- Lia Love Avellino, LCSW, somatic and relational psychotherapist, and co-founder of Spoke, a community-based organization for group support
- Liz Moody, wellness journalist and author of 100 Ways To Change Your Life.
- Vienna Pharaon, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist, founder of Mindful Marriage & Family Therapy, and author of The Origins of You
When you’re given advice on self-love, it’s typically filled with commentary around the importance of self care and grace for your mistakes. Podcasts and articles will suggest listening to uplifting music, or ignoring your inner critic, or, yes, looking in the mirror and saying “I love you” to your own face. But the idea of trusting yourself? Eh, take it or leave it.
And yet, no number of positive affirmations or mood-boosting activities can get you to a place of genuine self-love if you don’t really, truly trust yourself. “If we look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you, I believe in you, you've got this,’ but we haven't built that foundation of self-trust, then we have no reason to believe our words,” says Liz Moody, author of 100 Ways To Change Your Life.
In fact, we have a ton of reasons not to believe our own positive self-talk (besides the natural inclination to eye-roll mirror work, if you’re anything like me). “We live in a culture that tears us down and then tells us to love ourselves,” says licensed psychotherapist Lia Avellino, LCSW. “The message is that, ‘You should be skinny, be smiley, be nice, don’t be angry, and buy all sorts of things to fix yourself—but also, while you’re at it, love yourself.”
“We live in a culture that tears us down and then tells us to love ourselves.” —Lia Avellino, LCSW, licensed psychotherapist
These mixed messages aren’t just confusing—they're incessant. “The number of negative messages we take in from ourselves and from society eclipses the number of kind messages,” says Moody. Which means all of our positive affirmations and feel-good quotes can only do so much when our brains are constantly "creating neurological pathways that tend more toward negativity and reproach," she says. Basically, our brain gets comfortable with bad vibes, and it can begin to view self-love as sketchy.
To love yourself authentically, you need to learn to trust yourself first, says Moody—which, to me, is a far more appealing sentiment anyway. While love is often touted as this inexplicable feeling (“You just know it when you feel it!”), or something you “fall into,” trust is tangible: “You can take pragmatic steps toward building trust in yourself,” says Moody, just as you’d build trust in someone else.
What is the real meaning of self-trust?
Self-trust is feeling confident in your decisions—even the ones that may hurt or alienate others—while also “taking accountability, ownership, and responsibility” for when you mess up, says licensed family and marriage therapist Vienna Pharaon, LMFT, author of The Origins of You. That’s not to say it gives you license to be an awful human being, though. Instead, self-trust is about “not second-guessing yourself,” says Pharaon, even when faced with peer pressure or others' disappointment.
“Self-trust is knowing I can face challenges and be okay, even if I don’t get it right or succeed,” says Avellino. “It’s knowing that I will be okay with myself, even when my boss doesn't like me, or my partner's mad at me, or my neighbor thinks I'm rude.” No, you’re not going to build this level of foundational self-trust overnight, but if you ask me, it’s far more doable than happening upon self-love in a mirror.
Why do I struggle to trust myself?
Just because self-trust might feel more accessible than self-love doesn’t mean it will come naturally. And that’s especially the case if your childhood environment “stripped you of your intuition, or your faith in what you see, feel, and know to be true,” says Pharaon. Perhaps a parent consistently dismissed your feelings (think: “you’re not actually sad,” or “that didn’t hurt”), leaving you to second-guess whether your own perception of the world is trustworthy.
It’s not always malicious though. Maybe you grew up with a sick parent who was trying to hide their chronic illness from you—and, in the process, you started to doubt your own views of the situation. “Often, adults think they’re protecting a child from the truth, but in reality, they’re accidentally disconnecting the child from their innate sense of intuition,” says Pharaon.
Over time, that disconnect can lead us to “seek external validation to soothe our internal worries,” says Avellino, which just further cements the misguided belief that we can’t trust ourselves. The more we look for validation in other people, the more likely we are to also confuse other peoples’ satisfaction with our own, says Pharaon, and fall into the trap of doing things to please others, rather than to fulfill ourselves.
Why is trusting yourself important?
Consider a life devoid of self-trust for a second: If you’re just going through the motions without assessing what you truly want or need, you’re probably not going to feel any real fulfillment. Sure, operating on autopilot might sometimes be inconsequential—you tell a friend you’re doing well without thinking about it, or you eat a meal you don’t really enjoy. “But when we allow ourselves to be disconnected from ourselves in these little moments again and again, we aren’t equipped to trust ourselves for the bigger stuff,” says Pharaon.
That’s where you might wind up staying in the wrong relationship, choosing the wrong job, or otherwise missing an opportunity to lead an aligned life. “We’re essentially atrophying the self-trust muscle when we don’t regularly check in with ourselves and follow through,” says Pharaon. By contrast, when you trust yourself to do what’s best, you can feel at peace with your decisions. There’s a certain sense of clarity that comes from knowing you’ve made a decision with your own life in mind, says Pharaon. And that’s all you can really control, anyway.
