Parts of this post have been modified for use in the afterword of my latest book, Cold Spring Hallelujah, available from Homebound Publications.
It makes good sense to figure out how to love yourself. After all, at the end of the day, that’s all we can really control when it comes to love. It’s impossible to make someone else love you, no matter how hard you try – but we always have control over the love – and the hate – we give.
So why is it so hard to really, truly, madly, deeply extend a bit of the love that we’ve got to give…. to ourselves? Why do we sometimes let it burn up unused in a smoldering internal fire? Sharon Salzberg says that she doesn’t think we have to love ourselves to love someone else, and I’m inclined to agree. Can you dislike yourself but love your children beyond measure? Sure. Can you feel shame and self loathing but love your dog? Yes. But figuring out how to share some of that love that you are giving away with its origin – the self – certainly helps with being able to absorb the love that others extend. A smoldering fire gives off a lot of smoke, and that can be very distracting, not to mention bad for one’s health when breathed too often.
Certain times of year – like the shifting from late fall into the arms of winter – can feel a bit bleak in many parts of the world, and no matter where you are geographically located, holiday time isn’t always cheery and bright even though the marketing people might want us to think otherwise. Salzberg writes, “Although love is often depicted as starry-eyed and sweet, love for the self is made of tougher stuff. It’s not a sappy form of denial. You still might feel rage, desire, and shame like everyone else in the world, but you can learn to hold these emotions in a context of wisdom.” Read that again: You can still feel rage. Desire. Even shame. And still show yourself fierce love.
Not that doing so is easy – human emotion and feeling, while constantly in flux, can feel permanent to someone who’s dealing with depression or anxiety, no matter what the root cause of such a condition might be. The darkness of winter can be especially challenging to navigate. If you’ve spent a lifetime hating yourself, it’s not so easy to say, “okay, now I will love thyself.” It takes courage, grit, and support from other humans. But it can be done. Even in the winter.
No matter what troubles have befallen you or what difficulties you have caused yourself or others, with love for yourself you can change, grow, make amends, and learn. Real love is not about letting yourself off the hook. Real love does not encourage you to ignore your problems or deny your mistakes and imperfections. You see them clearly and still opt to love.
Even you who are so hard on yourself all the time can learn to practice self compassion. Even you who grew up in a family that didn’t show you what real love looks like can build the capacity to see it more clearly and embody it moving forward. Even you who feel locked in a cloud of self-loathing can start to scrape the grime off the windshield and one day even let a tiny ray of light pierce through — the sun is waiting whenever you are ready to feel it on your skin.
Salzberg reminds us that this process takes time – self love is a journey, not a destination, and it takes what she refers to as “simple gestures of respect” to move forward into the call toward self love. Things like allowing the mind to rest now and then, nourishing the soul with prayer or art or dance, giving the body the gift of healthy food, reading something that brings joy, wandering in the woods on a lunch break, saying “I’ll try again tomorrow.” There are many ways to practice offering gestures of respect. Because that’s what self love is: a practice. There is no pass/fail – there is only the willingness to give yourself grace and respect, again, and again, and again. Because respecting yourself is the gateway to self love and the antidote to self sabotage.
When self love comes calling? Answer, even if you don’t speak the same language. You’ll get to know who’s on the other end of the line eventually, and you may even invite them to stay awhile.
Us vs. Love
There is something
Unbreakable that binds us
to ourselves and all other living things.
It is so strong that
even when it looks broken
it’s not, and try as we might
to go it alone or give up entirely,
we are in this together.
Did you really think that fear, hate, and loathing
were truth? (They’re not.)
As Omid Safi wrote, “Love will have the victory
at the end of days.”
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, feel stuck in a dark place, or are supporting someone who is struggling, help is available:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Local services locator: http://211.org/
Nik Tebbe: offers several online support communities, inspirational writing, and is a certified Grief Support Specialist