Ah, self-love. For a long time, I only knew of it in theory. For an even longer time, I was doing it all wrong, because yes, you can do self-love wrong. I’m a prime example of that, and I can tell you why: it’s because I was — and admittedly still am — a workaholic. 

I was obsessed with productivity, to the point where it was a factor in every decision I made. I was the kind of person to say, “What I’m working on counts as a break because it’s a passion project.” The kind of person who’d turn their sad journal entries into article pitches or poems. 

Being an artist specifically, I often felt the pressure of needing to succeed. I was obsessed with the idea of everything I did or felt somehow being made into a step in the direction of my goals. I’d internalized if I didn’t work as hard as possible, I didn’t deserve what I was chasing. And because my goal was to make art rather than bag a nine-to-five at a faceless corporation, I thought it was different. I thought my self-neglect was revolutionary — that because my stories and views aligned with my values, I was immune to the capitalist brainwashing thrust upon us pretty much from birth. 

But I wasn’t. I’d just given this brainwashing a new coat of paint. 

Embracing self-love

I feel like it’s not an uncommon sentiment, especially among my generation. Being Gen Z feels like living in a world of ticking time bombs… the climate crisis, the job shortage, the rising cost of a home. To a lot of us, thinking about the future is a lot like looking directly at the sun: it’s colossal beyond comprehension, distant yet always there, and also it makes your eyes water if you do it too long. 

Welcoming self-love into your life — actual, real self-love, not toxic productivity wearing its name — can be a long journey if you’re anything like me. Sometimes it’s even painful, or scary, or, worst of all, boring. 

Therapy gave me a headstart, encouraging me to live in the moment and in my emotions. To hold feelings and sensations until they passed. This was, admittedly, an alien concept to me at the time. I was used to pushing emotions down, or twisting them into something more palatable. It took a full-on burnout for me to realize self-love was not just important; it was necessary. (Every therapist I’ve had is feeling rather vindicated now that I’ve typed that.) 

We should all be a little selfish

While they’re different concepts, I don’t think self-love can exist without self-care. Rather, self-care is self-love’s foundation. I once read somewhere, “Self-care is the act of writing a love letter to your future self.” Besides that being beautiful, it really transformed my perspective on taking time for the little things, like letting yourself breathe or getting a full night’s sleep. 

This philosophy also meant unlearning one’s fear of selfishness. We all should be a little selfish sometimes, if you ask me, and most of what you consider selfish probably isn’t selfish at all. Setting boundaries in your relationships or treating yourself to dessert on a night out? Not selfish in the slightest! Self-love can mean seeking out the experiences that nourish you, whatever those look like — so long as they’re safe, of course. 

I also tried to focus more on my own story and life path, rather than comparing myself to others. To, yes, love these parts of me. After all, you know what they say: the only person you should compare yourself to is who you were yesterday. I’d let myself hold my feelings and be in the moment, rather than trying to romanticize everything, and even if I did stop to write my feelings down, I’d hold myself back from scrutinizing and modifying them into something “nice.” 

It felt almost like gardening, sometimes. I’d check in with myself, and see if I’d grown or wilted over a certain period of time, experiment with boundaries and limits until I flourished. And, of course, I’d do my best to love whatever flowers bloomed. 

Self-love doesn’t have to mean going solo

Additionally, while self-love does have “self” in it, it definitely doesn’t have to be a journey you take alone. I’m still figuring out when it’s best to let other people in and celebrate them, and when it’s best to just be with my own thoughts and feelings, but it’s just another part of the personal growth journey. And actually, talking to others about their own self-love practices really helped. I’d hear my coworkers and fellow artists talk about taking breaks and mental health days, and that made a huge difference for me. If these people on similar paths could make room for self-love, so could I. Also, I feel like self-love is one of those things where, if you broadcast it, it’s reflected right back. 

A few weeks ago, I started frequenting the closest thing my city has to a lesbian bar. It became a sort of self-love ritual. Once a week, I’d enter this oasis from heterosexuality and be unabashedly myself. I wouldn’t care about my job, my obligations, any of it. Once a week, I played Jenga with cute girls and danced my cares away. Last time I went, I even invited a friend, and I think they found that same sort of solace. Self-love doesn’t have to mean going solo. 

Invest in your future self

I guess the major consistency in every act of self-love is it doesn’t feed my anxiety. It doesn’t force itself onto the path of some far-off goal, doesn’t force itself into a palatable Instagram post, doesn’t force itself onto my resume. If it’s a future investment of some kind, it’s the investment of my body, soul, and connections with others. It can be staying in, it can be going out — it’s either, so long as it’s nourishing. It’s respecting your boundaries and feelings, rather than turning them into some poem or painting or trendy listicle. In a way, it’s what every Gen Z workaholic is practically allergic to, but it’s a skill we need to develop. 

Figure out what self-love looks like for you, and then figure it out again, and again, and again, because it can take so many forms. And that’s the beauty of it.