How To Love Yourself Unconditionally, Even When You’re Suffering
Do you struggle with any of the following feelings?
You feel sorry for yourself.
You feel ashamed about yourself in some way.
You feel like you’re not good enough.
Then it’s time for a wake-up call: you’re not getting enough love from the one person who matters the most—yourself. Hey, I’m there with you. I used to feel all of the above, and I still do sometimes. But it’s much better now. I grew up hating myself—hating my immigrant background, hating the coupon-clipping lifestyle we lived, hating going home to a home filled with anger, hating my acne and broad-set shoulders, and pretty much everything else about me. It’s been a long journey getting to a place where I’m comfortable and happy with myself—where I feel love within me and not pain.
I want to tell you the story of how I learned to love myself unconditionally—how I let go of those feelings that made me feel ugly, unworthy, and small. How I learned to accept myself wholeheartedly, believe in my own power, and appreciate myself deeply. And ironically, my journey to unconditional self-love started during a period of tremendous pain and suffering—in the midst of a cancer diagnosis.
Finding unconditional self-love in the most unlikely of times
One day when I was 19, my world fell apart in the most spectacular fashion. One Saturday morning I went to the doctor’s office and before dinner even got to the table, I found myself crying in disbelief on a hospital bed. A few days later, the doctors told me I had blood cancer. So began several years of despair, disappointment, pain, and fear. There were times when suffering was all I knew. There were days, weeks, even months where I couldn’t remember what it was like to feel good.
And yet, that was when I learned it was possible to love myself. You can learn to love yourself unconditionally, even if your life is in total chaos.
First, I had to give myself the permission to heal old wounds
If you want to love yourself unconditionally, first you have to accept yourself. But I couldn’t do that for the longest time. Why? Because I held on to a few old wounds inside of me and kept tearing them open. Those old wounds had to do with my family. For years before my cancer diagnosis, I lived in the dark shadows of family drama. For as long as I could remember, my parents were always in a cycle of fighting and making up. The arguments were violent and regular, and the good times were few and far between.
We were the family relatives shook their heads at and neighbous whispered about behind closed doors. Because of this, I was deeply ashamed. I was, in every way, trapped in my own self-hatred and self-pity. The cocktail of shame, self-blame, and self-pity I fed myself was toxic. It was as if I walked around with an open wound that festered and would not heal. Every time I saw something or someone that triggered me—a father lifting a child on his shoulders, or a family having a barbecue at the park—I would cut the stitches open and say to myself: “Look what you don’t have.”
At the time, it didn’t seem like I could ever love myself. How could I, when I was the one who kept tearing open the scars of the past and making myself bleed inside? But what I didn’t know was that the path to unconditional self-love would open up for me unexpectedly in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis. Soon after my diagnosis, I found myself at a crossroad—I either had to face up to the fight or go cower in a corner and continue to cry all day. After doing the latter for a few weeks, I began to realize I had to do something different.
The wallowing in self-pity didn’t help one bit. I still had cancer. I realized in order for me to conquer this hell of a battle in front of me, I had to be stronger mentally. And I couldn’t do that if I continued to pick at the scars of the past. I realized I had to give myself the permission to heal. Give yourself the permission to heal from old wounds. You deserve it. And once I made the decision that I was going to heal, everything changed. I stopped focusing on those old wounds. The suffering I was going through helped me put things in perspective. Sure, my childhood was far from perfect, but in front of life and death, the things that had happened to me didn’t seem so bad. I had let a few punches early in life keep me on the ground for far too long. It was time I got up, spat out the blood in my mouth, and moved on.
And so I did.
One day I caught myself thinking about the past and it didn’t hurt as much anymore. And I realized the scars have healed. That was when I finally started to accept who I am and everything that’s happened in my life.
Next, I turned my focus to what I could control
When you’re suffering, it feels like everything is out of your control. It certainly felt that way for me. My body was breaking down. There were days when I could barely muster enough energy to sit up. I felt, besides placing my faith in the doctors and a plethora of medications and procedures, there was little else I could do. On top of that, I couldn’t go anywhere due to an extremely compromised immune system. Even when I did go out to places other than the hospital on those rare occasions, I didn’t have the strength to do much. But surprisingly, that was when I discovered how much power I really had. After hearing some much-needed words of advice from a nurse, I started to take small steps in changing my mindset and my daily routine. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have control over, I concentrated on things within my control. And they were little things—things you probably never think about and just do on autopilot. Things that seemed so insignificant and yet made all the difference in the world.
