How to Exercise Self-Love (bell hooks’s 5 Practices)

What does bell hooks have to say about self-love? What are the five practices of healthy self-esteem?

According to All About Love by bell hooks, self-love is the first step to living by a love ethic. A love ethic empowers you to transcend fear, which often serves as a tool to uphold systems of control and dominance.

To learn how to practice self-love, keep reading.

How to Practice Self-Love

According to bell hooks, self-love is essential to live by a love ethic. She explains that many of us find it challenging to cultivate self-love because of negative messages we’ve received about ourselves as children from our loved ones or the broader community. These are messages that we need to unlearn in order to fully accept and love ourselves. Therefore, she argues that self-love requires the cultivation of healthy self-esteem. 

(Shortform note: While self-esteem and narcissism are sometimes confused, they are two distinct concepts. Research has shown that healthy self-esteem involves having a balanced and positive view of yourself, where you genuinely appreciate your strengths while acknowledging your weaknesses. This type of self-esteem is stable and not easily shaken by external circumstances. Narcissism, on the other hand, is characterized by an inflated and often fragile sense of self-worth. Narcissists tend to seek constant validation and admiration from others, and their self-esteem can be easily bruised, demonstrating a lack of genuine self-worth.)

Citing the work of psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden, hooks outlines five practices of healthy self-esteem: self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertion, and purposeful living.

(Shortform note: Branden actually introduces six pillars of healthy self-esteem, but hooks does not explicitly name the sixth pillar, personal integrity. However, she does discuss the importance of acting in line with your values in her explanation of the first pillar, self-awareness.)

1. Self-Awareness: Self-awareness is a practice that allows you to embrace practices that promote personal growth, connection, and well-being, while also looking critically at the world around you. For hooks, self-awareness requires you to question your beliefs, biases, and actions and to strive for alignment between your values and your daily life. 

(Shortform note: According to Branden, self-awareness is the foundation of self-esteem. He suggests that self-awareness improves your self-esteem by improving your self-efficacy. When you react thoughtfully to your reality, you make better decisions. With each good decision you make, you gather evidence that you’re capable, thus building self-esteem.) 

2. Self-Acceptance: Self-acceptance is the practice of embracing and acknowledging yourself fully without judgment or criticism, letting go of societal expectations and external definitions of worth, and affirming your inherent value and worthiness. 

The Levels of Self-Acceptance

Branden defines accepting yourself as the act of choosing not to live in conflict with yourself, which he posits you do on three different levels.

1. You’re on your own side: On some fundamental level, you’re born believing that your life is worth fighting for simply because you’re alive. This baseline belief propels you to make the behavioral changes necessary to improve self-esteem—like demanding the respect you deserve.

2. You’re willing to experience all your emotions and behavior—both good and bad—even if you disapprove of some. This is essential because you can only change what you accept: If you deny that some unpleasant reality exists, you won’t try to change it. If you struggle to accept something, Branden recommends accepting your unwillingness to accept it: This process naturally weakens your unwillingness because resistance fades without something to fight against.   

3. You treat yourself with kindness by accepting your poor behavior and then empathetically questioning why you behaved poorly. This questioning allows you to address the root causes of your mistakes, so you’re less likely to repeat them. And by being kind, you avoid damaging your self-esteem even more than your poor behavior did already.

3. Self-Responsibility: Self-responsibility is the practice of taking accountability for your actions, choices, and personal growth and recognizing that you have agency to shape your life. hooks emphasizes that taking responsibility for yourself isn’t intended to negate the impact of systematic oppression but to emphasize the power in personal agency.

(Shortform note: In The Oz Principle, authors Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman suggest most people have a negative—or incomplete—definition of accountability, incorrectly assuming that “taking accountability” is the same as admitting fault. They argue that accountability means taking ownership of your circumstances by identifying how your actions contributed to them and how your actions will affect what happens next. They suggest that an inability to take responsibility for your life will lead to a victim mentality that leaves you feeling unmotivated and powerless.) 

4. Self-Assertion: Self-assertion is the willingness to be your own advocate and speak your mind, confidently voicing your needs, desires, boundaries, and voice without apology or hesitation. hooks acknowledges that this can be especially challenging for women who’ve been socialized to believe that assertiveness is an undesirable quality.

(Shortform note: According to Branden, when you assert yourself, it’s important to do so appropriately. He explains that when opposing others, you should express your objections carefully, with respect for the person you disagree with. However, social expectations of women can create a challenging environment for women to effectively express objections or assert themselves in a way that’s both authentic and well-received. For example, if women are too assertive, they risk being seen as too aggressive or unfeminine. On the other hand, if they’re too passive, they may be overlooked or not taken seriously.)

5. Purposeful Living: Living purposefully is the commitment to identify and pursue your values, goals, and passions while continuously striving toward personal growth and self-actualization. 

(Shortform note: In Atomic Habits, James Clear cautions against relying solely on traditional goal-setting. He points out that once a goal is achieved, the associated behaviors often diminish, leading to a return to old habits. Instead, Clear advocates for cultivating identity-driven habits. This approach revolves around defining who you aspire to become and then crafting systems and routines that align with that desired identity.)

How to Exercise Self-Love (bell hooks’s 5 Practices)

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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