We’ve all heard that we must first learn to love ourselves before we can love others. Yet, many of us have grown up with family members who were hard on us or taught us that that feeling good about ourselves is selfish or arrogant.

How do we balance these confusing messages while coping with the guilt that often plagues family caregivers? We know that people make mistakes but, as caregivers, we seem to expect a kind of perfection from ourselves that simply isn’t possible. This unrealistic view can leave us feeling consistently defeated. Over the long term, this mindset can severely damage one’s concept of self-worth.

While there is no magical roadmap to help us navigate all the trials and tribulations of life, especially life as a caregiver, we can adjust our attitudes to help make things a little easier on ourselves. We can work on our self-esteem enough that eventually—sometimes with the aid of professional counseling—we can learn to love ourselves despite our perceived flaws. This is a challenging change to make, but it is bound to circle back to make us better people and caregivers. Learning to love ourselves is a win/win.

The Dos and Don’ts of Learning Self-Love

So, how do we start? The best way to begin is by examining your attitude and thoughts toward yourself and your current situation. Lasting progress can’t be made by glossing over underlying issues and ignoring reality. We’ll start with a series of “don’ts” that can help you identify damaging patterns of thinking, learn how to refrain from them and give you a clean slate to build upon with the “dos” that are meant to lift you up.

Thoughts and Behaviors to Avoid

  • Don’t compare yourself to others. No one leads a perfect life. Even though some people appear to live in a way that seems charmed, they make mistakes, too. Comparing ourselves to other people is a sure path toward self-loathing. This includes other caregivers, family, friends and strangers.
  • Don’t accept unearned guilt. Caregivers are prone to guilt because the vulnerable people they care for often cannot communicate their needs or make unrealistic demands. These same loved ones are often on the final journey of their lives and we can’t prevent that decline. In our heads we know this is the truth, but our hearts often tell us that if we were doing a better job meeting their care needs, then our loved ones would be happy and could maybe even live longer. Let it go. We are powerless to stop the inevitable cycle of life and death. You are doing a wonderful thing for your loved one and giving your best. That is all you can do.
  • Don’t buy into the myth that every disease can be cured. Alzheimer’s disease is a prime example. There is currently no cure, and there likely won’t be one for many years to come. Do your best to provide your loved one with comfort and care but understand that a few moments of contentment may be all we can offer our care receivers. Revel in those few minutes and give yourself credit when such things happen.
  • Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Even the best intended advice we receive—including this article—is not for everyone. Every caregiver’s situation is different. We live in different states with different resources available to us. We come from different economic situations. Our family dynamics are unique. We have one-of-a-kind personalities. This concept goes back to comparing ourselves to others. Absolutely seek out sources of inspiration and assistance, but sift through the information you find to see what truly applies to your unique situation and let the rest go.
  • Don’t let pessimism or depression rule your life. If you are clinically depressed—and many caregivers are—get help for yourself. Taking care of your own health will, in the end, help your care receiver. If your personality is naturally pessimistic, counseling can also help you adopt a more realistic, if not optimistic, view of life. Studies have shown that optimistic individuals live longer and, in many cases, healthier lives. Some effort to skew your outlook in that direction is generally time well spent.

Thoughts and Behaviors to Embrace

  • Accept your flaws as part of your humanity. There may be things about you that could use some work but remember that imperfection is human. Accept this simple fact and you’ll feel a weight lifted off your mind.
  • Meditate. Meditation can take countless forms. Some people simply enjoy time alone letting their minds wander without direction. Others prefer guided meditation with soothing music and/or a soft voice coaching them to relax. Perhaps you would prefer prayer and spiritual meditation, practicing yoga, going for a run, or simply going outside to spend time in a natural setting. The options are endless. Find something that works for you and stick to it. Many studies have shown that meditation of any form can lower blood pressure, decrease stress and increase our feelings of wellbeing.
  • Exercise and eat well. Taking care of your body is an affirmation that you are loveable and important. There is an inherent “don’t” in this “do,” though. Don’t shame yourself if you don’t succeed in your goals, otherwise you will defeat the purpose of caring for yourself. Just aim to do better next time.
  • Do something nice for another person. Don’t do it for appreciation or thanks. Don’t do it for admiration from onlookers. Do it for yourself. You’ll feel good in your heart and that will lift your spirits, at least temporarily. This type of activity can also help you love yourself for who you are, not for what others think of you. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture but take a moment to help boost someone else’s self-confidence every so often. That is a quality worth being proud of.
  • Forgive others. Many people have lived through very difficult experiences, often brought on by others. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you forget these transgressions. Forgiveness means that you stop letting these negative events and people take up space in your head and heart. Letting go of these experiences will mean that they no longer hold power over your feelings and actions. Aim to be defined by the positive forces in your life rather than be held back by the negative ones.
  • Forgive yourself. In order to love yourself, you have to forgive yourself, too. Most of what you hold against yourself probably isn’t that bad anyway. Even if you have done something that disgusts you now, forgiving yourself can help ensure that you won’t make the same mistake again. The past cannot be undone and carrying it around only undermines our attempts to leave behind feelings of guilt, regret and shame. All we can do is learn from our errors and vow to make better decisions going forward.
  • Choose your support system wisely. Sometimes friends and support groups can help guide you and lift you up. These groups can be for caregivers, victims of abuse, those who are grieving, or whatever issue you feel is weighing you down. People there can listen to your feelings and experiences and relate to you. They will understand and accept you, even after you’ve told them about what you feel are your failures. Absorbing their unconditional love can help you accept your faults and learn to support others in return. Choose friends with the same goal in mind, and distance yourself from anyone who does not support your efforts to respect and cherish yourself.

If you can’t genuinely acknowledge that you are worthy of other people’s time and having your own needs met, it may be time to seek professional counseling. Learning to genuinely love ourselves is not easy, especially with the mixed messages we’ve been given throughout life. Finding a balance between giving to others and respecting ourselves is ideal. You don’t have to apologize for who you are or how you feel. You are worthy of love.