Sorry for the unintended hiatus! The first two months of 2016 were filled with work (the kind I do for money so I can live), important projects and even some fulfilling creative writing. Sadly, what was neglected during this busy time was my beloved blog. But I am back now, so let’s get to it.
Last time I wrote about The Porcupine’s Dilemma, whereby individuals crave intimacy, yet at the same time fear the closer they get to another person the more they will cause and receive pain. Hopefully, I did an adequate job of convincing you that there really isn’t much to fear. Sure, intimacy does make us vulnerable, but the benefits make it well worth the risks. I also mentioned that there are ways to strengthen yourself so that you are much less likely to get hurt while seeking intimacy, as well as ways to make you less needy in the first place. These strategies won’t prevent you from ever getting hurt in a relationship, but they will make you more resilient. One of the best ways to toughen up is to cultivate an abundance of philautia, or love of self.
Loving yourself is not a simple act, but it is a revolutionary one.
- If you are a woman who has been told all your life that your worth is ultimately determined by how well you conform to our culture’s beauty standard…
- If you are a man who has been taught a form of masculinity that is suffocating and narrow…
- If you are a trans person who has to face the risk of violence on a daily basis while many of the powers at be refuse to validate your identity…
- If you are a person of color, an ethnic minority, or a cultural outsider who has been devalued and disenfranchised by mainstream society…
- If you are single in a culture that pathologizes being alone and says that the only way to be truly happy is to be coupled…
…then loving yourself is a rebellious and empowering act.
There are a staggering many reasons why our Western culture promotes, or at very least encourages, self-loathing and insecurity. The status quo is fueled and preserved more easily by such negativity and gains little from fostering individuals to have secure, loving connections. Just to name a few, insecure people are easier to sell products to, they are easier to influence with scare-tactics and they are easier to bully or manipulate. Additionally, it takes a lot more conscious effort to be loving towards yourself and is much easier to be mean. We also have to contend with religious and cultural traditions that often view self-love as a moral failing and see no distinction between vanity, selfishness, arrogance and a healthy love of self. And if those weren’t discouraging enough, our brain’s reward center is even activated when we feel shame! With all these incentives, self-loathing can easily become normalized.
Most of us came to be insecure and self-loathing out of necessity; it was a strategy we learned at a very young age to cope and it worked well enough to get us this far in life. It might have protected or motivated you to get through traumatic events. The time has come though, to adopt a new strategy for navigating life.It is also possible we lacked care takers who modeled healthy love for us. The people close to us during our development teach us how to treat others as well as how to treat ourselves. Thus a mother might be kind and compassionate towards her children, but if she is cruel to herself she is setting an example they will emulate later in life. Our own self-talk, those encouraging or bullying voices in our head, are often a composite of comments influential people said about us and comments we heard those people make about themselves. This is how self-loathing can live on generation to generation.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can learn to cultivate philautia, to develop self-intimacy and unlearn all our cruel, self-loathing patterns of behavior. Furthermore we can achieve these goals in kind, compassionate ways, rather than adding “loving myself” to the arsenal we already use to beat ourselves up. It defeats the point of cultivating philautia if we bully ourselves into it, or berate ourselves when we revert to old habits. Admittedly, the process can feel contradicting and even confusing. It is about learning to love what you are and can’t change, while at the same time working to change the things that are inauthentic about your life. Knowing the difference between the authentic and the fake requires a great deal of compassion and honesty. It takes curiosity and patience. It is an ongoing process that none of us will ever be perfect at. But it is totally possible.
Too often people mistakenly believe that love is simply a feeling that happens or doesn’t. They don’t see love as something that can be chosen or cultivated. But the truth is you can. Love can be a deliberate, conscious choice the same way we can choose to dedicate ourselves to pursuing dreams, even when the road is unclear or challenging. If you feel that you are not at this moment the sort of person you can love, then you have two choices: to love yourself as you are in spite of your misgivings or to become a person worthy of your love. Holding these two objectives in tension will pull you into alignment, like some internal cosmic ballet.
To get started, you might need to fake it till you make it. And yes, it actually works. Regardless of how critical or loving you feel right now, treat yourself like someone deserving of love (because spoiler, you are). Feelings can be inspired by actions, just as much as actions can be inspired by feelings. So court yourself like you would a new lover. Be compassionate and patient with yourself like you would your own child. Stand up for yourself. Protect yourself from cruelty. All those mean things you say in your head, those criticisms, put downs, insults, etc., imagine it was someone else saying those things to your face. Would you stand for that? If someone called you worthless to your face, what would you do? I would hope you’d tell them to shut up, get lost and not believe it. Then why is it that we tend to believe nasty comments we hear in our head that we would dismiss if it was someone else? Just because you heard it in your heard doesn’t make it valid. Protect yourself, even from the scared, hurt parts of your psyche.
I try to put this into practice in my own life to the best of my ability. It was recently my birthday and I decided to celebrate a little differently than I have in previous years. I consciously made the choice to spend the day alone, pampering myself and generally just doing things I enjoy. It was essentially a date with myself. A day filled with little acts of love. I made myself breakfast in bed, cuddled with my cat, luxuriated, went to a physical conditioning class, ate healthfully, went shopping and ended the day relaxing at the spa. I could have found company for any of these things, but I wanted to do it alone. I wanted to treat myself like someone worthy of my own love and attention. It was a satisfying success.
