Evelyn graciously asked me to share some thoughts about self-love for a compilation of posts she’s putting together. I thought I’d start by sharing a story about a moment just a few days ago when I showed myself some love.
I must have looked a little mopey, because my friend asked me whether I was all right. At first, I decided I didn’t want to “burden” her with my problems, and I told her I was fine.
But my friend, thankfully, wouldn’t let me off the hook. “No, really, what’s going on?” she said.
Finally, I dropped the façade and told her what was up. “I haven’t been getting enough done,” I said. “I’ve been sitting around watching boxing matches instead of focusing on my projects, and I feel really embarrassed about it.”
The Truth Will Make You Laugh
Suddenly, I found myself laughing, and my body felt lighter. There was something about telling my friend how I was actually feeling, without making any effort to look “okay,” tough or reasonable, that felt so liberating. The grim story I’d been telling myself about how irresponsible and bad I was started melting away.
This is a good example of what I think self-love is all about, because — for me — it’s about letting go of my resistance to what I’m feeling. I’m most loving to myself when I fully accept my experience, without demanding or pretending that I feel differently — even if what I happen to be feeling is embarrassment and shame.
Self-Love Isn’t Easy
What this story also illustrates is how difficult and vulnerable self-love can be. It can feel risky to admit to ourselves, or to someone else, what’s actually in our hearts, rather than pushing away our anger, hurt, and sadness, and acting like everything’s all right — like I did when my friend first asked me how I was.
After all, many of us worry that, if we told someone we were feeling grief, fear, or some other “negative emotion,” they might criticize or reject us. Many of us also fear that, if we just let ourselves feel the hurt that’s present, rather than running from it, the pain might go on forever.
But I’ve found that, when I’m willing to fully accept how I feel in this moment, no matter what it might be, that’s when I get access to the joy and lightness I want in my life. Any energy I was using to avoid what I’m feeling gets freed up and becomes vitality.
Loving Our Unloving Moments
It’s funny — this is even true in moments when I’m being hard on myself. By acknowledging that “I’m not being very compassionate to myself right now,” without pretending to be happy or confident or anything else, I honor myself, and open the way back to wellbeing.
I think real self-love, at the core, is about caring for ourselves deeply enough to be honest — with ourselves and others — about what’s going on inside us.
Many of us know the story of Narcissus — the boy who drowned because he fell in love with his reflection in a lake, and jumped in hoping to embrace his image. At first glance, this story seems to be about the dangers of loving yourself too much. If Narcissus had only taken his attention off himself and put it on others’ needs, we tend to think, he wouldn’t have died.
But a mentor of mine told me a different, and convincing, interpretation of the story. As he pointed out, Narcissus didn’t actually love himself at all — he loved his reflection. After all, Narcissus didn’t need to jump in the lake to be with himself — he did it because he wanted to be with the image he saw in the water.
I’ve thought of this story lately because I’ve been reading books that are critical of personal development as part of my research for an upcoming book. I’ve noticed that one common criticism of personal growth ideas is that, by asking us to love ourselves unconditionally, they encourage us to be selfish — to focus only on our own finances, relationships and so on, and stop helping others.
I think this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of what self-love is, and I think it’s important to correct that misunderstanding in light of all the negative comments we’ve been seeing recently about personal growth. In fact, I think personal growth, in its highest form, is about moving away from narcissism — away from loving the image we present to the world — and toward loving who we actually are. What’s more, once we fully love ourselves, real compassion for others becomes possible.
Why We Fall In Love With Our Reflection
Out of necessity, when we come into the world, we’re deeply concerned about how others — usually our parents — see us. Because our survival depends on their willingness to care for us, we quickly learn which behaviors please them and which ones don’t, and we shape our personalities to give them what they want.
Unconsciously, we carry this mindset into our adult lives. We still think we need to win others’ approval, and so we design our careers, relationships, hobbies, and so on to appeal to the world. Like Narcissus, we get fixated on the image we present to the world, as opposed to who we actually are.
Because it seems like our survival is at stake, we’ll do practically anything — including hurting others — to make sure the world sees us the way we want to be seen. Our love of the image the world sees, instead of ourselves, leads to greed and abusive behavior.
What Real Self-Love Does
When we start to love ourselves unconditionally — no matter how others see us — the need to maintain the right image falls away. Energy we once used up putting on a pretty facade can be used to care for others. Helping people is no longer a strategy for looking like a good little boy or girl, or showing that we’re morally better than someone else — it’s now an expression of genuine compassion.
