Self-love is something that most, if not all, of us struggle with.
Having been a student of Ayurveda and yoga for half my life, I find two principles are continually applicable, both for myself and those I see in my practice. Ayurveda teaches the principle that like increases like, and Lord Patanjali (the “father” of yoga) defines yoga as, “The stopping or changing of the patterns of the mind.”
For a long time, I perpetuated toxic traits that only increased the like, and my thought patterns about myself were pretty negative. While dating in my 20s, I kept hearing the same advice over and over again, nearly verbatim:
“You have to love yourself first before you can truly love another or find ‘the One.’”
While I knew there must be some truth in there somewhere, it mostly didn’t resonate and therefore fell on deaf ears. Not really knowing the first thing about how to love myself, I stayed the course and persevered with dating anyway. But all of the swiping, blind dates, and dressing up for endless events in the hopes of finally meeting someone was futile.
Until the day that it wasn’t.
I met Will on a dating app five years ago. After three dates and neither of us feeling the spark, we decided to become friends and did just that.
Even though I didn’t have romantic feelings for Will, as I got to know him, I began realizing something: he was too good for me. The women he dated were basically supermodels, and besides that, he was the only guy I knew in my age group who really had his stuff together. He was successful in his career, kept his word, was genuine and upstanding, and on top of all of those things, he continually showed up for me.
His past was neat and tidy—spotless in comparison to mine. I had survived a marriage gone wrong in my early adulthood, and had spent the time since seeking validation and worth. Instead of cultivating self-love, most of my time was spent proving my own unworthiness to myself.
Will’s friendship began to change that, as I was able to take myself a little less seriously and find more joy along my own path after meeting him. About a year into our friendship, I began to feel a longing to love myself, and started taking baby steps toward self-love. It was truly one step forward, two steps back, until finally, there came the step that there was no going back from: the moment I finally got out of my own way to let love in.
I remember the moment vividly. We were in Portugal on a wellness retreat I was leading. It was my first international retreat, and Will had signed up as a participant to support me. On the first day of the retreat, the two of us were sitting outside after breakfast. Just as he said something I found especially fascinating, his face changed right before my eyes. Suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted, I was noticing for the first time how handsome he was.
I was confused and unprepared—”How could this be possible? The lighting must be really good here,” I thought.
Throughout the duration of the retreat, Will and I were inseparable. I kept finding myself wondering whether I was really attracted to him or if I was just excited to be back in Portugal (my favorite place) with my best friend. Like most people with emotional boundary issues, I’d wondered whether I was in love with most people at some point or another—if even for a fleeting moment—so this wouldn’t have been too out of the ordinary.
I was determined, though, about two things: one, I would not break professionalism, and two, I would not ruin our friendship. The night the retreat ended, everyone had departed except Will, my friend Vanessa, and myself. We decided to go out to dinner and then to the beach to gaze at the full moon.
While Will was getting ready, Vanessa took me aside. She became serious, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Cristina, at the risk of our friendship, I must tell you that there is something with you and Will. You have to see what’s there. I’ve seen the way you are together and the way he looks at you.”
I felt my face get hot, my stomach drop, and an incredulous, bashful smile spread across my face. “No way,” I said. There was no way, after all, that he could like me. She spent the next several minutes convincing me and then helping me devise a plan forward.
That night on the beach, Will and I slipped off our shoes and walked in the cool sand as we looked up at the huge harvest moon. We didn’t touch, but we stood close to each other and all I could feel was the electricity that buzzed between us.
Eventually, we made our way back to the retreat house to pack, and Vanessa went downstairs to give us some privacy. The tension in the room could have been cut with a knife. I knew this was my opportunity to come clean about my feelings and figure out where he stood. I heard my heartbeat in my head, adrenaline pumping through my veins, as I had a nearly out-of-body experience. I sensed that this was one of those moments like in the movies when it’s the girl’s move and you’re yelling at her to take it.
I saw the trajectory in front of me: say nothing, act like everything is normal, and remain friends—whatever you do, do not risk this friendship! Or, go for it, take the leap, give yourself a shot at the healthiest relationship you could ever have—and fall in love with your best friend.
When we finally made eye contact, I blurted out, “Are we going to talk about this, or what?” To which he replied, “We’ll talk on the train in the morning,” and then he turned and walked away.
My heart still pounding, palms sweaty, I knew I’d made the right move. That for once, I’d made a decision that I knew was the most loving to myself by allowing myself to be vulnerable, take a risk, and love someone who not only was my best friend, but who had demonstrated over the years his character, integrity, and intentions.
Though part of me continued believing that I was not good enough for him, or worthy of his love, the part that believed in true love won. The next morning, as we watched the sunrise over southern Portugal from a train, we confessed our feelings for each other and giggled like children for the entire four hours until we reached Lisbon. We exchanged vows nine months later.
I fell in love with the person who loves me so completely that he teaches me to love myself on a daily basis. I am certain, however, that this is only the case because I already respected him, trusted him, and valued his opinion and approval prior to having feelings for him. This factor proved to be crucial. We will never be taught how to love ourselves by someone whose love we either do not trust or do not respect.
If there’s any advice that should be preached to single people wanting not to be, it’s this: “Fall in love with the person whose gaze heals your own. With someone who helps you fall and stay in love with yourself because of their love for you. Someone you love so much that they can’t help but loving themselves more, too, and whose gaze you heal with your own.”
In love, we have so many opportunities tied into our sense of worth and acceptance. I believe it is entirely possible to fully love oneself prior to falling in love with someone else. It may be the only way for some. I also believe that we can be taught how to love even the parts of ourselves we surround with the most shame. That true love rewires thought patterns of shame into ones of worthiness, belonging, and wholeness.
That love increases love.