So often in my practice, I see women who don’t recognize the need to love and take care of themselves. The young mother who goes the entire day without eating because she’s “too busy nursing and feeding her baby” to prepare food for herself. The teenager who is constantly preoccupied with the need to “lose those five pounds” in order to feel like she fits in with her friends. The busy career woman who has “no time to exercise, no time to stop or breathe, let aloneShe lost her social status in the community think” because her day is full of clients and meetings. The woman who juggles work, family and community responsibilities, afraid to ask for help, lest the world know that she’s not perfect—and so she juggles until she drops a ball. Women who don’t sleep properly, don’t eat properly, don’t exercise properly. Women who have no time or energy to pray or go to an uplifting class. Beautiful, lovely women who spend their entire day giving and doing for everyone but themselves . . .

The Talmud describes a famous love story between a poor, unlearned shepherd named Akiva, and Rachel, the beautiful, intelligent daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Israel. When Rachel married Akiva, Rachel’s father disowned her; she lost her social status in the community; she lost her friends and her neighbors. I’m sure that all this pained Rachel a great deal, but given the fact that Rachel stayed loyal to Akiva and was extremely supportive of him, she must have had a strong sense of self-esteem. As much as her neighbors tried to destroy her, Rachel stood firm.

When they were first married, Rachel encouraged her 40-year-old husband to go to school. Now, we’re not talking about encouraging someone with a college degree to return for an advanced degree. We’re not even talking about encouraging someone with a high-school diploma to go to a trade school. Akiva had never been to school. He didn’t even know how to read. With Rachel’s encouragement, he went to school to learn the alef-beit. Imagine a 40-year-old man sitting with preschoolers. A pretty funny sight, no? The children laughed at Akiva, and he came home discouraged.

What did Rachel do? The Midrash1 tells us that she put pots of dirt on her donkey, and planted seeds inside the pots. Every day she watered the pots until a little garden grew on the donkey’s back. When the plants were fully grown, she turned to Akiva and asked, “Can you please go to the market and buy us some flour? I ran out.”

He went toHe returned thoroughly embarrassed the market with the donkey. Everyone who passed by laughed when they saw the donkey, and mocked Akiva. He returned home thoroughly embarrassed. The next day, Rachel said, “Akiva, we are out of lentils. Please go buy some.” He didn’t want to go back to the market with the donkey, but she insisted. Every day Rachel would find a new reason to send Akiva back to the market with the silly-looking donkey. The children mocked, the women stared, the men laughed and jeered. But each day the mocking, the staring, the laughing and the jeering lessened. By wintertime, no one even gave the funny-looking donkey a second thought, as they had become accustomed and indifferent to the sight.

“Hmmm,” thought Akiva. “No one even cares anymore.” He reflected on this, and with the encouragement and blessing of his wife, he went back to school. At first the children laughed at the old man cramming his legs into the little desk, but soon they became accustomed to the sight, and the laughing stopped. Rabbi Akiva stayed in school, and then went off to study in the great centers of learning for 24 years, becoming one of the most esteemed and famous scholars of all time. When he returned home with his 24,000 students, he stood before them and said: “Everything I have (all my learning and insights and teaching) is because of her (Rachel); all you have (from being my pupils) is because of her.”

And what is Rabbi Akiva’s most famous teaching? That an absolutely fundamental principle of the Torah is to “Love your fellow as yourself.” How can you love your fellow? By loving yourself first! Through Rachel, Rabbi Akiva learned that the way to love and be close to another is by first loving and respecting yourself. If there is no self-love—no recognition of the beautiful and holy spark within—there’s no way you can truly love or give to another.

If you don’t feed yourself, take care of yourself, know your physical limitations, you simply won’t have what to give. I tell new mothers, “You need to eat and to sleep in order to take care of yourKnow your physical limitations baby.” The taking care of and loving of oneself is actually a prerequisite for all that we do, not an impediment.

A person who always worries about what others are thinking, a person who bases her feelings of self-worth on superficialities, will never be happy with herself—and she’ll then have a hard time being happy with those around her. She won’t be able to appreciate all the beauty and holiness that G‑d has created her with, and this will affect her ability to see the goodness within her fellow.

I tell my clients—and myself—“Value yourself! Accept yourself! Grow and learn from challenges and mistakes, but don’t beat yourself up over them. Be kind to yourself! Love yourself!”

Love your fellow as yourself, but first love yourself!