This is why, I think, we see a focus on self-love in many spiritual traditions. For example, in Buddhist metta or loving-kindness meditation, the meditator is to focus first on loving him- or herself, and then to focus on the wellbeing of the rest of the world. Similarly, Hindu teacher Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj told his students “by all means be selfish — the right way. Be all; love all; be happy; make happy.”
When we truly understand what self-love is and what it isn’t, we can see why it’s part of many personal growth teachings, and the good we can do for the world by creating it within ourselves.
I want to share a powerful exercise that’s been a key part of my personal growth journey. The exercise is very simple—just sit in front of a mirror and look into your own eyes for ten minutes. No matter what thoughts and sensations come up for you, see if you can hold your gaze on your reflection. See if you can breathe, keep in mind that just looking into a mirror can’t really hurt or destroy you, and ride out any intensity that arises.
I’ve had many different experiences doing this exercise. On some days, I feel a warmth in my heart and a desire to appreciate myself, and this exercise gives me a chance to show myself gratitude. At other times, I feel anger or sadness welling up inside, and I get the opportunity to become aware of and release those emotions. But no matter what I experience, it ultimately leads me to more peace and self-understanding, and I’ve seen the same effects in others I’ve recommended this to.
Here are some wonderful benefits of doing this exercise regularly:
1. Dispel Your Negative Body Image. Many of us carry around an unconscious (and often unflattering) picture of what our bodies look like as we walk through the world, and that picture affects how we behave and relate to others. If we have a mental picture of ourselves as ugly and frightening, for example, we’ll probably shy away from people, assume it would be useless to approach someone we’re attracted to, and so on.
Looking in a mirror for a while gives us a chance to see our bodies as they actually are, and let go of our often exaggerated and unrealistic mental images of ourselves. I’ve seen people break into tears while doing this exercise, as they saw how revolting they’d been making their bodies out to be, and how radically incorrect their image of themselves was.
2. Acknowledge Yourself. This exercise is a great setting for appreciating yourself and acknowledging the wonderful contributions you’re making to the world. As I think you’ll find, there’s something particularly powerful about staring yourself in the face and expressing gratitude for who you are and what you do.
Of course, for many of us, there’s also something painful about acknowledging ourselves like this, because it forces us to confront how uncomfortable we are with praising ourselves. Many of us are accustomed to belittling ourselves, making sure we don’t hog the spotlight, trying not to brag, and so on. So naturally, we often judge ourselves as “rude,” “selfish,” and so on while doing this exercise.
But if you keep doing this over time, I think you’ll find, the discomfort fades away. Jack Canfield puts it well in writing about this exercise in The Success Principles: “as you begin to act more positive and nurturing toward yourself, it is natural to have physical and emotional reactions as you release the old negative parental wounds, unrealistic expectations, and self-judgments,” but “they are only temporary and will pass after a few days of doing the exercise.”
3. Be Honest With Yourself. One thing this exercise takes away from you is the ability to hide from yourself and what you’re feeling. Many of us live our lives in constant self-distraction mode, trying to tune out our thoughts and feelings with our work, relationships, TV-watching, and so on. The last thing we want to do is be with ourselves in silence, because we’re afraid of the intense emotions that may come up.
There’s no escaping what’s going on for you, however, when you’re staring yourself in the face. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with some aspect of your life, this exercise makes you fully experience that dissatisfaction—there’s no TV, Internet or iPod to help you get away. If you’re angry at someone, and you’ve been diverting your attention from the anger most of the time, you have no choice but to be with how you’re feeling.
The upside is that, by forcing you to confront what’s really going on for you, looking in the mirror helps you consider what you can change in your life, and how you can treat yourself more kindly, to create a healthier relationship with yourself.
As you can probably tell from what I’ve written, this isn’t exactly a “Feel Good Now!” exercise that’s guaranteed to immediately perk you up. In the beginning, staring at yourself for ten minutes may be a surprisingly uncomfortable experience. It’s very different from briefly glancing at your reflection in the morning as you comb your hair. But if you stick with it, I think you’ll find it’s a powerful way to get more comfortable with and accepting of yourself.
My Recent Interview on What We Need To Know
I also want to share with you a more in-depth radio interview I did recently on What We Need to Know with Ed Morler. We explore issues like meditation techniques, finding your true calling in your career, how conscious breathing can help you stay grounded in the face of stress, and so on, more thoroughly than I have on the air before. I hope you enjoy it!