How to learn to better trust yourself
1. Get to know yourself—like, really know yourself
You wouldn’t trust a stranger, right? For the same reason, you probably can’t trust yourself if you don’t really know yourself. And according to Avellino, building self-awareness means regularly taking the time to ask yourself questions about, well, you: What does it feel like to be me today? What are three things that bring my joy? When and with whom do I feel insecure or secure?
To make the exercise of knowing yourself a little more accessible, try pausing in everyday moments to assess how you feel. Pharaon suggests something as simple as stopping to consider how you feel after purchasing something. Is that $7 latte really doing it for you? How did you feel after that last Amazon purchase? There are no right or wrong feelings—this is just to get you in the habit of checking in with yourself instead of operating on autopilot.
Another option? Instead of scrolling TikTok during your lunch break, use a few minutes away from your computer to reflect on the first part of the workday: What interactions felt good—or not so good? How did a certain task or coworker or meeting make you feel? The goal here is to help you learn more about your own emotional responses so you can trust your own decisions.
2. Tap into your physical body’s sense of knowing
Nope, it's not B.S.—our bodies have a natural intelligence that can often get muddled or silenced as we grow up, says Moody. And by connecting to how you physically feel when you’re in the process of making a decision, you might be able to figure out the best choice, even if your logical mind isn’t so sure.
To do that, Moody suggests grabbing your journal or your phone the next time you’re wrestling with a big decision and jotting down whatever physical feeling you’re having. Is there nausea? Can you feel butterflies in your stomach? Do you notice that you’re holding some serious tension in your shoulders or your jaw? (Been there.) Write it all down. Then, once you've set the decision in motion, set a reminder for a week later to reflect on how it went and the feelings you wrote down.
According to Moody, this exercise is "a really concrete way to say, 'Oh, my body was giving me signals that this decision was wrong or right, but I didn’t know how to interpret them at the time.'" Retrospectively, you can then begin to identify and analyze those physical cues, so that the next time you’re making a decision, you’re better connected to the intelligence of your body and feel more assured that you’re making the right decision for you, she says.
3. Make promises to yourself that you can actually keep (and keep them)
If a friend is constantly telling you that they’re going to do something—maybe, be better at responding to your texts—but then they never actually do it, you’re going to struggle to trust them. And the same thing applies when it comes to trusting yourself: “When you fail to keep promises to yourself, you’re teaching yourself that your word isn’t trustworthy,” says Moody.
That’s probably part of the reason why I’ve struggled to trust my own positive affirmations; I haven’t even kept repeated promises to myself to drink more water—even after literal dehydration landed me in the hospital with a kidney stone. So what real reason would I have to believe my own words of self-love?
“When you fail to keep promises to yourself, you’re teaching yourself that your word isn’t trustworthy.” —Liz Moody, author of 100 Ways to Change Your Life
To get ahead of broken promises, Moody suggests only making promises to yourself that you can actually keep—which means setting the bar really low. For me, that’s meant ensuring I get up from my computer one time each day to refill my water bottle (rather than trying to drink the entire recommended 64 ounces of water a day and inevitably failing). “The more times you keep a promise to yourself, the more you reinforce that you can, in fact, trust yourself,” says Moody.
4. Practice emotional regulation
As you’re starting to trust yourself and make decisions that feel aligned for you, you could run up against some fear—it’s only natural for the brain to doubt things that we don’t know and to prefer the safest (typically, the most familiar) route, says Avellino. Still, that safe option is not necessarily the best one, and being scared of what’s on the other side of a decision doesn’t mean you should avoid the risk, she says.
To keep yourself from running as soon as you get close to trusting yourself (whether you’re about to finally say your piece, quit a bad job, or make some other decision based on your gut), it’s important to have some emotion regulation techniques in your back pocket. “Consider finding a breathing or grounding technique, or reaching out to a friend you trust to regulate your nervous system enough so that you can take these positive risks,” says Avellino.
5. Leave room for the mess of it all
Doing what you think is right for you isn’t always going to be a clean process, says Pharaon. In learning to trust myself, I’ve made the painful decision to end a relationship with someone who thought we were in it for the long haul, and vocally supported my former team’s unionization effort, even when I knew it would lose me my closest work friend.
But as I’ve had to learn, disappointing people and closing certain chapters of your life are often necessary parts of self-trust. And sometimes, that might feel like too big of a loss to bear—which is okay, too. “I think acknowledging the messiness of self-trust and the way it can ebb and flow is really important,” says Pharaon. Feeling lost or confused along the path to self-trust is also totally normal, says Avellino. After all, connecting with the real you requires letting go of any versions of yourself that you created with others in mind.
But the more risks you take in service of trusting yourself, the more reinforcement you’ll get that it’s worthwhile to do—even when the decisions you make don’t always work out, says Avellino. “Sometimes, everything works out great, and sometimes it doesn't, but nothing bad happens, either,” she says. (Yes, this is where the self-trust part comes in.) “It's not necessarily about a sense of success; it’s about building a sense of internal okay-ness, even when things don’t go your way.” And that’s something to love.
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