Five ways to cultivate self-love

I’ve spoken previously about self-acceptance and self-esteem, and today we’re going to go deep on self-love. We’ll talk about the differences between these three terms (and how they relate), and then you’ll learn my top five ways to cultivate self-love so you can start having the relationships and life you so richly deserve.

11-minute read

What’s the Difference?

Self-acceptance, self-esteem, and self-love are often used interchangeably, but they have key differences that might be the reason you’ve found it difficult to practice one or all of these concepts in the past.

Self-esteem is variable. It’s a state, not a trait. Self-esteem is how you think about yourself in a given situation. No one feels 100% good about themselves all the time. If I had to take a math test tomorrow, my self-esteem would likely take a hit. If I had to walk a runway with a bunch of supermodels, I’ve no doubt my self-esteem would wobble, and I’d find myself feeling self-conscious and less than. Whereas, if I have to give a talk, that’s a space I feel confident, and my self-esteem feels high in those situations. When we have healthy self-esteem, those negative hits are temporary, and we can bounce back to feeling confident and good about ourselves. But either way, self-esteem can change given a situation, so it’s conditional.

Self-acceptance is unconditional. Practicing self-acceptance means you accept (and even embrace) all the parts of yourself, unconditionally. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. When you practice self-acceptance, you accept your body, your thoughts and feelings, as well as what others may or may not think. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to improve areas of your life, but it means you’re also OK where you are right now.

Self-love is a daily practice that increases self-esteem and self-acceptance. I think of self-love as self-nurturing. How am I paying attention to my feelings and being kind, compassionate, and patient with myself every day? When you look up the definition of nurture, it means to care for and encourage growth and development, so I use that as a lens for how I treat myself on a daily basis.

Self-love means setting healthy boundaries and forgiving yourself when needed. It means treating yourself with kindness and respect (the same as you do others). It means taking time to take care of your mental and physical health. The American Psychological Association defines self-love as having regard for your own well-being and contentment.

I want you to think of self-love as a daily activity for self-care, like you would brush your teeth or keep yourself hydrated. Self-care is something you do throughout the day by checking in with yourself, paying attention to how you feel, and having nurturing, healthy habits to feel serene and at ease.

Self-love is a verb.

Why is Self-Love So Hard?

Self-love is hard for three main reasons:

  1. A past history of trauma, abuse, or neglect can make you feel unlovable at a deep, cellular level.
  2. Our brains are built for negativity, so we lean towards negative thoughts over positive ones about ourselves or situations.
  3. We have faulty beliefs (generally from childhood), so we think that self-love means we’re being selfish, self-indulgent, or narcissistic. However, self-love is built on self-awareness and a realistic understanding of ourselves. Narcissists aren’t at all self-aware. Self-love isn’t feeling self-important; it’s feeling as important as everyone else. It’s a faulty belief to think love is hard or relationships are hard. Love can be the easiest thing in the world. Look at little kids, and you’ll see that what I’m saying is true.


Five Ways to Cultivate Self-Love in Your Life

#1: Be Self-Aware and Present in your Moments

I’m sneaking two into this first one because, as I’ve mentioned many times before, self-awareness and mindfulness in your moments are two different things that I’ve discussed many, many times already.

You need to first focus on building your self-awareness. Before you can love yourself, you need to see yourself as you truly are. This means you’ll need to start disputing all the bullshit you tell yourself, as well as all the faulty beliefs you’ve held. You can do this by using RET as well as cognitive reframing.

A quick exercise is to divide a sheet of paper into two columns. In the first, write down your beliefs about self-love (it’s selfish, you’re supposed to care about others more than yourself, etc.). Then, in the second column, write what else could be true instead about each phrase you wrote. What’s always amazing to me (and how you know it’s faulty logic) is that when other people make a request, you think it’s selfish not to do it. However, you never think it’s selfish that they made the request in the first place. Why is it OK for others to be “selfish” or ask for what they want but not for you to do the same?

Just as important as this self-awareness is to stay in your present moments and be mindful as often as possible. When you find yourself regretting the past or worrying about the future, there’s no room for self-love.

#2: Stop Comparing and Start Appreciating

It’s very hard to practice self-love when you’re comparing yourself to others in any way. An issue I always have with clients is that they compare themselves to the false fronts other people show the world. They’ll compare themselves to a neighbor who is working full-time, brags about rock star sex with her partner, and has four perfect children, tons of energy, and a perfect size four body. They’ll think, “What’s wrong with me? I’m always tired, and I don’t do half the things she does!” But you have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors. That same woman you’re admiring might have an eating disorder, be lying about sex with her partner, and have a kid who’s cutting. Or maybe you’re comparing your vacation to the ones you see on Instagram. Why aren’t I having fun in these beautiful locations like this person? I’m such a loser!

