The first time I heard the words "self-love" I was in a yoga class taught by the amazing Crystale Boisvert, and I had a visceral negative reaction. My whole body tensed and I immediately thought: Nope, that will never happen for me. Not in a million years. Tolerating myself seemed possible, barely, but loving myself in the same way that I unconditionally loved my friends and family was completely out of reach. It has taken me a full five years since that yoga class to understand that repairing your relationship with yourself is one of the best things you can do for longterm health. For me it's very much still a work in progress.
It's easy to confuse self-care with self-love because they are related and can outwardly look the same. However, self-care has more to do with creating time and space in your day-to-day to restore and connect to yourself in a way that's meaningful to you.
Self-love on the other hand is a foundational belief about yourself that you are inherently and unconditionally valuable and worthy of happiness. The unconditional part is important because you can, and you will, mess up - but that doesn't make you worth less as a person. It is accepting and welcoming all of you with your faults, flaws, and things you wish would change as you are.
That doesn't mean that life is suddenly sparkly, good things magically happen, you never have to work hard again, and birds come to braid your hair each morning. But it does mean that you're less dependent on external signals for your own self-worth, whether that's through school, money, relationships, or however you define "success." It means you're more likely to recognize when people treat you poorly, and that you're able live a life that is full and true to you.
Why is self-love so hard?
For one thing we're conditioned to think that valuing yourself is over-indulgent, boastful, or narcissistic. That if we stop critiquing ourselves, we'll somehow stop working hard, rather we stop working from a place of needing to prove our value to ourselves and to others. I recommend The Achievement Trap if you'd like to learn more.
People are making money off the sense that you are not good enough as you are. We have this idea that we can only be happy or worthy of love when we are smart/thin/successful/strong enough; for many of us we look for a quick and easy way to get the "enough," and buying things is great way to temporarily feel like you're making progress.
Sometimes it's not just you thinking you're not lovable, sometimes it's the world around you telling you covertly (or sometimes shockingly overtly), that you are less valuable compared to someone else. There are very real ways that racism, sexism, ablism, and fatphobia are deeply ingrained socially and institutionally.
There's a gazillion results on Google for self-love practices, and it's more about finding the things that work for you. Here are a couple things to take forwards as we build self-love:
1. Start where you are - Identify the parts of yourself that you feel shame around or fear, and see if you can slowly start to integrate them into how you conceive of yourself.
2. Aim low - You don't have to love yourself all the time, and somedays that will feel impossible. When those days happen see if you can aim for tolerance and self-respect.
3. Look at how you think about other people and how you think about yourself - If you're having a hard time connecting to a loving voice for yourself, think about someone you care about and imagine you're speaking to them
4. Take your time - Notice what makes you feel good, and what doesn't. Know that this isn't something someone else can tell you, you have to try new things and experiment until something clicks.