I recently came back from a trip to Colombia with a friend from there. Watching people make plans, reach out, talk about big feelings, and make more plans, I woke up to the fact that what I was finding most perplexing was the absence of shame. They shamelessly reached out to others.
Even when people broke plans, there were so many plans being made around, and after, and before, that no one ever seemed to be left stranded or feeling alone. Being alone on this trip, and in this country, felt more like a choice you had to make, rather than the default.
I remember going through a break-up once in Mexico, where I was asked, every day, by the same person, how I was. I was a mess, and I told her, every day. And when I was embarrassed about how long it was taking me to "get over it" and be a strong human with her shit together she said, "Lisa, it's love, we were just saying how well you seem to be doing." We then proceeded to karaoke to Mariachi songs about broken hearts while drinking tequila.
This is a giant over-generalization of an entire culture and two countries, however, arriving home I went for coffee with a friend who was feeling lonely, unable to find self-love, and was being accused of being a "dramatic" by her partner whenever she feels a feeling or needs something.
This through me back to decades of trying to not to be a burden or need anyone.
And in the end, buried under a stack of self-help books, the only reason I know anything about "self-love" is because of the people who ask how I am repeatedly, answer my phone calls, eat pho with me, and talk me down and back into myself, over and over.
Ultimately it's not about self-love. Self-love is a byproduct of connection and belonging. It is not the product. North America, it's not about you.
The Self-Love Myth shames us into believing something's wrong with us if we need connection, because we should be able to get everything, including love, from some magical and infinite place inside ourselves.
This myth leads to a few places:
an endless quest for self-improvement because we figure something's wrong with us if we don't feel ok.
a spiritual-escapism, where we begin to tune out of our bodies (feelings) and begin to talk a wacky wacky talk talk with really big glossy eyes.
smoking cigarettes on the back porch.
out of wack independence and a shaming of the soul.
This myth leads us back, again and again, to the pervasive societal mantra of
"You can do it...alone"
I texted that to a friend last week, rather than offering to bring her a drink or watch her kids.
It's the easy thing to say to a person that doesn't require me to take any personal or societal responsibility.
Friend: This is what's hard in my life right now.
You: Ya know, I'm really discovering that it's just all about loving yourself.
Just to clarify, before we go further...
To love yourself is fantastic, but the self-love myth is bullshit.
To help yourself is not b.s., but the self-help myth is pretty much bullshit.
To respect yourself...
I could go on.
These myths keeps us looking the wrong direction. We go after self-love rather than going after connection and belonging.
This doesn't work on a political, personal, or nervous system level.
The self-love myth makes love a personal problem rather than a political or relational one.
Where did the Self-Love Myth begin?
The Politics of Self-Love
When I moved to Guatemala in 2004 one of the things that most astounded me was not the food or the landscape, but the lack of, what I called, "Oprah Winfrey Culture" in my friends from Guatemala, France and Spain.
Self-help culture is a North American phenomenon that is spreading. It is a bandage response to a broken, individualistic and dislocated culture and has created a giant buzz around words that begin with 'self.'
There was a giant boom in self-help books in the last third of the 20th century and despite popularity, their legitimacy, or actual usefulness, apart from the momentary high you get upon reading them, remains widely unchecked.
What's going on that I can spend thousands of dollars every year on self-help, reading books alone in my bed? How did this happen to me?
And is it working?
Why this boom of the "self"?
There's a documentary called The Century of Self (go watch it, it's on youtube). In it they explain how Bernay, Freud's nephew, at the beginning of the 20th century, brought Freud's psychoanalytic ideas regarding our unconscious desires to America, used them in marketing, and turned the focus of North American culture towards the fulfillment of the desires of the individual (ultimately, and perversely, as a way to find belonging and connection).
"He showed American corporations for the first time how they could make people want things they didn't need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires. Out of this would come a new political ideal of how to control the masses. By satisfying people's inner selfish desires one made them happy and thus docile. It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate our world today."
-The Century of Self
Though I would argue with the word "happy" in the description of people who have satisfied their material desires, I do see this as a highly possible beginning of a self-medicating behaviour that turned North America into consumers rather than social beings.
The link between capitalism and self-help continues to grow and this continues to weaken the social fabric of our society, resulting in big money for some and the shaming of people that *gasp* reach out to other people to borrow a lawn mower or love.
"Oprah and other prophets of the empowered self downplay the real structures of power and inequality in our society. They place the burden of success on the individual, in the process disguising societal shortcomings as personal failures and blinding us to collective visions of change that challenge alienation and inequality."