As you’re being more mindful, notice more often when you’re comparing and stop it immediately! You have no idea what’s really happening with this person, and it doesn’t matter anyway! People are different with different capacities. You’ve got more energy than some and less than others. Stop comparing!

If this is a big issue for you, I’d also say to limit (or eliminate) time on social media. We know from the research that limiting social media to less than 30 minutes per day will improve your feelings of well-being. When you’re trying to be accepting and get rid of self-judgment, it’s very hard to do when you’re looking at the highly curated lives of others. Any time you’re thinking of comparing yourself to others, think of something you appreciate in your life instead.

Let’s chat about appreciation for a moment. I’ve mentioned before to focus on appreciation and not gratitude because when you appreciate something, you’re fully in your moment. You take it off of autopilot and bring your focus into the immediate, here and now, with full sensory awareness.

So, I might be writing up this blog post and realize I’m feeling a little hungry. I grab a handful of almonds and eat them as I finish editing (this is more common than you know since creating makes me hungry – OK, everything makes me hungry, but I digress). Normally I do this on autopilot without much thought. I taste the nuts, maybe for a moment, and some distant part of my brain is cataloging what’s happening, but it’s mostly all going on automatically.

However, sometimes I stop, stay in my moment, and appreciate those almonds. I notice the crunch, the salt, and how good they taste. I might also appreciate that I have almonds at the ready in my office so I can eat when I’m hungry (I actually have a lot of food available in my desk drawers – in between those client files are lots of goodies, but I digress!).

I’m appreciating those almonds because I’m off autopilot and, in the moment, noticing them. When you appreciate something, it’s like you’re seeing it with new eyes, and you feel better immediately. When you’re grateful for something like your home or partner, it’s out there and more distant from yourself.

#3: Boundaries are Love

Boundaries aren’t just self-love; they’re also love of others and being respectful of ourselves and our relationships. If you want to get better at self-love, you’ve got to start making and holding boundaries with others.

Setting boundaries and holding them is the key to true emotional closeness and intimacy. When you don’t set or keep a boundary, you end up feeling fear-based emotions like resentment, helplessness, hopelessness, rage, frustration, and exhaustion. You can’t build a healthy relationship on these feelings, especially the one with yourself.

Also, when you don’t hold a boundary, you’re being fake. You’re not showing the other person the true you. When you don’t say what you really feel and need, you’re not speaking your truth, and you end up feeling disconnected and isolated. How is this helping your relationships? How is this truly serving this other person? You’re actually disconnecting from them!


It’s time to learn how to stop feeling guilty when you set a boundary.


#4: Make Sure Your Internal Dialogue is Kind

Negative self-talk can show up in many (often sneaky) ways:

  • Yeah buts
  • Always/never or why can’t I ever, language
  • Constant criticism
  • Telling yourself you’re not good enough, there’s something wrong with you

Positive self-talk has been linked in the research to many benefits, including:

  • Living longer (and if you’re nice to yourself, you’ll want to)!
  • Lower rates of depression and anxiety
  • Stronger immunity (greater resistance to the common cold, for example)
  • Better psychological and physical well-being
  • Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
  • Better coping skills when things are hard or stressful
  • Higher relationship satisfaction. The research shows stronger, more connected relationships that also have more longevity

I’ve chatted before about how negative self-talk and your inner critic have to go, but I’m going to mention one of the tools I’ve discussed before right now. I want you to focus on more accurate self-talk.

As you hear yourself saying that you never know what to say or that you always clam up at work, stop yourself and get more real and accurate with your language.

  • “It’s true that I’ve been having trouble talking to my boss lately, but I’ve certainly been in many meetings where I had no problem voicing my opinion.”
  • “It’s not true that my husband never has my back. There have absolutely been times when he’s been there for me (put in specific times here).”

“I can never do anything right” becomes “Yup, I messed that up today. Sometimes I’m on it, and sometimes I’m not.” Notice catastrophizing or generalizing statements and break them down into more accurate, true statements.

Another tip to counter negative self-talk is to add “yet” to your sentences. Your inner critic offers no room for growth or change. You end up talking yourself into a corner where you’re stuck with no options. So, add the word “yet” to your sentences. “I haven’t figured this out yet.” “We haven’t been able to improve our relationship yet.” The word yet offers hope, possibilities, brainstorming, and problem-solving instead of despair and feeling paralyzed.

You can also start practicing loving-kindness meditation on the daily! Research shows that Loving Kindness Meditation has a HUGE amount of benefits!

  • It helps you shut off the inner critic and negative voice in your head and reduce self-criticism as well as depressive symptoms.
  • It decreases negative emotions and increases positive ones!
  • It increases feelings of social connection and decreases loneliness!
  • It’s effective even in small doses; research shows you can literally do just a 10-minute meditation and feel more connected and happier.
  • It increases your compassion and empathy for yourself and others.
  • And it’s even been shown to decrease migraines and chronic pain!

