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Can Self-Love Help Cultivate Romantic Love?
Mindfulness researcher Shauna Shapiro is best known for her work on unlearning shame and nurturing a sense of self-compassion. Her new guided journal (based on her earlier book Good Morning, I Love You) builds on that work to walk you through the process of learning to love yourself.
Below, Shapiro shares why the practices in the journal are something deeply personal.
Shauna Shapiro Good Morning, I Love You: A Guided Journal for Calm, Clarity, and Joy Bookshop, $16SHOP NOW
The Holy Grail of Self-Love
By Shauna Shapiro, PhD
My grandparents met in 1938. They lived a life overflowing with love. Just after their 70th wedding anniversary, as my Nana lay dying, Grandpa sat by her side, tracing L-O-V-E on her forehead with his finger until she quietly passed. Soon after, Grandpa joined her.
In life, Nana and Grandpa’s abundance and happiness spilled over to others, including me. Being with them was a living lesson in love. But finding their kind of love had always eluded me.
When my own marriage failed, I packed everything I could fit into my tiny car—including my three-year-old son—and drove directly to Nana and Grandpa. As Nana poured a pot of tea, I asked what the secret was to love. Her response stunned me: self-love.
I’d been searching for love from others my whole life. The idea that love could come from myself had never occurred to me. When I saw my grandparents relating to each other, I struggled to see what self-love had to do with it. It didn’t look on the surface as if that selfless caring for each other came from loving themselves. The idea of self-love seemed strange and foreign—and, truth be told, a bit self-absorbed.
In that funny way the universe has, I got the message again the very next week when my meditation teacher suggested I begin a practice of saying to myself, “I love you, Shauna.” I hesitated. Saying these words to myself felt contrived and inauthentic, like I was Stuart Smalley in that old SNL skit where he looks in the mirror and repeats, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
My teacher saw my hesitation and gently suggested: “How about simply saying, ‘Good morning, Shauna’?” Knowing science would reassure me, she added, “Put your hand on your heart when you say it. It’ll release oxytocin.”
The next morning, I resolutely put my hand on my heart and said, “Good morning, Shauna.” It felt nice. Despite my inner critic, I continued to practice each day with my hand on my heart and with as much kindness as I could muster.
The day everything changed, it was my birthday, and I was alone. When I woke, I put my hand on my heart, preparing to say, “Good morning, Shauna.” Instead, I felt my Nana’s warm presence surrounding me, and the dam around my heart gave way. The words that came to me were: “Good morning, I love you, Shauna. Happy birthday!”
That was the day this elusive, abstract idea of self-love became real. It’s not that every day since then was a fairy tale of self-love, but I had felt what self-love was and knew it was possible to feel again. As I continued to practice, I began to feel compassion—even tenderness—for my younger self, who had been through so much, and for my current self, as a single mother struggling to build a new life for myself and my son. When I made mistakes, I was learning to be on my own team instead of berating or rejecting myself: What can I learn from this? How can I grow? Sweetheart, I’m here.
Because I’m a scientist, I was interested in what the research had to say about self-love. What happens when you love yourself? A part of me worried if self-love would make me lazy, self-indulgent, selfish, or self-absorbed. The good news is that science shows the opposite happens: People with greater self-love are more likely to be successful and productive, and they’re more likely to stick with healthy eating and exercise habits than those who berate and shame themselves. People higher in self-love are rated as more compassionate and generous by their friends, family, and romantic partners. They also have greater happiness and resilience and less depression, anxiety, and shame.
That’s why I believe self-love is a superpower: It gives us the internal safety and courage to face our mistakes and to learn and grow from them.
Here’s why: When we act with self-compassion, we trigger the release of oxytocin, the hormone that facilitates safety and connection. We also release endorphins, our feel-good neurotransmitters. Together, oxytocin and endorphins help our bodies reduce stress and increase feelings of care and support. Treating ourselves with kindness deactivates our threat-defense system and turns on our capacity for learning, growth, and change.
The opposite is also true. When we shame, punish, or reject ourselves, the learning centers of the brain shut down, keeping us stuck in our unhealthy patterns. If we want to learn from our mistakes and keep from repeating them, we need a compassionate mindset, not shame.
The best news of all: Self-love can be learned. In fact, we can rewire the structure of our brain and strengthen the neural circuitry of kindness and compassion toward ourselves and others. Each time we practice self-love, we grow this pathway.
The revolutionary act of treating ourselves kindly can begin to reverse years of self-judgment and shame. And it offers a radical approach: You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love and kindness.
A Practice to Cultivate Self-Compassion
Take a breath, place a hand on your heart, and simply notice how this gesture of kindness feels. You may feel awkward; you may feel numb; you may feel a flash of kindness. Whatever happens, keep going. Even if it feels as awkward as a middle school dance, see if you can let in 5 percent more kindness, 5 percent more love.
Remember, self-love is a practice, not a destination. As we practice this new pathway, layer upon layer, we literally integrate new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Keep planting the seeds of kindness and eventually they will bloom.
Continuing to practice self-love changed my relationships with others. I no longer needed to seek love from the outside. It was already within me. Having my own inner place of safety and love is, in part, how I recognized my partner, William.
In a relationship where each of us has self-love, I give myself permission to be my true self. All of me is welcome and loved, including the messy, imperfect parts. I have an inner sense of safety, which allows me to discover the wildest and softest parts of myself and to share them with my partner. This love has become the chalice from which everything else in our life flows. It reminds me of Nana and Grandpa’s love.
This past summer, William and I married in Big Sur, California. During the ceremony, we lit candles to honor Nana and Grandpa. You could almost hear their whoops of joy among the redwoods and crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean below.
Shauna Shapiro, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Santa Clara University and a fellow of the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute. Shapiro is the author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness; Mindful Discipline; Good Morning, I Love You; and, most recently, Good Morning, I Love You: A Guided Journal for Calm, Clarity and Joy.
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