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As a transformational life coach, I often get this pleading question from clients and retreat participants: “But how do I love myself?”
It took me years to understand that this question results from a misunderstanding of what self-love actually is.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I want to shed some light on how we can correct this perception.
Most people think that self-love is a particular set of thoughts and emotions: I wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, love how I look, go to work, feel proud of myself for the results I’m producing, and so on and so forth, in a continual stream of mushy-gushy feelings toward and of complimentary thoughts about myself.
No. That is not self-love. That is having a good internal day.
Having a good internal day is awesome, but for most of us, it is not sustainable. And when we think that self-love is contingent upon having positive thoughts and feelings about ourselves, we are missing the point.
Although it seems like we should be able to completely control our thoughts and emotions, we can’t. Or, at least, 99.9999999999999 percent of us can’t (shout-out to the enlightened Buddhas out there who have no thoughts and subsist completely off of sunshine).
Which means that there will be times when we do have judgments about ourselves and feel shame and insecurity.
It’s an inextricable part of being human. We couldn’t change it if we tried.
In fact, the more we try to change “negative” thoughts or emotions, the more of them we have. When it comes to our internal state, whatever we resist persists.
So if we’re having judgments come up, and then we judge those judgments, we are just left with more judgments.
The same goes for anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, insecurities, and anything else unwanted that arises in our internal state. Unfortunately, we don’t get to pick and choose our thoughts and emotions (we do get to pick and choose our reactions to them, but I’ll get to that later).
So if we think that self-love means having nice thoughts and feelings toward ourselves, then we lose our ability to love ourselves on the days that we don’t think we look good, that we’re not proud of the work we’ve done, and we actually feel really frustrated with ourselves.
This is the problem with thinking that being self-loving means thinking happy thoughts and feeling good feelings about ourselves.
We shouldn’t feel like we have to kick self-love to the curb altogether on bad internal state days. In fact, bad internal state days are the days when we have the best opportunity to practice being self-love.
Self-love is not a thought or emotion. It is a way of being.
And lucky for that! Because, as discussed, we do not have complete control over our thoughts and emotions. But we do have complete control over our ways of being. We can’t make the thought or emotion go away, but we can alter how we treat that thought or emotion.
So when an insecurity arises, let’s not see that as a detour in our road to self-love; let’s see it as an opportunity to strengthen our muscle of self-love.
We don’t grow in our ability to love ourselves when we’re kicking ass; we grow in our ability to love ourselves when we’re failing miserably, and we choose to show up and be compassionate, forgiving, and loving of ourselves anyway.
The real work of loving ourselves happens when our mind judges us and then we choose to be loving despite the judgment that our mind has.
See, when people say, “I want to love myself,” often, they are referring to a false self. They are mistaking themselves for their thoughts or emotions or circumstances. What they really mean is, “I want to fix my thoughts until they are always pleasant” or, “I want to change my emotions until they are always positive” or, “I want to change my life circumstances (my body, my finances, etc.) until they match up with what I think is deserving of love.”
But none of that is you.
You are not your thoughts; you are the awareness in which your thoughts arise.
You are not your emotions; you are the awareness in which your emotions arise.
You are not your circumstances; you are the awareness in which your circumstances arise.
To love any of those things is to love an object of your awareness, not you.
To love yourself, to truly love yourself, is to be the loving awareness in which all of that arises. Loving awareness doesn’t discriminate against our “bad” thoughts and emotions, it loves all the parts of ourselves equally.
It is to recognize that there is nowhere to get to—you do not need to eradicate all judgments and insecurities from your mind before you get to be love.
When we are being self-love, we do away with any notions about what is and isn’t lovable. We stop trying to fix and change ourselves in order to deserve self-love. We stop resisting our thoughts and emotions, and we become a welcoming, willing space of love for all of it to arise.
What does this look like? It looks like being the witness to your thoughts, emotions, and circumstances rather than at the effect of them. It looks like noticing each time a thought or emotion arises in your internal state, noticing it, allowing it to be there, and being willing to experience it without needing to change it.
It means loving your judgments and insecurities rather than judging them. It means interpreting every unwanted thought or emotion as an opportunity to bring loving awareness.
So this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re single, or in one relationship (or many)—give yourself the incredible gift of full permission to practice the art of being loving awareness.