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“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we will ever do.” ~ Brené Brown
In Buddhism, there are four faces of love—four heavenly abodes: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
The first, loving-kindness, is a practice of treating all beings with friendliness, kindness, and generosity of heart, but we often feel uncomfortable about the most important person in our lives to begin the practice with—ourselves.
But the old saying is true; you cannot pour from an empty cup.
The heavenly abodes are a refuge for our weary souls, a golden, warm, safe home that our awareness rests in as we observe, know, and accept the oftentimes contradictory messiness of ourselves and the imperfect world that we live in.
It is said that they are our true nature. I like to think of them as the boundless heart of an incredible, indescribable energetic field of love that encapsulates, connects, and transforms everything arising in the vast universe in each and every moment.
That includes you, that includes me, that includes everyone and everything and all the spaces in between.
Developmental researchers theorize that when we are born, we are still experiencing our innate connection with the boundless heart. There is something indisputably divine in the nature of a newborn baby and the incandescent nature of their gaze.
It is interesting to consider that babies do not cry in the womb; their needs are always met, and if there is lack, they appear not to strive to change their environment. Their bellies never need feeding, their lungs never need breath. Everything through the umbilical cord in a steady, warm, aquatic environment.
But almost immediately, we are thrust into a world of reactivity, cause and effect, wanting, hunger, needing to breathe, and a constant influx of experience that shapes our nature and switches our nervous system from fight-or-flight to rest and repose and back again, as we unconsciously decipher what we find pleasant and unpleasant, and what to ignore.
At first, we don’t know we are separate, and if all is well in the world we are embraced in the archetypal benevolence of a mother’s love for her child, as we are held and loved and fed and all our needs are met in a safe family environment.
In this way, we develop a healthy sense of individuality around the age of three to five, while maintaining a deep sense of connection, safety, security, love, and self-worth. There is balance between the heart and head; the child feels safe, and the head is used to make age-appropriate important decisions such as strawberry or chocolate.
“Anything ‘wrong’ with you began as a survival mechanism in childhood.” ~ Dr. Gabe Mate
But for many and varied reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, often we reach adulthood with a sense of disconnection. Things happened to us that left us feeling unsafe, insecure, unsure of others and ourselves, and disconnected from the boundless heart.
When the child experiences these things, especially ongoing within the home environment, the child’s psyche comes to the rescue to help protect against situations and feelings that are too overwhelming. This is the birthplace of our coping strategies and defense mechanisms, such as numbing, disassociation, one-pointed focusing on a distraction (that can lead to addictions and/or workaholism), perfectionism, compartmentalisation, and self-blame. The balance between head and heart is lost, and the head is now trying to solve problems it cannot understand.
These protections are created by the part of the child’s psyche that becomes our inner critic, the voice that constantly narrates our lives—keeping us safe by keeping us disconnected, and managing the status quo out of fear of the ghosts of our childhood experiences. How many times have you turned away from something you wanted because something inside whispered you weren’t good enough or feared what others would think? (I’m hearing mine right now as write this article.)
We are all dealing with this to some degree, and we are all living with this visceral ache—this feeling of uncomfortableness, restlessness, a wanting, a thirst, an undercurrent of fear, and a feeling of distrust. The results range from minimal impact of those lucky few who feel deeply loved, through to insecure attachment styles, difficulties with mental health, addictions, and at the far end of things, narcissism.
“Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ~ Rumi
If the heart is the gateway to connectedness with ourselves, each other, and our environment, then our heads are the gatekeepers that keep us disconnected through fear stories of the past and future. The more trauma the child suffers, the more elaborate the coping mechanisms and the louder and more critical the inner critic becomes, making it harder and harder to connect with the boundless heart.
The more cut off from the heart we are, the more we live in our heads and seek to satisfy our wants from the outside world.
There is a common misconception that people living with narcissism love themselves—but that is not what is occurring. For the narcissist, their childhood experiences were a burden too much to bear and they completely disconnected from who they are—their true nature—and their immature psyche went about creating a whole false self as a defense mechanism, totally insular, isolated with an all-encompassing motivation of self-preservation.
According to the literature, they live their lives entirely in their heads, obsessively attending and maintaining this false imaginary self, completely disconnected from their hearts. They are sadly unable to experience the intimacy of emotions, empathy, understanding, and do not experience normal bonding and attachment. They have completely cut themselves off from the source of those things and instead live in a world of contempt, anger, pride, and grandiosity that needs constant maintenance to protect against a crippling undercurrent of self-loathing.
This necessitates an insatiable stream of validation from the outside world—but no amount of outside validation and material wealth gives satisfaction because they are completely cut off from their own authenticity.
“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” ~ Hafiz
Genuine self-love, on the other hand, is the practice of going beyond the head and the inner critic, the practice of recognising our defense mechanisms, our barriers, and connecting with the boundless heart—the source energy that connects us all.
It is one of the most important and responsible journeys we can take for our selves, for others around us, and for the precious planet we live on because as we connect to our true nature and experience that everything we need is already in us, we develop a greater sense of peace and safety.
We therefore search less for the answers to our cravings from the outside world, which means we put less pressure on those around us to be either the cause or the solution to our suffering. We become kinder, happier, more resilient people who naturally consume less of our precious planetary resources as we begin to realise that no amount of clothes, status symbols, material possessions, holidays, home improvements, or food will give us what we are looking for.
Because what we want is already within each and every one of us waiting to be reconnected with.
“One of the oldest and most generous tricks that the universe plays on human beings is to bury strange jewels within all of us, and then stand back and see if we can ever find them.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
Self-love is about being your own best friend and treating yourself tenderly. The actions of self-love may be as simple as hanging out your clothes, tidying your bedroom, flossing. Getting out of bed earlier in the morning, getting into bed earlier at night, drinking less, journaling, starting a gratitude diary. Spending time doing the things you love, getting into nature, meditating, getting to that yoga class, eating healthy foods, saying no. Forgiving yourself, accepting yourself—just as you are—practicing metta and tonglen. The list goes on, and everyone’s journey will be different but the destination is the same—the boundless heart of love.
So, whereas narcissism is all about bolstering the false, constructed self from the outside world and maintaining (at all costs) disconnection with the heart and others, self-love is about getting to know, befriending, and accepting ourselves and finding the love within.
A simple place to start is to practice a pause and ask yourself, “Is my head trying to get what it thinks I want from the outside world, or am I seeking the barriers to connecting with what I trust is already there within me—the boundless heart?”
So please go ahead. Take your fabulously flawed self by the hand, and with the greatest of kindness, take the first steps on the journey to falling in love with yourself—unconditionally.
Fill your cup from the inside, let it flow all around you, and experience your life transform.