#5: Self-Love is a Daily Practice

If you’re serious about getting better at self-love, you’ll track it as a daily practice. My suggestion is to take a moment every evening and identify three ways you practiced self-love that day. It should mostly be things you deem as “small,” like keeping your appointment with your therapist, saying you wanted Chinese food instead of the Italian your partner wanted, making time to go for a walk, or drinking water throughout the day.

Self-love is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice, so don’t expect to be good at it right away. It might be difficult in the beginning to note things that are in the self-love camp, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. Put out a picture of yourself as a kid. Be self-loving for that kid; they deserve it. When you hear any negative self-talk, ask yourself if you’d say that to the kid in the picture. How would you speak to them instead?

Make self-love a verb for that kid in the photo.

Resources for Five Ways to Cultivate Self-Love

Definition of Self-love

How Childhood Trauma Affects Relationships

Why Your Lizard Brain is Keeping You Stuck and Specific Tools to Start Connecting

Codependency, Counter Dependency and Narcissism, Oh My!

How 5 Minutes of Mindfulness a Day Can Make Your Relationships Great

How to Make Mindfulness a Consistent Habit

Mindfulness Starter Kit

The Four Reasons Why Self-Awareness is the Most Important Thing in Relationship

Change Your Feelings with This One Easy Tool

How to Stop Overthinking and Let Things Go that Bother You

Why Appreciation is Different Than Gratitude

Boundaries: How to Identify Them and How to Hold Them

How to Overcome Guilt and Regret When Setting Boundaries

Negative Self Talk

The Lovingkindness Meditation

Research for Five Ways to Cultivate Self-Love

Hunt, Melissa G., Lipson, Courtney, Young, Jordyn. No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Volume 37, Issue 10 December 2018

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive by Barbara Fredrickson

Shahar B, Szsepsenwol O, Zilcha-Mano S, Haim N, Zamir O, Levi-Yeshuvi S, Levit-Binnun N. A wait-list randomized controlled trial of loving-kindness meditation programme for self-criticism. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2015 Jul-Aug;22(4):346-56. doi: 10.1002/c

Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720–724.

Tonelli ME, Wachholtz AB. Meditation-based treatment yielding immediate relief for meditation-naïve migraineurs. Pain Manag Nurs. 2014 Mar;15(1):36-40. doi: 10.1016/j.pmn.2012.04.002. Epub 2012 Jun 20. PMID: 24602422; PMCID: PMC4109722.

Carson JW, Keefe FJ, Lynch TR, Carson KM, Goli V, Fras AM, Thorp SR. Loving-kindness meditation for chronic low back pain: results from a pilot trial. J Holist Nurs. 2005 Sep;23(3):287-304. doi: 10.1177/0898010105277651. PMID: 16049118.

Dr. Abby with her Book "Be Happily Married, Even If Your Partner Won't Do A Thing"


Create a happy, connected relationship, even if your partner won’t do a thing! Get my Amazon #1 best-selling book: Be Happily Married Even if Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing.

Relationships Made Easy with Dr. Abby Medcalf Podcast


I’ll teach you simple, actionable tools and strategies that you can use today to make your relationship the best it’s ever been.

Relationships Made Easy with Dr. Abby Medcalf Podcast


Get your weekly dose of inspiration to keep you on track!

Relationships Made Easy with Dr. Abby Medcalf Podcast


Build a connected, loving relationship with the FREE Communication Tool Kit for Couples.

Most Popular Posts



Has someone been gaslighting you? Gaslighting is a dangerous form of manipulation where someone acts in such a way that you start doubting your perceptions, your memory or your own judgment. You often walk away from the conversation feeling like the crazy one. Today,...



Wondering how to let things go that bother you? How do you stop going round and round in your head and stop overthinking? Maybe your partner hurt you or you’re worried about paying your bills or maybe you’re freaking out about COVID and the Delta variant and you...

Get your weekly dose of inspiration to keep you on track!

Subscribe today to get my weekly thoughts, best practices and funny stories (you won’t believe my life!). This weekly reminder will keep you motivated to stay on the path to creating connected, happy relationships (especially the one with yourself)!

Get your weekly love letter with all things Abby and life

Subscribe today to get my weekly thoughts, best practices and funny stories (you won’t believe my life!). This weekly reminder will keep you on the path to creating connected, happy relationships (especially the one with yourself)!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Get your weekly newsletter with all things Abby and life

Subscribe today to get my weekly thoughts, best practices and funny stories (you won’t believe my life!). This weekly reminder will keep you on the path to creating connected, happy relationships (especially the one with yourself)!

You have Successfully Subscribed!