, Laura suggests finding empathy towards ourselves, just as we would for a friend who is struggling to make sense of something tough. This might mean being prepared to forgive ourselves for acting in an unsavoury way or having unpleasant thoughts.
“Imagine the part of you that you don’t like, then when you have a clear image of that part in mind, try to show some compassion and acceptance towards it,” advises Laura. “Try looking at it from a different perspective – for example, if you don’t like that you sometimes show anger easily, refocus to understand why you have this anger. See that this happens because you are trying to keep safe. The anger has been serving a function.
“The idea is to view what you don’t like from a more compassionate standpoint.”
It is natural for that we might dislike something about ourselves. In fact, it is common for people to feel this way. However, it is only when we accept these bits are still a part of us, that it will no longer act as a driver of our feelings. “If this is difficult to do, having a therapist to guide you towards that acceptance can be incredibly helpful,” suggests Laura.
While these aren’t solutions we can exercise overnight, they are important on our journey to, firstly, accepting who we are; liking who we are and eventually loving ourselves. It isn’t an easy journey – especially given that we are often juggling a myriad of dreams, emotions and practical, everyday tasks in the process. However, it is in managing these emotions, being kinder to ourselves and doing what feels right for us that eventually leads us to the self-love we all need and deserve. It sounds obvious, but we must now give ourselves the permission to put ourselves first in our own lives.
How to love yourself
So how do you learn to love yourself? “In today’s climate, most people focus on what’s not right, what they haven’t got and how they aren’t quite good enough. We must change our focus,” says Life Coach Denise Bosque, who is a member of the Life Works Directory. Read on for Denise’s top tips about how to learn to love yourself.
Focusing on achievements
“What we focus on, grows. Think of all the small things you take for granted. The many different things you’ve learned; your achievements big and small – they add up to your whole self. Think about what you want. You may not have it yet but being strong in what you wish for provides your brain with a clear goal to work towards.”
Standing up for yourself
“Bring the subject up at an appropriate time. Be assertive but not arrogant, provide examples and ask for what you want, without an apologetic or aggressive tone. You may or may not get what you want, but at least you’ve stood up for yourself. Whatever happens, you know you valued yourself. More so if that was difficult for you, because it took courage.”
Walking away from toxic environments
“When you are in touch with your inner life, you know when an environment or relationship brings negativity and harms you. Ask, “do I want to stay in this relationship or environment?” If the answer is not a bright “yes” then know walking away is the best solution. If it helps, tell the other person why but do not enter into an argument where you feel you have to justify yourself. It takes courage; we all need to cultivate courage – it’s healthy.” Learn how to recognise the signs of a healthy relationship.
Standing up for someone else
“First get the facts. Know you are taking a good and just action on behalf of someone else. Be proud of that, you acted unselfishly and with kindness. Whatever happens as a result, you can allow yourself to feel ‘pristine’ in your intention, and that’s wonderful.”
Embracing being single
“Maybe you are single and wish you weren’t. Well this is an opportunity to embrace the good stuff about being single – and there is a lot. Unlike your friends, who may be restricted because of children and finances, you have much more freedom to go out and see, do, explore. That is a real gift if you use it with the right attitude.”
“Having a foundation of emotional resilience and self-worth naturally leads to confidence, self-belief and self-acceptance. From that foundation, we can grow, develop and learn freely from everything that happens in our life – without self-depreciation.”
Featured illustration by Charly Clements.