self-love is where healing starts liftoff functional medicine

Energy Recovery Step One: Honor Yourself

Most of us do honor ourselves in some way through our actions and intentions every day.

Let’s remind ourselves of the ways we currently honor ourselves daily:

Reflect on something that you do for yourself daily, no matter how small you think it is. Perhaps you make a nice cup of coffee or tea for yourself, enjoy a long hot shower, leisurely read the paper, take time to eat lunch, talk to a friend, go for a walk, pet your dog.

First: Think of three such things that you do for yourself each day. Be there. Be reminded of the experience and how it feels.

Consider: How do these practices make you feel? Important? Relaxed? Rewarded? Consoled? Uplifted? Peaceful?

Now: Carry that feeling with you. Marinate in it. Be empowered by the fact that you innately possess the impulse to care for your self.

Know that we are intrinsically wired for love whether we have been aware of it or not. We express it daily in some small way or another. We will take the strength of that and expand upon it to ignite our self-care transformation.

We Must Love Ourselves First

Love heals us. It heals others.

When we love ourselves anything is possible. When we love ourselves first, more is possible.

Self-love is not selfish. We must first care for ourselves before we can make the most effective and valuable contributions to others.

The airlines always tell us to put our oxygen mask on first, then assist the passengers next to us. If we don’t and the cabin pressure is compromised, our oxygen-deprived brains won’t get it together well enough to be of useful assistance to those around us. The same is true for all other aspects of our lives. When we love and care for ourselves first, we expand what we have to give to others.

Self-Love is our gift to the world.

This is not just talk. I work with it daily. One of the most common problems I see in my medical practice is that people don’t make themselves a priority. Many bad habits—not eating well, not sleeping enough, not exercising, not playing or having fun, and so on—all stem from not leaving room for ourselves in our own lives. We fill our days with obligations to all of the other people in our lives and leave ourselves out! The end result is illness, dysfunction and misery.

Does this sound familiar to you? If so, I wish to lovingly suggest that your behavior is not only unnecessary, but detrimental! While many of your intentions are noble, the behavior is driven by a fundamental lack of self worth. It is important to know that great harm is done to all concerned in our lives when we don’t build our own reserve of energy and resources first. That heart attack or stroke impacts us all. The fatigue and misery we carry around with us as a result of our self-neglect diminishes our value to the people in our lives.

Story of Ruth

Consider Ruth, a client of mine, who came to me to help her with chronic pain and fatigue. We found arthritis and body mechanical issues that contributed to the pain in her neck and back that had become disabling. I sent her to a physical therapist and started her on a food plan to reduce inflammation.

By far her biggest problem, however, was that she had devoted her entire life to her family, filled every nook and cranny of her life with their needs, then literally decompensated when her children grew up and left home and her husband continued to be preoccupied and distant. She was left completely alone. She had never made room for herself in her life. She didn’t feel worthy. Now she was in crisis. The pain she experienced far exceeded the physical issues that were present. Her fatigue was a loss of vital life force energy. She was depressed.

I helped her mobilize a support team to work on recovering self-esteem and to start the practice of caring for her self. This was difficult because she felt terrified that she did not deserve it and that if she looked away just for a moment to tend to her self, everything in her world would fall apart.

With time and loving encouragement she gradually put into practice a regimen of eating well, moving daily, journaling and meeting with her counselor who supported her in these efforts. There was rebellion by some family members at first, who had grown used to her constant attention and instantaneous response to their needs. Some of them have come around.

She is gradually doing better. She has a long way to go but the practice is paying off and she has less pain, more energy, and most importantly, hope!

It is not selfish, conceited or narcissistic to honor ourselves and care for ourselves before others. It is an entirely useful and benevolent practice. The greater our sense of self worth and the more elevated our self-care practice, the more value we have for the people in our lives and for the world.

Tyranny of Self-Neglect

I am dumbfounded by the lives of my many clients who serve others so selflessly and tirelessly and yet reserve no time, energy or attention for themselves. They spend long days at the office, mostly sitting, continue to stay plugged into their work through email and texts after hours and give endlessly to their family members. Their phones are to their ears constantly, while driving, while in the store, while picking the kids up from school. They go to bed late and get up early and often sleep poorly in between. They exist on fast food, eaten on the run, and caffeine, lots of caffeine, and sugar. They move very little. There is no time for reflection, rest or play and no hobbies, community or lunch with friends.

They live in their heads, creating and reacting to their own and others’ drama and are completely disconnected from their bodies.

They are anxious, their bowels are sluggish and they are exhausted. But they push on.

And there is always fear: of not being enough, of not doing enough, of not carrying enough weight, of being guilty and imperfect, of being shamefully something other than what they should be.

Many of us are driven by insecurities, trying to be good enough, trying to prove ourselves, to become successful in the world. Perhaps there is peer pressure to live a particular lifestyle or to eat a certain way in order to fit in. If everyone at work is putting in 14-hour days and knocking down high caffeinated drinks and fast food all day, then how can we allow ourselves to stand apart from them?

Perhaps the high stress, caffeine, alcohol, unhealthy food, fear and judgment that we get used to facilitates acceptance and bonding with the people in our lives, at work or at home. The payoff might be emotional connection, though at the expense of good health. To choose another path would require standing apart and this requires courage and self-acceptance.

And yet this is not the way any one of us would treat another living thing. We save the very worst treatment for ourselves.

Sound familiar? Just a bit?

This is self-violence, pure and simple, and it is far too common. It stands squarely in the way of all opportunity for attaining health and vitality.

This cycle must stop for healing to begin.

The antidote, quite simply, is the practice of self-love.

I challenge you to consider the absolute truth that you are already enough and that the your journey of self-care and self-love may set you apart from many of the people in your lives—family, friends and co-workers. And that you are entirely worth the effort. Consider that your radiant new health will ultimately inspire those around you.

Taking that first step is an act of great faith. If you wait for the feeling of loving and deserving, your journey may never start. Trust that what you feel right now may not align with the truth. If you feel unworthy or unlovable, you are simply wrong. Be brave. Step forward toward what your true nature is.

Marianne Williamson writes eloquently about this concept in her venerable quote from A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of ‘A Course in Miracles:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.