Before I started meditating I didn’t think much about self-love. The whole concept seemed a little new-agey and wreaked of over-used phrases like “self-esteem” and “treat yo self” for me to take it too seriously. I figured if there was something I didn’t care for in myself it was my problem to deal with. I didn’t see how it affected anyone else.
Brene Brown, the contemporary foremost authority on shame and vulnerability research, has studied and interviewed countless individuals on topics surrounding vulnerability, shame, and resilience. Do you know the number one common trait she found in people who live “wholeheartedly” as she calls it? Those rare people she discovered who lead their lives from a place of worthiness and compassion for themselves and others? Obviously, they must have lead lives of privilege, they couldn’t have known the dark holes of mistakes or years wasted in anguish over something. Was it that they were well-liked, or made a certain amount of money? None of the above. These people who lead shame-resistant lives were just as likely to have made large-scale mistakes, experience heartache and failure, and every other marker for difficulty as everyone else interviewed. The only difference? They believed they were worthy of love and connection. That’s it.
Hold up. So she is telling me that if I want live “wholeheartedly”, I don’t have to change a single thing about myself. I could go to bed tonight with all my annoying habits, my big nose, my past regrets, and wake up – with no changes! – and experience the deepest of human connections, the truest of human love, the kind of unencumbered joy that comes with no strings attached? Every day for the rest of my life? The only thing keeping me from my best life is my belief that those feelings aren’t for people like me?
Pretty much. Well, with the caveat that I would need to let go of all the baggage that comes with a lifetime of self-loathing overnight (insert Brene maniacally laughing as she knows she’s got my attention but I have no idea how much courage this is going to take).
Um. Ok? But still…why does loving myself matter so much?
Let’s pretend for a minute that I grew up in a family where sports were super important and I always really wanted to be good at sports but after a few painful experiences in middle school, I let go of that dream. There are many routes I could take, but let’s say that I decide that even if I’m not on a team, at least I can stay relevant by being in the know about sports. All my clothes proclaim my favorite teams. I always know the stats on the game and it’s my go-to topic of conversation. I don’t realize it, but I’m hustling for my worth and for my place in my tribe. I’m hustling because I don’t believe I’m enough without sports.
Ok, fine, you say. So you’re insecure about sports and you like to catch the game after work, there are worse things in life.
Sure. But it doesn’t end there. There are a lot of areas where this will haunt me throughout life. What about in college, how do I act every time I meet an athletic person? Hustling. How do I act when I meet someone who is bad at sports? I probably spit my own self-judgement right in their face. Hustling. Lastly, what if I have a child who reflects the part I hate the most about myself back at me. What if they try out for sports and they are “that” same kid that I was? Hustling. It’s very hard for me to offer compassion to that child when I’ve never extended it to myself for the exact same thing. And this time, my child is going to learn to hustle too.
Maybe it’s not sports for you – maybe it’s stretch marks, impatience, maybe you were a bully for years, maybe it’s a harsh internal dialogue from years of emotional abuse. Whatever it is, it doesn’t just affect you.
The first thing you can do is become aware of what you loathe in yourself. Judgement is a great signal for this because when we judge someone else it is almost always because we are trying to distance ourselves from something we are afraid of or dislike about ourselves. Do you judge that woman who is always late to work meetings because as a child it was instilled in you that being late it was a sign of laziness? What does your internal dialogue look like when you are running late? How about that bad habit you can’t get on top of? How do you respond when you see someone else exhibiting that same habit you hate? How about when your child expresses anxiety about a situation and you tell them to stop being a baby? How do you respond when you feel vulnerable or weak in a situation?
It’s important in these times when you realize how deep the well of frustration with yourself may run, to take a deep breath and try to suspend judgement for yourself. Get curious. Instead of judging yourself – ask yourself why you are acting or feeling this way? It’s a little scary, right? If I stop hating the things I hate about myself – even for a second, won’t I just keep doing that thing forever? Isn’t it the hatred and loathing that motivates me to be my best self?
The answer is a resounding “no”. When has hatred or anger ever inspired someone to change for the better? We can easily hear how ridiculous this sounds for relationships, yet we don’t apply it for our own personal relationship with yours truly. As long as you resist the things you hate and fear the most about yourself, you can’t really look at them. When you hold the things you loathe about yourself in judgement and shame, they are too rigid and condemning to conquer. Holding your self-hatred in compassion and understanding allows those rigid sharp edges to relax ever-so slightly. For the first time maybe we can acknowledge that we screwed up but we aren’t A screw-up. Maybe we can admit that while, yes, we knew better, we are still human. Maybe we can start to believe that we are still worthy of love and the best experiences life has to offer – even if we can’t offer that love to ourselves in every aspect just yet.
Learning to love ourselves is critical in meditation for another reason. Meditation is bringing us into the present, it’s making us aware of our true nature. Most of our self-loathing, however, is rooted in the past. Whether it was a bad experience, or endlessly wishing you could get back to your “ideal weight”, whatever it might be, your self-loathing isn’t serving this moment. Releasing your self-loathing allows you to fully explore the present moment, experience it, un-strangled by tendrils from the past.
Despite what I said earlier, learning to love yourself isn’t going to be an overnight process. But maybe tomorrow you can become aware of ways that you could eventually love yourself more. Maybe you’ll be inspired to intend to love yourself someday, which is fine. Take it one step, one situation, one thought at a time. And plan on mistakes and mess-ups and learning to love yourself through them along the way. You might find that clearing out all the baggage and festering insecurity brought on by self-loathing leaves behind deep, cavernous scars with just the right environment to become the birthplace of deeper relationships, more connection, more love, and deeper peace than you could have ever imagined.