How To: Love Yourself with Neuroscience

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LOVE – We are constantly obsessed with being loved. It is even considered one of the top three behavioural motivators of mankind. Only Problem is: Visiting your “Loved-Ones” right now proves difficult – seeing as we are all still stuck at home (Thanks, COVID-19!). But why focus on others? There is a perfectly lovable person locked up in your apartment
Yes, I am talking about you!


that’s the average ratio of a person’s spontaneous thoughts, that are solely dedicated to criticising their own inferiority (Raghunathan, 2013). We just cannot help it, self-criticism is an evolutionary trait, designed for self-discovery and error-correction. The primary goal: To optimize our survival chances (Tam, 2012). And while healthy amounts of self-criticism aid coping capabilities, too much can result in a range of psychopathologies like depression and eating disorders and even increased suicidal tendencies (Bhar et al., 2008; Drapeau & Mclntosh, 2018). So… what to do, when your brain is programmed as a self-loathing piece of sh**?

The answer sounds simple: Learn to love yourself. Show compassion. Criticism, yes, but followed by acceptance. Mindfulness. We all know those buzz words; Non-scientific literature probably has earned millions on selling books on how to love yourself. Scientific literature however is way behind on this. This is mainly due to the complicated concept of self-love: “Self-love is appreciation of one’s own worth or virtue”, states the Merriam-Webster dictionary (Bosworth). But how to apply that in animal models? The golden standard is observing animals – mainly apes and mice – grooming behaviour as a sign of self-care, an indicator of self-love and compassion (Qiao et al., 2014).

Self-Love Check
Low self-love/self-compassion present with several different symptoms:
Check whether some of these statements are true for yourself!

  • I am obsessing and fixating on everything that is wrong.
  • I frequently apologise for everything and use phrases like “I am probably wrong but…”
  • I am afraid to try out new things and compete for fear I might be rubbish at it.
  • I feel like I am struggling more than others.

If any of these sentences apply to you, check out Neff’s “State Self-Compassion Scale

The Self in the Brain

If you can’t love yourself how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?, preaches RuPaulAMEN! So… Who is this “self” we ought to love? From the philosophical perspective “the self” is defined as a mixture of conscious and unconscious memories of past experiences and future intentions (Chiong, 2011). We create the concept called “Self” by self-related processing, meaning: Processes like checking ourselves out in the mirror or assessing our personality during a shower-session. All of these occur in situations where we are generally relaxed and are most likely regulated by the cortical midline structures of our brains, namely the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex, as well as the temporoparietal junction and the temporal pole. This is further aided by our right hemisphere, which seems to be in charge of our ability to distinguish between ourselves and others (Christoff et al., 2011; Feinberg & Keenan, 2005; Northoff et al., 2006).

Government well-being specialist Paul Dolan preaches, that true happiness can only be achieved by embracing yourself. He claims: Many of us blindly chase after society’s norms of a happy life, while forgetting to check in with ourselves. Do you want to be wealthy? Are you fulfilled by a monogamous relationship? Does the thought of children give you joy? (Dolan & Kahneman, 2014). Take a step back, draw that line between yourself and others, examine your own narrative of happiness and embrace it! You deserve to be happy and for that you need to connect with those cortical midline structures and get to know yourself.

Neuroscience of being kind to oneself

The practice of showing self-compassion is often used as a synonym for self-love and while that might not be 100% accurate, viewing yourself – with all your shortcomings – while sustaining from harsh criticism, definitely qualifies as putting self-love to practice. Studies showed that self-compassion correlates with higher mental health, but also a wide variety of other character traits such as: health behaviours, positive body image, personal initiative, emotional intelligence as well as motivation, and resilient coping with stress (Yarnell et al., 2015)

How to practice self-compassion

There are tree underlying components to self-compassion (Neff et al., 2020):

  1. Self-kindness: Even though you are used to it, abstain from harsh judgement and overcritical analysis of your wrong doings and shortcomings. Try to recognise your negative self-monologue and replace it with kinder thoughts. Think about how you can do better but remember: No one is perfect!
  2. Common humanity: Self-report and fMRI data, showed that people considered to be self-compassionate tend to put themselves in other people’s shoes more often than those who lack the trait (Neff et al., 2008). So, try to remind yourself that we all suffer in one way or another.
  3. Mindfulness: Studies on self-compassionate people showed, that they focused less on their suffering than those who are less self-compassionate and when faced with negative thoughts about themselves, reacted in a calm and composed manner (Choi et al., 2014). Yes, your painful feelings and thoughts are valid and important, but they do not define your identity – they are just a brief part of your life.

Biochemistry of the self-loving brain

Infobox: Narcissism

Narcists are typically pictured as self-reassured, charming individuals that love themselves a tick too much. But that is not the whole story:

The narcissistic personality is characterized by fluctuations and contradictions of self-concepts in between self-love and self-loathing.

That is also why narcissists often choose affirmation of their self-competence over being liked or use manipulation and lies to gain social admiration (Brown & Bosson, 2001)

But why does loving yourself feel so good?
When hearing the word self-love our thoughts automatically jump to those charming human beings we call “narcissists”. However, loving yourself is not pathological (most of the time), it is actually linked to increased mental health and also some physical symptoms like lower blood sugar and heart rate.

Some researchers propose that self-compassion activates the self-soothing system in the prefrontal cortex inducing feelings of security, attachment, safeness. Also, it is hypothesized to deactivate the brain’s threat-system, that is mainly located in the amygdala and associated with feelings of insecurity and defensiveness. Further studies showed decreased self-reported stress levels and reduction of stress hormone response to an acute stressor as a result of increased self-compassion (Birkett & Sasaki, 2018; Neff, 2011).

