By: Brian Plante (DC#84)
Self-love – it is so often talked about in contemporary spiritual and psychological circles, but it is typically misunderstood or miscommunicated. What it really, and how do we cultivate this life-long relationship with ourselves?
I will not attempt to break ground with definitive concepts here, but I will share my experiences as they pertain to certain teachers’ explanations of self-love, as well as my own working understanding.
Firstly, I believe it is important to differentiate self-love from feelings of beliefs we hold about ourselves. Expecting to always feel love for ourselves, or to always like what we see as we become more self-aware, is not only unrealistic but actually harmful. Self-love is not a feeling; it is a practice. There will of course be times when we well up with emotions such as fulfillment, pride, confidence, and peace with our experience, but overall, the range of human emotions is too large to expect self-love to restrain it. Self-love takes practice, and its true power lies not so much in the degree of warm emotions we feel towards ourselves, but in how often we commit to treating ourselves in a certain way.
In other words, self-love is not about emotions as much as it is about relationship.
So how does one practice a relationship with him/herself? In order to have a relationship with anything (person, animal, object, experience, the Divine, self), it’s necessary to spend time with it. How can we learn to love ourselves if we are not willing to spend time with ourselves? This can take the form of solitude, or it can be in social settings where we remain connected to our present-moment physical, mental, and emotional experience. In other words, in order to love yourself, it is necessary to be present with yourself. This attention and awareness is the birthplace of relationship.
Then comes the most sobering side effects of relationship with self – seeing all the things that you don’t like about yourself, or that society, parents, or other loved ones in our past or present life say are not acceptable ways to think, feel, and behave. What do we do at this stage?
Just like when we are in relationship with other people, we have choices in how we can respond. We can be critical, aggressive even. We can also avoid or deny what we see. Or we can be open, gentle, patient, and even curious – daring to go against the current of our social conditioning. In relationships with others, it is quite clear according to common sense which choice yields the most desirable outcomes and experiences. By being gentle, patient, and allowing towards another, that person feels seen and loved for who they are and they feel supported through the pain they are experiencing – the very pain that is motivating them to behave in the way that they don’t like and aren’t proud of. When you support them gently instead of forcing them to change or adding shame into the mix, you invite them to draw on their own deepest wisdom, which naturally and consistently moves us toward deep satisfaction and peace.
Why, then, do we treat ourselves in ways that are inconsistent with this common sense? By criticizing, judging, and shaming ourselves for being however we’re being, we deny access to our inner wisdom and power that gentleness and patience make possible.
Great, so all we have to do is be gentle and allowing of ourselves. Easy, right?
Many would say it one of the absolute hardest things for human beings to do. It is a style of relationship that is not taught in our culture. “If I accept the parts of myself that I don’t like, how will I ever change them?”, we think.
The paradox is this: when we allow ourselves to be exactly as we are (and that includes allowing ourselves to feel all the anger we hold for ourselves in these moments of disgust), we no longer have to change in order to feel peace. We are then free to make new choices from this place of peace and wholeness, and these choices aren’t motivated by self-rejection or fearing who we are.
By criticizing ourselves, all we are really trying to do is get closer to self-acceptance. But all too often, we make self-acceptance conditional on changing ourselves first – changing our feelings, our thoughts, our behaviors, and habits. What I’m suggesting is that we can bypass all this intensity and struggle and move directly into allowing ourselves to be just as we are, and affirming that we are okay that way, even when what we feel is self-hatred.
The practice of self-love is attending to ourselves with this inclusive attitude, even when (especially when) we don’t like what we see or how we feel.
The truth is, there’s nothing glorious or miraculous about the initial decision to love ourselves in this way. It hurts, and it asks a lot of us. But in my experience, when we are willing to learn and practice this, the glory – the miracle – begins to unravel over time. What we find is that we stop fighting ourselves, we stop making ourselves not okay, and we stop chasing a future in which we’re finally good enough. We can rest in ourselves as we are, and there’s peace – freedom.
This opens up previously unseen resources within ourselves that we can draw on, in the present moment, to speak and act in ways that we are authentically proud of. The secret is that this behavior is completely natural and spontaneous, rather than forced and efforted against whatever negative emotions we happen to be resisting or denying in that moment.
Brian Plante is a naturopathic medical student in Portland, Oregon who is passionate about whole-person approaches to healthcare. He believes the deepest healing takes place when we are in right relationship with ourselves, others, and the spiritual mystery. To learn more about his vision for the next generation of American medicine, check him out on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/brianaplante/