“I can love me better than you can.” Miley Cyrus’s empowering singlehood anthem “Flowers” has clearly struck a poignant chord with people across the globe with over 83 million streams on Spotify at the time of publishing.
There are plenty of Easter eggs to uncover in Cyrus’ lyrics that seem to pertain to her relationship with Hemsworth, from their Malibu home burning to the ground(Opens in a new window) to the suit Cyrus dances in, which is rumoured to be the same jacket Hemsworth wore to the Avenger’s premier. However, it is in the chorus where we see Miley celebrate self-love and revel in her autonomy.
The chorus, which responds to lyrics in Bruno Mars’ When I Was Your Man goes as follows: “I can buy myself flowers / Write my name in the sand / Talk to myself for hours, yeah / Say things you don’t understand / I can take myself dancing, yeah / I can hold my own hand / Yeah, I can love me better than you can.”
It makes self-love sound easy when put like that. But in practise what does real self-love look like? What is a meaningful love affair with “the self,” and why is pursuing it the most radical act of love there is?
What is self-love?
Our ideas surrounding self-love often conjure up imagery of bubble baths and delicious food, a crisp Sancerre with the power to wipe out a weekly food budget and a bougie sheet mask. But, how often does the term explore the challenging reality of what self-love actually takes? Bunches of flowers aside, self-love often takes the form of things like building self-esteem, setting boundaries, giving yourself grace, or ending friendships that have run their course.
Self-love is a complex network of self-assuredness and trust, forgiveness and showing up for yourself every day, even if you’ve pissed yourself off royally. While there is joy in buying flowers that read “to me, from me,” there is something more powerful in realising you don’t need someone else to buy them for you to feel worthy of the gesture in the first place.
While there is joy in buying flowers that read “to me, from me,” there is something more powerful in realising you don’t need someone else to buy them for you.
Knowing all this doesn’t make loving yourself any easier. We can’t think our way into loving ourselves more deeply, it takes action. So, what’s in the secret self-love sauce? Alivia Rose, senior UKCP registered psychotherapist, tells Mashable that we cannot go from 0 to 60 in 0.2 seconds. If we really want to practise self-love, we have to be in it for the long haul, and we have to be benevolent to ourselves. The first step, she explains, is asking yourself hard questions and giving yourself truthful answers: Is this what I deserve? Is this what I’m willing to put up with?
“Choosing to take care of yourself is a powerful statement to make,” she says, “boundaries can feel like tough love, but the reality is we are redefining ourselves by what we are not willing to accept. You have to be strong. You have to be courageous.”
Strength takes time to build. “Boundaries are gradually built and slowly respected. But sticking to them will create more space for self-love because it will build confidence and self-esteem sustainably,” she says, “plus, it’ll weed out the people who aren’t willing to grow with you.”
Boundary setting is one vital aspect of self-love, but what do we do when we get tripped up by rejection, or our intrusive thoughts overpower us? What then?
Examine how you speak to yourself
“It’s important to first understand what’s standing in the way of self-love.” Dr. Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of T(Opens in a new window)he Chelsea Psychology Clinic(Opens in a new window), tells Mashable. “Pay attention to how you speak to yourself and the kinds of stories your mind likes to tell. When you notice you’re being hard on yourself, pause and question whether it is fact or just an opinion.”
Touroni explains that if we want to find our best self, which is treated with love and respect, then we must first be kind to the version of ourselves that gets it completely wrong. And, sometimes, we need to delve deeper into why we might hold such negative views about ourselves. “If you’re someone who tends to be very hard on yourself, this can often be traced back to childhood, and therapy is a great place to start exploring the roots of this vulnerability so you can shift it once and for all,” she says.
Rose explains that being invested in self-love can be one step forwards and two steps back from time to time. She suggests creating a gratitude journal which denotes three good things you like about yourself and practising it daily, then reflecting on it during times when seeing those things feels hard. She also suggests giving yourself room to falter and forgiving yourself for those moments. “Be a friend to yourself,” she continues, “when that negative self-talk creeps in, ask yourself, would you speak to your friends the way you speak to yourself? Probably not, you probably wouldn’t have any friends if you did,” she laughs. She’s not wrong.
Building self-esteem involves tough sacrifices
Celia Jarvis(Opens in a new window), a BACP registered counsellor specialising in self-esteem, tells Mashable that: “If you’re serious about increasing self-esteem in the name of self-love then there are some sacrifices which have to be made, and these may feel hard initially.” Jarvis explains that this can mean cutting out (or dramatically cutting down on) social media to save ourselves from comparison, letting go of friends or relationships that intentionally put you down and committing to spend more time on activities and people that bolster your self-worth.
“Building self-esteem is a lifelong process,” Jarvis explains, “in the thick of it all, you have to come to know your authentic self and love her, even in the moments she messes up spectacularly. And you do that by being accountable, consistent and compassionate.”
To surrender to self-love is to practise it every day to build confidence and self-worth. And maybe, a love affair with the self is often something that isn’t glamorous, but necessary, and that is what makes it radical. After all, Audre Lorde, poet and author of A Burst of Light(Opens in a new window), said it best when she said; “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is why when we hear songs like Flowers it can be confronting. How joyful it would be to choose this love for ourselves? One that is steeped in indulging in agency and want, but one that is not driven by vacuous intention, and is instead born of choosing ourselves every time.
When that negative self-talk creeps in, ask yourself, would you speak to your friends the way you speak to yourself? Probably not, you probably wouldn’t have any friends if you did.
“I think it’s great that Miley Cyrus is putting this [song] out there for young people to hear,” Rose tells Mashable. “If you think about people listening to that track, and repeating those words, reaffirming the message back to themselves over and over again, it’s powerful stuff.”
Loving yourself is an act of resistance
She explains that women have a harder time loving themselves in a patriarchal, capitalist society(Opens in a new window), with mounting pressures to be many things at once; to be young, but age gracefully; work, but don’t earn more than your partner; be sexy, but not sexual; be “virginal,” but not prudish — the list goes on and I’m sure you know it intimately. These all have a knock-on effect regarding our ability to practise self-love, the impact is that low self-esteem has become a symptom of gender inequality(Opens in a new window), with huge psychological and mental health impacts for women.
Research shows that women are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem than men globally,(Opens in a new window) perhaps this is because, from the age of 14, girls consistently report lower-than-average self-esteem scores than boys, at all ages.(Opens in a new window) The COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted self-esteem, too. Women, especially, suffered the most from psychological distress and negative feelings, compared to men.(Opens in a new window)
Self-esteem in and of itself is made up of a myriad of aspects(Opens in a new window), from our perception of ourselves, to how we think the outward-facing world views us, in both appearance and value. This is why building it is a difficult, slow process that benefits from having an ally to support you emotionally through it — be that a good, solid friend, or a therapist.
Self-love is a celebration of the self — of you (yes, you). A love affair that is both forgiving and unrelenting, and no amount of fancy wine or scented candles can compare to the peace and assuredness of putting your needs first, of “holding my own hand.”