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Why self-love can be challenging for women

Illustration of a woman sitting on a swing surrounded by flowers and leaves

The following is a modified excerpt from “Self-ish: When Bubble Baths, Wine, and Positive Affirmations Aren’t Cutting It” (PESI Publishing). Copyright ©2023 by Sunita Osborn.

Cover of Self-ish by Sunita Osborn

One of the challenges in defining self-love is making the definition succinct. “Self-love” is a broad term that encompasses a way of being, thinking, and acting toward yourself. It includes internal acceptance of unpalatable thoughts and emotions, as well as actions that show warmth and unconditional regard for yourself, such as allowing yourself to cry without reproach after a hard-ass day.

Another challenge in defining self-love is how easily it can be confused with self-indulgence—case in point, your friend’s Instagram post that says, “I bought this handbag because I deserve it #self-love.” Now, I’m all about some indulgence (my recent purchase of cowboy boots reflects this), but self-love does not mean giving yourself whatever you want whenever you want it.

A parent does not show her child love through acquiescing to every single desire. Instead, she shows her love by responding to the child’s needs and showing unconditional care, even when her child throws down her sippy cup for the 18th time or screams bloody murder when Mommy won’t let her play with the Tylenol bottle. This parent may feel annoyed as hell when these things happen and respond with some type of consequence or behavioral redirection, but love and care remain at the core of her interactions with her child. She understands that this child isn’t fucking with her just for fun, but rather is learning how to handle “big” emotions and experimenting with different methods to get what she wants.

And guess what? Even when that child becomes an adult, she still will likely throw tantrums, make a mess, and probably have a host of equally embarrassing fuckups. At that point, her own self-love will guide her to respond with grace and compassion toward herself.

Bottom line, self-love does not mean giving yourself a hall pass for bad behavior or catering to every pleasure-seeking desire you have. Instead, it means recognizing that in your humanity, you will do things you admire and feel deeply proud of and have thoughts and commit actions that feel terrible to recall.

Thus self-love means consistently valuing who you are as a person. It means honoring your needs, acknowledging that you are figuring things out as you go, and recognizing that you have the capacity to continue growing each and every moment into the badass you are.

Why is self-love so hard for women?

I should be able to handle the responsibilities of having a job and taking care of my family.

I shouldn’t show I’m upset; they’re going to think I’m weak or too emotional.

If I can’t have a baby, does that make me less of a woman? If I don’t want a baby, does that make me less of a woman?

I don’t just have to perform as well as my male colleagues—I have to be better.

Any of these thoughts sound familiar? As women, we are faced with a host of “shoulds” from day one. We are told we should be sweet (that is, we need to take care of everyone else first), we should be pleasant (the acceptable emotions we can display are happiness, serenity, and calm—and maybe some fear, too, because how endearing is that?), and we should be able to do it all (we must perform at top capacity at work while also ensuring that our home life is cared for with the same level of ferocity that we show in the boardroom). It doesn’t help that the concept of womanhood is often synonymous with motherhood, which means that being unable or unwilling to have a child is grounds for questioning one’s identity as a woman.

Taken together, these expectations create a conditional standard of love that is unique to women. As a result, our love for ourselves often becomes based on meeting these requirements. It’s almost as if, based on all the (implicit or explicit) messaging we’ve been exposed to, we’ve decided on a pristine job description for being a woman.

In my mind, it goes a little something like this:

Job description: Top duties and requirements

We are looking for an enthusiastic, agreeable, always pleasant woman to join our team!

To be a successful woman, you should be able to assess the emotional needs of everyone around you and intuitively know how to respond, as per your training as a nurturer for every living thing. In addition, you should have a thriving career where you are beloved by all, and you should not allow the very real systemic biases in your workplace to impact your success or likability.

You should also have a beautiful home life with 1 to 2.5 children and a supportive partner, and you should ensure that even though you may have the same workload as your partner, you are doing at least 1.5 times as much household-related work as they do. (If you don’t have the same occupational workload as your partner, you must do 8.5 times as much household-related work as they do.)

To apply, please share your social media pages so we can assess how well you fit these requirements. We can’t wait to meet you (or not)!

Take a moment to imagine what other qualities or responsibilities or duties you would add to this job description. Perhaps certain physical qualities should be included, or additional personality traits women must have in order to be valued. The expectations we put on ourselves create a conditional sort of self-love—that is, we believe we are allowed self-love only when these conditions are met.

Self-love is the foundation needed in order to take risks, make mistakes, and be generally human. Conditional self-love, on the other hand, causes uncertainty, anxiety, and shame, and it can manifest into behaviors such as perfectionism as we strive to reach and exceed each impossible expectation set for us.

The conditions we create for self-love are not easy to abandon. They’ve been cemented into our minds from years of conditioning, either explicit or implicit, from our families, our communities, and certainly social media. These conditions are reinforced well into our adulthood across settings and contexts, making them nearly impossible to set aside.

But while we can’t always rid ourselves of these ideas completely, we can choose to notice and learn from them. That feeling that you could truly love yourself if it weren’t for those few little parts you wish you could get rid of? That’s where self-love work really gets interesting.

What’s the hardest part of you to love?

You have no bad parts. Yep, I said it—take it in.

Every single part of you was developed to fulfill a certain need. The creative part of you that helps you see and solve problems in a way that no one else can is the same part that helps you turn a mundane evening into an UNO tournament with side bets, standing ovations, and passionate team allegiances. But while it’s easy to love the parts of you that help you be successful and bring praise from others, self-love also means valuing and nurturing the parts of you that are hardest to find compassion for.

We all have a particular voice within us that is mean, critical, even downright hateful toward ourselves at times. In general, we call this the “inner critic,” though some people give theirs a name. (“Karen” is a popular choice these days.) This inner critic is not only mean, but also indiscriminate with its timing. It shows up when you’re stressed about that presentation at work, reminding you of all the times you fucked up in the past, taunting you with the memory of your coworker’s killer presentation that had everyone talking for days after. It also shows up after you ace your presentation to caution you against getting full of yourself, then replays the “tape” on your performance so you can review and dissect every micromovement you made. So yeah, that inner critic gets around.

Interestingly, the inner critic isn’t nearly as polite or pleasant as it insists you should be. When the inner critic decides it’s needed, it bulldozes past all the other parts of you to take the wheel and primary control of your immediate internal reactions and external behaviors.

Some signs that may alert you when your inner critic is making its way into the driver’s seat include:

Physical signs

  • Tightness in your chest
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweaty palms, sweaty underarms, sweaty everything
  • Digestive issues
  • Headache
  • Shaky voice
  • Trembling body movements

Mental signs

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling “caught up” in your head or as if you have blinders on
  • Debating with yourself (inner critic part likely debating with another part of you)
  • Negative perception of your abilities, capacities, and person

Reading all this, you may be thinking, “Yes, exactly! This part of me is the absolute worst. Boo, inner critic!” However, remember that self-love isn’t just about loving the “easy” parts of yourself. It means loving every single part of you—yes, even the inner critic.

About the author

Sunita Osborn, PsyD, MA, is a writer and licensed psychologist who practices in Houston, Texas. She specializes in reproductive psychology and working with adults and couples in all phases of their reproductive journey. After finding herself lost and without a map after her own experiences of pregnancy loss, she is committed to helping people cope with the pain of miscarriage, increasing awareness and decreasing stigma toward miscarriage, and promoting open dialogue about the realities of this prevalent and devastating concern.