“I realize I need to love myself more!“ I hear people say that a lot these days. Self-love is hip now. Even my 64 year old mother, who hates internet listacles, emailed me an article the other day called “5 Ways to Love Yourself Before You Leave the House”.
“Read that,” my mom said on the phone. “And eat more salad!”
Yet it seems nobody has a definitive answer on what self-love exactly entails. The article from my mother had strong opinions. It says that, to start loving yourself, you should “wear comfortable clothes that fit”. (Yeah, go ahead and feel insulted.) Besides, you need to write down three things you like about yourself. And last but not least, you should not forget to wink at yourself in the mirror everyday, which means that, unfortunately, your self-love will forever be incomplete if you happen to miss any eyelids.
The more ambitious view seems to be that self-love means having a higher opinion of oneself, or at least, unconditionally embracing one’s human foibles. That means you should treat yourself like Ms. Rogers, your first grade teacher, who, after you drew a shitty portrait of your dog that looked like a lawn mower, marveled in excitement, “Impressive, sweetheart! You’re such a great artist!” But I’m sure you know how hard it is to pull off this kind of self-delusion, if you’re a fundamentally sane person.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for feel-good tactics that brighten up the world. I only find it surprising that, despite all the books and essays and TV talk shows that tell people to love themselves, we still find it difficult to do.
“I know I should love myself more,” a friend said to me. “But I just can’t do it. I can’t help feeling small, and beating myself up for all my stupid mistakes.”
I hear you, I said. I can’t do it, either.
Self-love is difficult, because “self” is a shaky idea. It’s a vaguely defined, yet incredibly complex conglomerate of existence. What is this “self”, really? Is it your body? Or your thoughts and emotions? How about your subconscious? Your unconscious? Your “aura”? Your beliefs and values inherited from society at large? The toenails you just clipped off? Where does the self end and the rest of the world begin?
If you look within yourself seriously enough, you’d find that “self” is like a puff of hot air. You think you know where it is. But when you try to grab it, there is none. And if you don’t even know what something is, how are you supposed to love it?
Self-love is difficult, also because most of us are so used to guilt and shame and judgment of the self. I wanted self-love. But there were simply more things that I didn’t like about myself than I could count with my hands and feet. I have awful handwriting. I yell at my dog. My cheekbones are too big. I procrastinate too much. I forget loved ones’ birthdays. I watch too many stupid movies… And the thing I dislike the most about myself—I’m too judgmental of myself! (hashtag lifeisirony.)
After repeatedly trying not to judge myself and failing, I was greatly humbled. The grand whole of self was simply too big and too lousy for me to love all at once. It was beyond my human capacity.
So I settled. I settled on loving whichever piece of me that was front and center in my awareness, right now. I decided that whatever arises in me now is the only piece of self that matters, at this moment.
More often than not, what showed up were thoughts and feelings of self-judgment. But the part of me that judged myself was, after all, a part of me. So I sent it love. I said, “I know how pissed you are. And I love you. You have every right to be mad. And I love you. I know you think feeling bad about myself will make me improve. And I love you…”
Then something curious happened. As soon as I acknowledged its presence with compassion, the angry, rigid feeling of self-condemnation softened and relaxed. I realized that the part of me that couldn’t love myself is the part that needs my love the most. The part of me that criticizes and objects and blames, that’s the part that needs to be treated with the most loving-kindness.
When you love the fact that you don’t love yourself, you’re suddenly so much more loving to yourself.
And for many of us, that’s a good place to start.
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