marius-borg-435I have clients who tell me that it’s painful for them to walk down University Avenue in Hillcrest and see all those happy couples. “It makes me feel so lonely and unwanted,” they say. When you’re single, and people around you “appear”—and I use that word deliberately—to be much happier than you, so in love, arm-in-arm with their gorgeous partner, it’s tough not to compare your lonesome solitary self and feel you’re lacking.

Feeling alone and unloved is common to us all, coupled or not. If you live the Hallmark card life—perfect partner, sunsets on the beach, great sex by the fireplace—then this column is not for you. For the rest of us, who live in a place called reality, feeling alone and isolated is all-too-common. The remedy? Self-love.

Even if you’re in a relatively happy relationship, you know that most of your married life isn’t like a Hallmark card. But after seeing all those media images of happy, perfect couples, you may think there’s something wrong with your relationship and wonder: “Why are my partner and I living a life with few and far between romantic moments, not to mention the ongoing boredom of paying bills, buying dog food or just getting through the day without killing each other? Where are all those sunsets and nights of passionate fireside sex? What’s wrong with us?” If you’re single, you may feel even worse, asking yourself: “Why am I alone? Am I a total loser, spending yet another Saturday night alone? What’s wrong with me?”

The common theme here is, “What’s wrong with me?” The good news is there’s nothing wrong with you. The bad news: It’s harder than hell to love yourself when your expectations are crazy-high. How did our expectations get so unrealistic? In some ways, it’s all about selling things. Businesses sell us things by creating idealized ideas of how life should be. The end result of buying these hook-line-and-sinker media images is that we feel we’re doing our relationships all wrong. We need an antidote to this poison of media-induced craziness. We need self-love.

Want to improve your self-love? Start by being aware of the things you say to yourself about love, romance and relationships. Notice if you’re critical or harsh to yourself. Many of us have such tough inner critics that when we make a mistake in the relationship department, this inner voice beats us up, saying things like, “You are so stupid” or “You’re such a loser; who would want you?” The next time you are disappointed in yourself, try a little cognitive therapy: Replace your negative self-messages with neutral or positive ones like, “I made a mistake. No big deal” or “Yeah I screwed up, but I won’t make this mistake again.”

For you lucky folks in contented relationships, ponder this question: Should you love yourself more than your partner, your children and/or your friends? Should you put your love for yourself before your love for them? I believe that while love for others is extremely important, self-love must come first. Are you cringing right now? Does this feel too new agey for you? Self-love has become a cliché; yet so many of us in the LGBT community are masters of people pleasing: We put the needs of others before our own. This is the essence of co-dependency—pleasing others first, putting ourselves last.

Self-love isn’t narcissism. Being in service and giving back to our community is important, but even hard core people pleasers can see that when you love yourself, you can more easily give love to others. Self-love is a powerful gift of kindness, compassion and appreciation that you give to yourself. Even if you don’t have a friend in the world right now, you can give yourself the gift of self-love and know that you deserve it.

Ready to ratchet up your self-love? Okay, try this exercise: Get up off the sofa, put down the remote and stand in front of a mirror. Look yourself in the eyes. Take three deep breaths. Ask yourself (out loud): “What can I do for you today?” or “What do you need today?” Don’t be surprised if you start to cry. Many of us aren’t used to being in touch with what we need; it can be an emotional moment. Now listen to the answers you get. This is the real you speaking. If you’ve been out of touch with yourself lately, your answers may surprise you. You may expect to hear, “Go to the gym and don’t eat all that junk food,” but what you actually get is, “Be kind to me today, let’s go to Balboa Park and walk around and then have a nice lunch and a glass of wine.”

Whether you’re single or coupled, I invite you to experiment with increasing your self-love. It’s hard to love your partner if you hate yourself. If you have a partner, by all means, shower him or her with affection, as long as you shower yourself with affection first. You’ll have more love to give your partner if you’re already feeling it for yourself. If you’re single, resist the temptation to beat yourself up because you have don’t have a hot date for the weekend. Instead, try the mirror exercise and see what your inner lover would like. Whether you have a 25-year relationship or you’re new in town and know nobody, give yourself a healthy shot of self-love and see what happens.