Instead of sleeping until whenever I felt like getting up, I made sure I got up at the same time every morning. No matter how I felt—whether nauseous, tired, sad or scared—I would brush my teeth and wash my face. In the afternoon, I would make myself take a hot shower like clockwork. Even if all I could do was lay on my bed for the rest of the day, I felt I had accomplished something. I felt I still had control—however meager it was—over my day.
And then I took it a step further. I started to exercise. At first just 15 minutes of walking at a leisurely pace at a time. Then 20 minutes. 30 minutes. An hour. I gradually increased the duration and intensity of my exercise routine until I could swim, hike, and even play dodgeball. Exercise gave me a great sense of purpose. In my mind, I was not a cancer “sufferer” any longer, but a cancer “warrior”. Even if the day was off to a horrible start, I had the choice to put on my runners and be that warrior. I also developed a keen interest in alternative medicine and learned how to cope with minor ailments—anything and everything from lingering coughs, tension headaches, and chronic heartburn, to stiff neck and shoulders—through these practices. Even if I was in pain, I had the comfort of knowing I had the ability to make myself feel better. Once I saw the positive effects of everything I was doing, I started to believe in me. I started to believe instead of passively waiting to get better on this road to recovery, I could take charge of where I was going and how I was going to get there. This sense of agency propelled me ever closer to unconditional self-love.
Focusing on what you can control is the key to more happiness and self-love.
Finally, I learned to see life through a “gains perspective”
The change that made the most impact in my journey towards unconditional self-love was when I finally learned to see things from a “gains perspective”. It completely changed the way I think about myself and the world around me. Before I had cancer, I was never the kind of person who would count my blessings. If you told the 19-year-old me to look for the silver lining, I would have smiled politely with my good Asian manners and rolled my eyes inside. After all, What could possibly be the bright side of having a broken home, student loans, and acne that plagued me since 12? To make matters worse, I got the cancer diagnosis just a few months after my 19th birthday. After months of chemo and a year-long recovery, I made it back on my feet only to have cancer knock me down again. While I was undergoing treatment after the relapse, my mother—who was taking care of me at the time—lost her job.
If I had considered myself “unlucky” in life before my 19th birthday, I felt downright cursed for everything that happened after.
But in the months and years that followed, I experienced a profound shift in thinking that I didn’t think was even possible, especially during a time when I couldn’t be more down and out. I started to think I was lucky. I felt like a winner in this game of life. And it was all because of my suffering. Suffering is like a pot of stew simmering on the stove. It condenses everything in life—the good moments and the bad—into its most intense forms and flavours. Yes, there were the bitter lows that made me question whether I could ever be happy again, but it was also these moments that made the highs taste extra sweet—like the moment the doctors told me they found a stem cell match for me. I realized how miraculous it was for me to be alive in the first place. And even more mind-blowing to have a second chance at life when many others were not so fortunate.
Once I had this epiphany, I started to intentionally pay attention to the small victories in life, no matter how tiny they were—a warm smile from a stranger, a good laugh with friends, or another day with my family. Instead of ruminating over the things I’ve lost because of cancer, I learned to open my eyes to the rewards I’ve gained. And this “gains” perspective has helped me cultivate a deeper appreciation for myself than ever before. No matter what failure I encounter, no matter how hard I fall, I always search for the silver lining. Even though it’s not obvious at times, I know if I look hard enough, I will find it. With this perspective, I don’t dwell on my mistakes, my flaws, and my worries as much as I used to anymore. Instead, I have more room for self-compassion and self-love.
How you can learn to love yourself unconditionally
If you want to love yourself unconditionally, you have to first stop picking at old wounds. You have to let go of the painful things that have happened to you, the self-blame, and the “poor me” mentality. I know it must have been difficult, life-changing perhaps, unfathomable even. But dwelling on the past won’t solve anything. If you still feel stuck in the “coulda, woulda, shoulda’s” and need a little push to get going, I suggest you read this article on how to get over regret.
You have to recognize how much inner strength you have. A lot of things may be out of your control, but not everything is. Don’t think for a second that you’re helpless. And you have to start seeing the glass as half-full, even if it seems impossible at first. The “gains” perspective is like one of those hidden image optical illusions that, at first, make you scratch your head and go “I don’t see it!” But with practice, you will get better at it, I promise. And once you do, you will realize you’re a winner, always have been since the moment you came into life. If you’re currently in a period of suffering, loving yourself can feel out of reach. But if anything I hope my story has inspired some hope in you of what is possible.
We can learn to love ourselves unconditionally no matter what the circumstances may be. It just takes some practice.
So let’s practice together.
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