Both mechanisms are hypothesised to be based on the oxytocin opiate- and arginine vasopressin system –neurotransmitters and hormones of the hypothalamus, associated with social interaction. Empathy – for oneself and others – as well as sexual stimulation, nursing and stress are said to be activating stimuli. Even though a direct causal relationship between self-compassion and those two systems has not been established yet, alternating activation of the pathways has been shown in both ape and mouse models: More oxytocin and arginine vasopressin are being produced, and oxytocin-uptake inhibited in animals displaying increased behaviour associated with self-compassion. Hence oxytocin is also associated with opioid-addiction; it has been researched more thoroughly than arginine vasopressin and its soothing effects are hypothesised to be associated by its stimulation of the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala resulting in dopamine and serotonin release (Neff, 2011; Pobbe et al., 2012; Qiao et al., 2014).

Threat- and Soothing System are both affected by self-compassionate behaviour.
Threat- and Soothing System are both affected by self-compassionate behaviour

Tips and Tricks

Learning to love yourself is a process that takes time and constant reflection of your feelings. I am not going to lie to you – it will be tough. To help you get started, we’ve gathered some tips:

  • Try positive Self-talk:
    Sport psychology showed that positive self-talk not only correlates with success – it also activates the primarily prefrontal regions of the centromedian nucleus and therefore triggers mindful awareness (Watson, 2018). Pro tip: Keeping a self-talk-diary is a scientifically proven method to monitor your inner chatter.
  • Provide compassion to your “Old-Self”:
    Most of us never get over past setbacks. However, they are the best place to start training self-compassion: By recalling past events that made you feel badly about yourself and writing down words you yourself would like to hear in that situation, you can find arguments that actually alleviate your personal suffering (Birkett & Sasaki, 2018). For a more detailed description check out Neffs “Self-Compassionate Mindstate Induction”.
  • Perform acts of self-care:
    I want it understood that by self-care I mean ALL activities that restore or improve your mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. And although capitalist society wants us to think buying a nice new something qualifies as self-care, be warned, most acts of materialism have been shown negatively correlate with self-love and much rather relate to negative emotions such as guilt (Watson, 2018). Self-care is about being healthy because we CARE. Self-care is restraining from filling your whole fridge with nothing but sweets, because you care about your health. But it is also about caring enough about your happiness to allow yourself that one bar of chocolate from time to time.

The most important advice however is as always: Loosen up, life is what you make it. Thing is, if we think we are decent people, we only let decent things happen to us – your amount of self-love will affect your whole life, so start working on it! You are lovable and you deserve it.


If you are interested in similar brain-related topics, you must join us at the Brainstorms Festival in March. Listen to talks from leading neuroscientists, take part in discussions, and network with like-minded people from around the world.


▾ Literature
  • Birkett, M., & Sasaki, J. (2018). Why does it feel so good to care for others and for myself? The Neuroscience of Empathy, Compassion, and Self-Compassion, 189–211.
  • Bosworth, S. M. (o. J.). Self-love. In Merriam-Webster. Abgerufen 16. Januar 2021, von
  • Cantillon, S., & Hutton, M. (2019). Exploring self sacrifice, role captivity and motherhood. In Mothering and Welfare: Depriving, Surviving, Thriving (S. 14).
  • Chiong, W. (2011). The self: From philosophy to cognitive neuroscience. Neurocase, 17(3), 190–200.
  • Choi, Y. M., Lee, D., & Lee, H.-K. (2014). The Effect of Self-compassion on Emotions when Experiencing a Sense of Inferiority Across Comparison Situations. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 114, 949–953.
  • Christoff, K., Cosmelli, D., Legrand, D., & Thompson, E. (2011). Specifying the self for cognitive neuroscience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(3), 104–112.
  • Dolan, P., & Kahneman, D. (2014). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. HUDSON STREET PR.
  • Feinberg, T. E., & Keenan, J. P. (2005). Where in the brain is the self? Consciousness and Cognition, 14(4), 661–678.
  • mizlacie17. (2014, Dezember 21). RuPaul- If you can’t love yourself how the hell you gonna love somebody else.
  • NEFF, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101.
  • Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12.
  • Neff, K. D., Pisitsungkagarn, K., & Hsieh, Y.-P. (2008). Self-Compassion and Self-Construal in the United States, Thailand, and Taiwan. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(3), 267–285.
  • Neff, K. D., Tóth-Király, I., Knox, M. C., Kuchar, A., & Davidson, O. (2020). The Development and Validation of the State Self-Compassion Scale (Long- and Short Form). Mindfulness.
  • Northoff, G., Heinzel, A., de Greck, M., Bermpohl, F., Dobrowolny, H., & Panksepp, J. (2006). Self-referential processing in our brain—A meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self. NeuroImage, 31(1), 440–457.
  • Pobbe, R. L. H., Pearson, B. L., Defensor, E. B., Bolivar, V. J., Young, W. S., Lee, H.-J., Blanchard, D. C., & Blanchard, R. J. (2012). Oxytocin receptor knockout mice display deficits in the expression of autism-related behaviors. Hormones and Behavior, 61(3), 436–444.
  • Qiao, X., Yan, Y., Wu, R., Tai, F., Hao, P., Cao, Y., & Wang, J. (2014). Sociality and oxytocin and vasopressin in the brain of male and female dominant and subordinate mandarin voles. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 200(2), 149–159.
  • Watson, D. C. (2018). Self-compassion, the ‘quiet ego’ and materialism. Heliyon, 4(10).
  • Yarnell, L. M., Stafford, R. E., Neff, K. D., Reilly, E. D., Knox, M. C., & Mullarkey, M. (2015). Meta-Analysis of Gender Differences in Self-Compassion. Self and Identity, 14(5), 499–520.



Written by: Sophia Hannes

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