Years ago I was in love with a very intelligent, very accomplished and very logical engineer who had everything figured out that needed to be figured out, as most engineers do. (He was also very attractive, I might add, but that’s a story for another time.) We often engaged in conversations about the meaning of life and some of its messier emotions, and I remember asking him, “Do you love yourself?” He paused to give my question thoughtful consideration, but not for long. In short order he answered definitively that he did not and, further, that he didn’t want to love himself. He viewed not loving himself as a necessary motivation for continual self improvement. Loving himself, he believed, was akin to rationalizing and embracing all of his worst qualities, and that would not be acceptable. No, he preferred to withhold self love as a means of whipping himself into shape. It was far better, he reasoned, to never be satisfied; that way he would never become lazy.
I had such respect for this man’s intellect and powers of reasoning that I decided to agree with him. (Or maybe it was the attractiveness thing that distracted me from engaging my own powers of reasoning…who can say for sure?) His view on self love made a certain kind of sense, and it reinforced my very well-developed tendency toward crippling self criticism. Now, at least, I could see that my criticism was serving the higher purpose of continuous improvement – a noble goal, to be sure.
Except that it was an exceptionally bad strategy. I did continue to criticize myself, noting with my practiced eye a number of areas that needed continuous improvement. But they didn’t really improve much. Where was that motivation he had promised would arise from not loving myself? The only part of me that seemed really motivated was my inner rebel, who offered impressive resistance to the critic’s demands. Lots of energy was consumed in the inner debate between what I should be doing and what I actually was doing. The inner conflict was depleting and I felt exhausted – lazy, I think, was the word that floated most readily into my awareness. Yet one more nasty quality I needed to eradicate in my self improvement program. I was going nowhere fast.
Thankfully, my inner longing for spiritual truth and sustenance was even greater than my drive for self improvement, and I began to reconsider the concept of self love. Slowly I came to the realization that, paradoxical as it initially seemed, it is our failure to love ourselves that gives rise to the very qualities we do not love in ourselves. Withholding self love reinforces the inner belief we each hold that, somehow, we are simply not enough. That there is something wrong with us. This belief may not be conscious, but its presence is still felt at a certain level of awareness and it is very, very painful. So painful, in fact, that we try to prove it wrong. And yet so familiar that we continually find ways to prove it right.
We prove it wrong by trying to convince ourselves that we are better than others, which gives rise to rather distasteful qualities such as arrogance and righteousness and criticism and insensitivity and blame…and maybe even lying and cheating and stealing. We prove it right by seeing ourselves only through the lens of self criticism, a lens notorious for creating grotesque distortions. When viewed through this lens, restful becomes lazy, introspective becomes socially inept, thoughtful becomes indecisive, optimistic becomes unrealistic, and the list goes on. We see and experience ourselves as a mixed bundle of things that need to be fixed or eradicated.
But the whole notion of fixing and eradicating arises from self judgment – a failure to love ourselves – and so we keep ourselves stuck in an impossible cycle where self judgment gives rise to defensive (or offensive!) behavior which gives rise to further self judgment. With all due respect to my former love, this simply isn’t logical.
And so we need a way out of this trap, and loving ourselves is the way out because not loving ourselves is what created the trap to begin with. And by “loving ourselves” I don’t mean lavishing ourselves with gooey praise and ignoring the hurt we may have inflicted on ourselves or others in that ridiculous cycle of judgment. What I mean by love is a simple and gracious level of acceptance – this is what is present in me and in my life right now. We step back from the inner conflict and stop feeding both the critic and the rebel. We create a little space to breathe. And then, with curiosity and kindness - and, with any luck, a little humor - we begin a gentle process of compassionate inquiry. We ask ourselves, “Who am I, really? What am I longing for? What are my true talents? What am I afraid of? What am I ready to let go of? What kind of support do I need from others? What strengths and inner resources do I have to support myself?” We take on the role of loving teacher and guide rather than harsh taskmaster, encouraging and inspiring ourselves to our greatest potential.
Now we’re in a whole new cycle, one that is enlivening rather than depleting. We explore, we expand, we evolve and we grow. We give ourselves permission to be who we truly are, and as we drop self judgment we realize we have no need for judgment at all. It was in trying to numb the pain caused by self judgment that we projected our judgment onto others. And so in loving ourselves – in accepting ourselves – we expand our capacity to accept and love others. We become the kind of person we really like. We fall away from self judgment and fall into love.