A few weeks ago, I was clearing out the spare room in my home and came across an old journal I kept in college.
Stuck in between one of the pages was a letter I had written when I was a 20 year old sophomore. The letter was addressed to me and brief:
Dear Self, All I want is unconditional love.
I vaguely remembered why I wrote it—I had just gotten out of a relationship and was repeating the mantra that in order to attract the right person for me, I needed to love myself unconditionally. It certainly sounded like the right thing to say.
However, like a lot of things in life, it would prove to be a lot easier said than done.
Fast forward 16 years later, and I am still trying to accomplish unconditional self love. I’m not alone either. It’s become almost a cliche of sorts in both conventional and self-help therapy as well as in the general mind/body community. However, how many of us really know what it means to love one’s self (or anyone) unconditionally?
In my experience a lot of people take it to mean that we show that love to ourselves by never engaging in any sort of criticism or in some cases even acknowledging that there is such a thing as bad or wrong behavior.
I take a different approach. Frankly, I think that this is one of the main reasons why so many people never actually achieve anything close to unconditional love: in order to even get on the path of that is to acknowledge not only the bad behavior of others, but also the bad behavior within ourselves.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that too much self-criticism can be a bad thing and/or counter-productive, but too little of it can be equally as destructive if not worst. Think of someone suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.
In my own experience in dealing with people who suffer from this disorder, they almost always find a way of justifying their behavior towards others by saying something along the lines of like, “Well, it’s not my fault they took it that way!” I have yet to meet one that wasn’t in treatment who ever acknowledged that their behavior was actually wrong or hurtful.
It can be argued that people with NPD don’t really love themselves and many are often victims of childhood abuse, many mental health professionals claim that it can also be a result of excess parenting. (As I touched in another piece I wrote some time ago about enabling mothers, it is possible to give a child too much of a sense of self-worth and make them believe that the world revolves around them.)
While some see the two as existing on opposite planes, true unconditional love is often very similar to so-called tough love: it’s very possible to love and still acknowledge that certain kinds of behavior like lying, cheating, or mistreating others is bad.
We can still love ourselves, yet hate the bad behavior that is keeping us back and/or hurting others.
Wanting to correct that behavior or at least engage of less of it also doesn’t go against unconditional self love either.
Indeed, it may be possible to love ourselves even more once we let go of that behavior and start to feel more love and genuine empathy towards others.
I wish that the next time someone mentions that the importance of unconditional love that both the speaker and the listener (even if they happen to be the same person) will stop and wonder what that really means to them.
If it means just loving one’s self no matter what they do or how they treat others then frankly, they are on the wrong path and will never achieve it.
If on the other hand they acknowledge that sort of love only comes after one acknowledges the impact of their behavior on themselves and others, then they may have a shot of actually getting to that place one day.
I am not there yet—there are still a great many steps in my journey, even if I’m on the right path.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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