What does love mean to you? I was recently asked this question and found myself stuck for a brief moment as I attempted to answer. Internally, I know how love feels, but I quickly recognized that my sense of the concept required a little more exploration.

Love is a state of being that holds great meaning for many of us. It’s a connection, warm, exciting, sexy, romantic, offers security and a sense of worthiness. But what does it mean to love yourself?

Personally, I have struggled with self-love for much of my life. Always quick to discount my internal strengths, thus making myself small. Insecurity so grand that I wasn’t able to appreciate who I was, often comparing my worth to what I perceived to be true in others. First a girl, then a woman who had so much to offer the world, yet didn’t believe she was capable of shining.

Here’s the thing I believe to be true for each and every one of us. If we’re incapable of being kind to ourselves, and hide behind our wounded, fragile, sensitive bits, then we will never be able to love another. This is a lesson I know all too well.

In the past, I’ve made some questionable relationship choices. Always willing to see someone’s potential, and ignoring my intuition, which usually kicked in quickly after getting involved with someone who was clearly not right for me. In these moments, it was apparent, that what was lacking had nothing to do with my partner's behavior and everything to do with how I viewed myself. I know it’s easier to fixate on the other person, pointing out their flaws and issues, as a way to avoid looking within. However, when the same pattern continues in each relationship, it’s safe to say there’s something there worth examining.

There’s this saying I’ve come to appreciate, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” After another relationship fail (or lesson as I've humbly come to accept these experiences as), I started to recognize that I was choosing the same emotionally unavailable partners, all with great potential, yet severely incapable of showing up in any real way. Different person + same experience = INSANITY. Slowly, I began to question my role in these situations. It became clear there was something within myself that was attracting these individuals and tolerating less than I deserved. What I uncovered was invaluable and continues to guide me today to make healthier decisions for both myself and my relationships.

I recognized just how little I felt about myself and that was reflected in the personal choices I made. My relationship history was a string of failed attempts to feel loved, and despite how hard I tried, would never materialize the way I was hoping. I didn’t appreciate myself, or set a clear example of how I expected to be treated, which translated into my partnerships. Before I could be in a healthy relationship, I would need to learn how to love myself on every scale; physically, emotionally and spiritually. As powerful as this realization was, it came with a tremendous amount of painful work as there was a lot to uncover. I was determined. With the guidance of a coach, I first dabbled, and then eventually jumped in head first. By taking action, which required looking at my past, my attachment style and the wounds that resulted from a challenging upbringing, I began taking steps toward getting to know the real me.

I believe we all share this fundamental belief at times, that we are not good enough, or worthy or lovable. It’s near impossible to exist unscathed by past experiences. Get curious about how these misconceptions of self began. There's always a why. If the willingness is there, use that as an opportunity to quiet your insecurities and learn to love yourself at your core. Today, I can honestly say I admire the woman I have grown to become, and I make choices that reflect that. I know my value and do my best every day to emulate that in all my relationships. It’s not easy, nor is it without its challenges, but the rewards have shaped a healthier, kinder more loving version of myself.

I end with 3 practices that have helped break my unhealthy relational patterns. I hope you find them as invaluable as I have while you embark on a journey of self-discovery.

(1) Listen To Your Intuition

In any type of relationship it’s important to pay attention to red flags, especially in the beginning. If you’re feeling something isn’t in alignment with your values then instead of ignoring these important signs, take a moment to reflect. Sometimes it can simply be a projection you’re placing on another person, or some type of fear from your past. In these instances, it’s a good idea to do some work in the areas of your life that are stopping you from opening your heart. However, if the feelings are immediate and after looking within, continue to bring up a sense of apprehension, that is something you should hold onto and learn to trust. So many times, people stay in situations despite their instincts. Part of learning to love and respect yourself begins with acknowledging when a relationship of any kind isn’t right for you and having the courage to walk away from the start.

(2) Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are a crucial part of any healthy relationship, whether you’re teaching someone how to treat you, recognizing your expectations for a partner/family member/friend, or simply learning how to say no. There’s an immense amount of power in holding clear boundaries, and staying true to what you need. For some of us, this is easier said then done. There are a number of reasons why we shy away from setting boundaries, including fear of being rejected, misunderstood, or hurting someone else’s feelings. However, the more we practice using our voice, the more we come into our power. Boundaries are not always respected and oftentimes there’s a need to be consistent before the message is received. I suggest starting small and vocalizing when something doesn’t feel right. I find sending an email is a good place to start, as it gives me an opportunity to safely articulate my experiences and express my feelings without immediate conflict. Each time I practice and stay true to what I need in order to maintain my wellbeing, I am setting a precedent for what I will tolerate within my personal relationships.

(3) Challenge Your Inner Critic

For me, and I’m guessing for many others, this practice is difficult. Challenging my inner critic is something I have had to work on time again, often comparing it to going to the gym. I have to continue working at it in order to see results. I don’t know when this pattern of putting myself down started but in moments of pain instead of being loving and kind to myself, I was self-deprecating and cruel. If I’m being completely honest, this is a daily practice as my inner critic is only a thought away. One exercise I find particularly helpful is to track my internal negative dialogue. To start, I imagine how I would talk to my best friend and show myself that same type of respect. Every time I put myself down or say something undesirable, I write it down. Then when I have a moment to reflect, I counter these thoughts with something positive. For example, “I’m an idiot for not getting that report done on time.” Challenge: “I’m smart and I worked hard.” This is a valuable tool as it shows how often I was shaming myself. With that type of insight, I was even more determined to make positive changes.