If someone told me that the most important relationship I’ll ever have is my relationship with myself, I would call the cliché police and report them for first degree distribution of a controlled cliché. Yet I’m writing this article to tell you that this bit of wisdom is a cliché for a reason: It’s true.
Social science supports this truism, too. According to research on self-image and relationships, people who have more compassionate relationships with themselves do, in fact, have healthier romantic relationships with others. And self-compassion, just like any other skill, can be learned.
So this Valentine’s Day, do yourself a favor (pardoning the cliché), and spend time cultivating the most important relationship of all: your relationship to yourself. It may sound corny, but we promise, it feels great.
Self-Love Builds a Solid Base for Partnership
When I was in grade school, my mom always told me that the kids who acted mean did so because they felt bad about themselves. This advice definitely helped me navigate schoolyard bullies with much more awareness and compassion (thanks, mom!). It’s also pretty solid advice for relationships. Being kinder and more secure in ourselves helps us be kinder and more secure in our relationships with the people around us, including our romantic partners.
Research backs this up. People with higher levels of self-compassion have greater levels of relationship well-being, are more likely to make healthy compromises in their intimate relationships, and are less likely to unhealthily subordinate their own needs to those of a partner or loved one. Additionally, people with stronger self-concept clarity, or a more stable sense of and confidence in their identity over time, experience more satisfying relationships.
In contrast, people with a more negative self-image report decreased relationship satisfaction. This can be particularly difficult for members of marginalized groups, like racial and sexual minorities. They often internalize the discrimination they experience in the world, incorporating these negative experiences into their self-image with unhealthy results for relationships.
Healing from Trauma is Hard, But Worth It
Loving yourself is easier said than done. All too often, painful experiences, mental illness, and histories of trauma and discrimination can interfere with our self-image. This makes us feel unworthy of self-respect, and love from others. Healing from traumatic experiences, often with the help of a therapist, can make all the difference in transforming our relationships with ourselves, making us more loving toward our partners.
Histories of trauma, particularly related to childhood abuse, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence, can severely hamper our relationships with ourselves, and make us more vulnerable to violence in the future. For example, children and adolescents who experience sexual violence have a higher chance of future victimization than their peers who have not been assaulted. It’s possible these experiences have made violence seem normal for them and environmental factors may make them more vulnerable.
But it is possible to heal and develop a better relationship with oneself after trauma. Therapy can help you recover from trauma, and personal empowerment has also been shown to protect trauma survivors from future victimization.
We Can All Learn to Be More Compassionate
Our relationships with ourselves can sometimes turn into a negative feedback loop. We feel bad about ourselves, so we mistreat other people, which in turn makes us feel worse about ourselves. This cycle can make it feel like we’ll never achieve a healthier self-relationship or healthy romantic relationships. But we can all develop healthier relationships with ourselves — and thereby, more compassionate toward others, including romantic partners.
Besides committing to our own mental health and self-care, we can also learn to practice mindful self-compassion. Self-compassion consists of three main parts. First, self-kindness: an attitude of kindness and patience toward ourselves, especially in times of stress or failure. Second, common humanity: viewing ourselves and our experiences as part of a greater human community, rather than as isolated. Finally, mindfulness: being aware of negative thoughts and emotions without allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by them.
We can practice self-compassion by incorporating mindfulness into our days and paying attention to our bodies as we aim to cultivate warmer, gentler thoughts. We can keep practicing self-compassion through exercises designed to connect us to ourselves throughout the day.
This Valentine’s Day Is For You
If you find yourself single this Valentine’s Day (or if you’re partnered, but wanting to deepen your relationship to yourself!), ditch the clichéd jokes about how sad the single life is and start practicing self-compassion instead.
Yes, it can be overwhelming (and a tad annoying) to watch cutesy couples exchanging flowers and cards if you want to be in a relationship but aren’t. But focusing on yourself can lead to deeper, kinder, and more meaningful relationships with yourself and with current or future romantic partners.
Because when it comes to developing better relationships, it turns out the opposite of the Golden Rule is also true. Yes, we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But we can also do better unto others by being kinder to ourselves.