Have you ever wondered what self love really means? I sure have. It’s a topic that I’ve understood in theory, but less in practice.

In the past, whenever I’d been asked what self love is, I’d get a little uncomfortable and confused, and try to think of things I could do that would be a treat or reward for good behaviour.

Self love as a concept gets tossed around all the time, these days, and it’s something we all know we’re supposed to know how to do, but I suspect that I’m not the only person who struggles to define it, let alone actually practice it.

For a long time, I thought self love was a Thing To Do, like getting a massage or a pedicure, or treating myself to a new pair of shoes (oh, Shoes!). I suppose those things might be acts of self love, but over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about self love and how it actually works for me.

First of all, self love is less about what you do to treat yo’self than it is about loving yourself enough to understand that you are deserving of not just a pedicure, but also of being loved, period. By others, sure, but especially by yourself.

For most of my life, I was under the impression that I was unworthy of love. It wasn’t that I wasn’t loved—I most certainly am and have always been loved—it was that I didn’t think I deserved it.

And here’s the thing I’ve learned: love doesn’t need to be earned. It’s not a transaction, a tally or a tit-for-tat keeping of score.

If you’re here, then you’re deserving of love. End of discussion.

Easier said than done, though, in my experience.

The tricky part is letting it in. A lot of good love goes to waste when we’re unable to receive it. And we are unable to receive love when we’re busy believing a bunch of garbage about how we’re not good enough for love in the first place.

When I didn’t love myself, the best I could do was get a pedicure or massage, and pretend it was enough, while secretly feeling guilty for not deserving the treat.

Self love has no need of that whole conversation. Self love means that you love yourself, as you are, flawed and perfectly imperfect as every other human. It means that you understand that you are more than your worst mistakes and failures, your survival mechanisms and your history.

I think that practicing true self love means that we need to take out of the way all the stuff that stops us from letting love in. Guilt, shame, non-acceptance, regret, perceived defects, weaknesses and shortcomings.

Self love is actively choosing to remove all the things you use to prove you’re not worthy of love: your unwillingness to allow your humanity (your small thoughts, your fears, your shadow, your past). You release your death-grip on your past and you stop believing that you are only the things that have happened to you, the things you’ve done, your survival mechanism, a.k.a. the ways you’ve learned to behave in reaction to the world and all its challenges.

It means you put down the weapons you use to fight with yourself, which is a battle that has long kept you busy. After all, if you want to fight with yourself, you’ll never not have a willing and perfectly matched opponent. You stop wandering the armoury, looking for a new weapon with which to beat yourself. Self love means you lay down your arms, because there’s more to life than looking for a fight you can’t win and can’t lose at the same time.

Self love means we can see past the smokescreen of not-enough-ness and love ourselves anyway, like we would any small creature who hasn’t known love and must learn to trust in the love they receive. The tragedy of love is that when we are hurt by those who should have loved us instead, we grow to believe it’s our fault. We think that there’s something innately unlovable about us, and we stop loving ourselves, too.

I’m a huge sucker for those videos of rescued animals that inevitably leave me in tears. Self love is the kind of love that allows us to heal an abused dog or child (or anyone, but it’s easiest to see in these small ones): the kind of love that says that no matter what you’ve done or what’s happened to you in the past, you are as worthy of love as every other living thing. I promise. Pinky swear.

Truthfully, we don’t really heal others anyway, we can only provide the love, and then they heal themselves, if they can let themselves choose it. Self love is what allows healing to occur.

Self love is everything that comes on the other side of allowing yourself to receive and accept love. The very act of allowing love in means you are giving yourself the gift of being one who is worthy of being loved. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s huge in consequence. Love is not a one-way street. You put a kink in the hose if you’re great at giving love, but don’t let it back in.

Self love might be a pedicure or massage (or a new pair of shoes), but what really makes something an act of self love is you starting from a place of loving—and even (GASP!) liking—yourself.

Let your life be a love song to yourself. If that sounds selfish, then get curious about that thought. Should other people love themselves? Do you want your loved ones to love themselves? Then why shouldn’t you do the same? On an airplane, who do they tell you to put the air mask on first? Remember, you’re of no service to others if you’re incapacitated, whether it’s a lack of oxygen or a lack of love.

If you want to practice self love, my invitation, then, is to find all the ways you keep love out, or prove that you’re not worthy of love, and start to remove them one by one. Remove the ways you keep love out, and then you can discover all the ways that you can let love in.