For better or worse, the best possible Valentine’s Day gift is self-love. While self-love is not as obvious as a new dress, it is just as noticeable. And, like a garment, self-love is something one can simply slip into — with all of the pre-existing flaws and imperfections.
Of course, that’s not how most of us think of it. We seem to have arrived at this sort of societal consensus that we must possess a certain list of attributes before we can qualify for something as lofty as self-love. It’s plain irresponsible to love yourself when you’re being lazy, when you have extra pounds, when you still live with roommates after college, when you’re closer to 30 than 20 and still don’t have your life figured out. We tend to think that mentally beating ourselves up and scolding ourselves in the manner of strict parents will provide the proverbial kick in the butt that will finally drag us to the gym or get us to apply for that better job.
But that’s the wrong way of looking at things.
Self-love isn’t at the top of the pyramid of life, only to be arrived at after arduously climbing up all the preceding floors. Rather, self-love is the foundation of the building in the first place. We all can, of course, live our lives without self-love, but that comes with all sorts of hidden costs — like not speaking up at a pivotal moment in a meeting or tolerating mistreatment for far too long.
Strangely, the lack of self-love often leads us to be the perpetrators of mistreatment. Take Valentine’s Day for example: the holiday has nothing to do with Saint Valentine, who, in actuality, was the saint of beekeepers, people suffering from epilepsy, and lovers.
If the holiday is a modern celebration of love, what does it even mean to love someone? Is true love really about your partner taking you to Instagram-worthy restaurants on Valentine’s Day? Is it about jewelry and grand gestures that fit neatly into a Snapchat story?
Of course not. But we expect those displays of affection anyway, because we’ve been programmed to believe that these expressions of love are vital measures of how much someone loves us. At the end of the day, if we stop to consider why we think it’s so important to rate someone’s level of love for us on a scale, to assess the amount of effort or money they put in, the answer is clear. We’re transmuting the value of their Valentine’s Day gift into the value of their love for us, and we desperately need it because we don’t love ourselves.
Contrary to popular belief, people can love their partner without loving themselves — they can want the best for their partner and can actively help make their partner’s life better. But people can’t love selflessly without loving themselves first.
When you love your partner but don’t love yourself, the relationship becomes a series of transactions, where everything you do for your partner is done with the hope of receiving validation from them.
You love them because they love you, and their love helps you feel validated to the point where you don’t have to contend with the gaping hole left by the lack of self-love. Unfortunately, that hole will always be there, because no one else can fill it. No amount of compliments or assurances from someone else (no matter how much that person may love you) will ever be enough until you love yourself enough to believe those same compliments and assurances.
Once you love yourself, once you accept yourself unconditionally, you won’t treat “putting effort into the relationship” as some sort of currency that can be used to buy acceptance and validation from your partner. You won’t be as heartbroken if the relationship ends, because your sense of self-worth doesn’t depend on the relationship. When you approach your relationship from this angle, your actions with your partner will no longer be governed by whether or not you’re getting your validation quota met. It translates into a lack of expectations, and many of the situations that would have previously justified lashing out just vanish into the background, leaving a sense of contentment and peace instead.
Only then, after you love yourself — after you accept that you’re worthy of love simply because of who you are no matter how imperfect you believe yourself to be — can you arrive at the elusive, yet omnipresent concept of self-care.
Self-care is truly that pinnacle at the top of the pyramid; self-love allows you to make the long and laborious trek up to the peak. When you finally arrive at self-love, you can arrive at self-care, which can, in fact, be purchased with a credit card.
The space between empty self-care (doing it for show) and truly caring for yourself is the difference between night and day. When you are engaging in real, honest self-care, you’ll take the time to consider what outward expression of love you would benefit from the most, and then you’ll pursue it regardless of how outlandish or unpopular it may be. When we’re truly thinking of what’s best for ourselves and only ourselves, we don’t make that decision factoring in potential validation sources like the opinions of others. We’ve finally learned to listen to the only opinion that really, truly matters at the end of every day and at the end of every lifetime: our own.
Shelley Kashyap is a writer who lives in Orange County, California, and can’t imagine living anywhere else.