To plan a day like this and actually enjoy it would have been unthinkable for me only a few years ago. When I was younger I didn’t have a healthy love and respect for myself and it lead to all sorts of problems, including disliking my own company. I hated being alone. It caused me a lot of anxiety and emotional distress. My solution to this distress was to fill my daily life with plenty of distractions (food, television, video games, partying, sex, etc) and find ways to avoid myself. I often escaped into other people, preoccupying myself with their needs, caring for them, supporting them to achieve their happiness, sometimes at the expense of my own. Meanwhile, I totally neglected myself. I often felt I was nothing without someone. I based my own value and definition as a person on those around me and their love for me. I fluctuated and changed radically based on who I was with at the time. And if I didn’t have anyone I felt worthless and pointless. Back then I didn’t even enjoy masturbating, because honestly why would I want to fuck myself, this person I did not like?
I was not aware of it at the time, but I believed that if I helped others to be happy then their happiness might rub off on me in some Transitive Property of Joy. This did not really work, the way that cooking a meal and feeding it to others does nothing to satisfy one’s own hunger. Worst of all I did not know myself very well, nor did I care to know, my self-loathing was so strong. So of course I didn’t have a clear idea of who I was or what I wanted out of life, because I had never taken the time to explore those questions.
Love, romance and sex are used and abused by many people as an escape from self. In our culture there is a very popular idea of redemption through love, that we can gain value or be saved by the magic of people loving us. Adoration and validation from others becomes the goal, all the while we loath or neglect ourselves. If you care more about being liked by others than being liked by yourself, then you will try to change to be what you think others want. The paradox is though, that the harder you try to be likable the more inauthentic it will come across and most people won’t like that anyway. Or, if they do, then deep down you’ll be haunted by the knowledge that what they love is a photo-shopped version of you. They haven’t loved the “real” you and you’re convinced they couldn’t. You can’t build intimacy if you are scared of being discovered and seen.
You may find yourself always questioning your true love-ability and fear it is at risk of being revoked. You may feel like a fraud. That if people knew the real you they wouldn’t love you. You might censor or edit yourself. You might even lie. You try to change who you are in order to be worthy of love. But by doing these things you give your power away and then others can control you. If you believe that you are undeserving of love, then you create fear and a power imbalance when someone tries to love you.
If you live life for yourself first and others second, then you won’t compromise yourself to please them. This can be a hard concept to come to terms with, but no one else gets to define who and what you are. Not society, not your family, not your romantic partner, no one. They can try, and they will, but only you get to define yourself. This is just another reason why integrity, trust and intimacy with yourself is so essential. If you know and trust yourself, then no one else can gaslight you into doubting yourself. Of course people you trust can tell you what they see, but in the end you get to decide. Learning how to tell the difference between feedback that comes from someone who genuinely loves you and has your best interest at heart and someone out to manipulate you is a priceless life lesson.
It is well known that communication is the foundation of a good relationship. Honesty, openness, curiosity and disclosure are all things we strive for in our relationships with other people. We understand these things bring knowledge and experience, which in turn fosters intimacy. Yet, so many of us neglect communicating this way with ourselves, inhibiting the development our self-intimacy.
These concepts might seem cliche or trite, but their value is too often overlooked. If you don’t love yourself how will anyone else get close enough to love you? If you don’t have intimacy with yourself how will you build it with others? If you don’t know how to please yourself how will anyone else know how to please you?
Recently a friend of mine confided that he hasn’t had a crush on anyone in a long while. He and his partner decided to open up their relationship to polyamory a little over a year ago and he was surprised to find that his heart just wasn’t in it. On paper the idea of exploring sex or intimacy with other people sounded great, but in practice he was apathetic. When we discussed what the cause of his indifference could be, it brought us back to self-love. My friend was lacking a strong or clear sense of what he liked about himself and did not find much joy in his own company. We agreed that lacking any curiosity about himself was probably discouraging him from feeling curious about anyone else. I hope my friend reads this and through cultivating philautia develops a crush on himself!
I hope we can all agree that loving yourself and caring for yourself are important, and that there is far too much self-neglect and self-loathing out there. Yet most people would still rather find the love and validation they crave from others and not bother to give any to themselves.
Learn (do whatever it takes) to enjoy your own company. It may take time, but get comfortable with being alone. Work through whatever fears, anxiety or unpleasant stuff being alone triggers. It will pass. Get in touch with your own thoughts and feelings. Try journaling or morning pages to help start the self-exploration. Learn to identify and take responsibility for your own needs and desires. You are your only true lifetime companion. In a way, you are your own soulmate. So treat yourself accordingly.
In the end, if feeling ashamed of yourself comes more naturally than loving yourself, I am here to offer some help and to tell you…
- You are not perfect
- You are not shameful
- You are beautiful in many ways
- You are valuable in many ways
- You are deserving of trust
- You are deserving of intimacy
- You are deserving of love
It is okay to believe these are true. Go ahead and give yourself permission. Positive affirmations like these can feel awkward and phony at first, but if you use them to counteract any negative self-talk you have, over time they will feel less and less like lies and more and more like the undeniable truths they are.
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