If we want the world to be a better place, we must love ourselves. I’m not saying that this is the only thing that needs to be done. I’m not even necessarily saying it is the most important thing. I think there are emergency situations around this planet, like the suffering of the incarcerated in the United States, like the world’s oceans and coral reefs, like the abuse of women in India and around the world, like torture, like drones, that need attention right now. There is so much to be done I would never deign to weigh one issue over the other. All I know is if we want to make a real change, at some point we are going to have to dive in head first to one of the hardest tasks in life. We must love ourselves.
I know that in the midst of all the suffering of the world the call from some damn woo-woo hippie like myself to feel the love might sound annoying. But to me it’s only annoying if I try to make it sound easy. I’m not trying to make it sound easy. If all we had to do is wake up in the morning, look ourselves in the mirror and say, “You’re the best! I love you!” and then our problems would be solved well then why do we have so many damn problems then?
We must love ourselves, and it is not an easy task. Actually, it is really fucking hard. If you don’t think it is hard, then you probably aren’t really trying to do it. The task of falling in love, deeper and deeper, with yourself and what you are capable of as a human on this planet never truly ends. It hurts like hell, makes no sense, and it is both infinite and terrifying. Everyday I set out to succeed in this task and everyday I fail in infinite ways, in ways I am aware of and in ways I have no clue about.
Why must we love ourselves? Well for one thing, when we don’t, we live out an illusion, an illusion that has very real effects on the world around us. This illusion could be called narcissism. Some people think narcissism is loving yourself “too much”. But really it is a complete absence of self-love. Narcissism contends that the central task in your life is to be the person you “should” be, or to be some idea of a person you have created in your mind, instead of just accepting yourself as you are.
Instead of loving yourself for precisely who you are, whatever you are, no matter what you do or how you have been treated, narcissists spend their whole lives focused on living out some set of self-concepts they decided a long time ago was ‘who they are’. This identity is usually tied to a lot of external, societal standards of appearance, opinions, values, assertions, and judgments. These factors, taken as a whole, can usually dictate what kind of jobs the person should take, what kind of partners they should have, and how much money they should make. This identity can be more or less unusual, tied to individual experiences, where and how you were raised, what you were taught, but to whatever extent it involves you not being in a state of acceptance and love for who you are right now, it is narcissistic. It is not about loving yourself, but rather a state of being enslaved to some idea about who you are or who you should be.
When narcissists fail to achieve these standards they hate themselves, believe they are unworthy of love, and can act out negatively in a myriad of ways, mostly because they did not make the original commitment to truly love and accept themselves. When narcissists succeed in achieving these standards they feel pride, entitlement, perhaps some sense of satisfaction, but they still can not experience truly loving themselves in an unconditional way, because for them, love will always be conditional upon them succeeding to the standards they lay out for themselves.
Who we really are is so much more complicated and astounding and mysterious than any ideas we come up with about that person. It is not that we can’t know ourselves but rather the understanding that there is always more to know. To love ourselves is to understand we are living a life that is unfolding every moment in ways that we cannot imagine. To truly love ourselves is to understand that whatever we do, whatever has been done to us, whether we fail or whether we succeed, we are still, on a basic fundamental level, just because we are human beings on this earth, lovable.
Needless to say, it can be confusing. How do we know when we are really loving ourselves, or just trying to live up to some idea of who we should be? Well, one clue is that feeling love can be one of the hardest things in the world. It burns like cleaning out a wound with hydrogen peroxide. It is startling and uncomfortable and incredibly vulnerable. It has the power to make everything you’ve made so important and argued for and lost friends over and feel like a huge lie. It has the power to make all those times you walked away or chose the safer thing or stayed silent so incredibly painful. From the perspective of loving yourself, all the things you did when you didn’t look very ugly, and it takes enormous courage to face into that. Love has no limits, and thus humbly reminds us of our own.
For all of these reasons, and more, love feels almost exactly like pain. Really they are the same thing, seen in different ways. When we let ourselves feel our pain, we lose all of our defenses. We can no longer hide beneath the shells of our personalities and our ideas and our accomplishments and our assertions, because we are in pain, and thus we just are. And when we just are, we can feel love. The strain of the contradiction almost breaks our hearts but it is actually expanding them. This is the power of a good cry. This is why deep love brings tears to our eyes.
It’s good to keep in mind that there is illusory pain. A tip-off is that it has no energy, felt in the mind instead of in the body. Some names for it are self-hatred, nihilism, shame, embarrassment, guilt, anxiety and the like. It says you don’t matter, it says the world doesn’t matter, it says nothing matters. Or it says you will only matter if... you will only feel love if… It denies how difficult it is to feel love, it says there is something wrong with you because you don’t feel it. It says everything in your life is your responsibility, that it is all your fault. It denies how scary the truth is, that you have no real control over anything. It tells you that your individual version of true love, that version of love that you only let yourself fantasize about for brief moments long ago, is a total lie, that you will never get to have it. It convinces you by saying it is rational, realistic, practical. It gives you the illusion of control. It makes you doubt and judge everyone, because in thinking all of these things, you doubt and judge yourself. It is lonely, isolating, numbing, and persistent. It definitely sucks, but it is not the same as real pain.
Mostly because real pain doesn’t need a reason, doesn’t need to be explained, doesn’t need to be justified. It just needs to be felt. Pain is always the doorway to expanding our ability to feel love. This sounds like a contradiction, I know, and because it is a contradiction it is very difficult to explain. But just the mere fact that through enormous hardship and injustice and trauma individual humans still harbor the capacity to feel love for themselves and others demonstrates to me the enormity of what’s possible. It is in understanding that even in the darkest corner of our hearts there is still a way feel loved that we come to feel it in an even more visceral and intense way. It is this increased vitality feeling of purpose and joy that being loved by another person can give us that we always have the opportunity to give to ourselves.
We must love ourselves. It is a challenge and it is a responsibility and a journey. But most of all, it is the most thrilling ride possible in life.
Stay tuned for Part 2, Loving Ourselves Through Relationship