-Nicole Aschoff (The New Prophets of Capital)
Self-help can be argued to be a political pacifier. It shames us into keeping silent about systems of oppression and injustice. It turns us away from a broken social system and towards the consuming of nail polish, weed and nutritional supplements, in order for our nervous systems to feel momentarily ok.
The Relational Implications of the Self-Love Myth
Considering that the political IS personal, let's make the jump to the day to day mythology of self love and how this trickles down to affect us relationally.
If I don't love myself I can't reaaaaly love someone else.
Until I love myself I am not going to find someone else.
You teach people how to treat you so you must love yourself.
and my favourite,
"Just love yourself."
That heaps on the big time pressure, and big time shame.
So we are in relationships in which we must swear not to need the other person. Or we are alone trying to be ok.
There's an entire belief system that shames people that are "needy" and "desperate" and praises folks who play it cool and are casual. (This is an amazing blog to follow for folks of any gender. "Dating Tips for the Feminist Man") This bias presumes that it's a moral choice that people are making, or a personal weakness that leads to whether someone feels absolutely ripped apart by the thought of being stood up on a date or whether they can "play it cool."
And in reality, it's not a choice at all. It's written in our nervous system.
Where does self-love come from?
The Neuroscience of self-love
There's a question itching me in all of this.
Why have we as a culture developed this insatiable need to talk (write / podcast / blog / meditate) about "self-love?"
I'd propose we are talking about self-love because we don't feel it.
We have a habit of discussing disembodied concepts ad nauseam in this culture.
I see this in theatre classes. We talk most when we don't really "get it." When we get it, it's felt in your gut. It's landed. There's no need to talk.
I see this in counselling, the people that are hurting the most are the ones who are often talking the most, trying to figure it out.
Your friends who are struggling the most are quite possibly the ones talking endlessly to try to solve it.
And this isn't anyone's fault, it just is, our brain is the only thing we are trained to use in solving problems.
And in the end...
"I'm trying to love myself (aka get a manicure in today's culture) but I don't feel it."
The truth is YOU can't teach YOURSELF how to love YOURSELF.
And you know what, if you're more on the side of self-loathing, self-hatred, or self-frustration, it's not your fault.
And this brings us back to the nervous system.
"I wanna know what love is, and I want you to show me..." isn't so far off.
Chances are, if you're trying to love yourself it's because you don't actually have the capacity.
What I mean by that is this.
Those that love themselves, just love themselves. They were taught what it felt like to be loved and as a result they love themselves. Period.
We weren't put onto this planet knowing "self-love." Those that are asking the question are asking it because nobody taught them what love feels like.
I don't mean that you can't develop the capacity, but it can't come only from you.
And this is older than your partner, or the partner before that, or the one before that... (see this blog post on dirty plates)
In the ultimate incubator of self-love we are birthed onto this planet and we are surrounded by people who genuinely get us, have time for us, and hold us in a safe way. Of course they have things going on but are not so stressed out that they can't see our needs.
This felt sense of self-love might come from your parents, a grandma, a dog, or a spiritual teacher you've never met. It may come from an aunt you've almost forgotten about or your teacher in grade 3. We are taught how to love ourselves through the loving of others. Some of us had better teachers.
If we have good teachers then we grow up without need to talk about "self love" because we feel it, it's implicit (unspoken).
If we didn't get that we actually need others to show us what it feels like. And we need to become a bit conscious as we study it.
And, if we are consistently conscious, and the love is somewhat consistent, at some point we will begin to internalize these voices and this felt sense of love, and until then, we are people who desperately need people...no shame no blame.
And we have a whole culture of people who desperately need people.
I needed to reach out to others in my life consciously and relentlessly before I began to get a clue about how to "love myself." I needed to see them mirror love back to me constantly before I began to get it.
There is a really basic model that is flawed and lacking but can be helpful in giving us a starting point to talk about these relational blueprints; your internal implicit working definition of waht love is and what does it feel like.
[And yes, I'm using categories created as part of the self-help movement to discredit the self-help movement, proof of my inconsistency as a human. But these are movable, changeable and simply a way to start to make conscious what is often unexamined and unnamed.]
These blueprints are not who we are, essentially, but rather how our nervous systems have been programmed to respond in intimate relationships.
3 SUPER BASIC CATEGORIES created by Stan Tatkin... (you can find a more in depth review here) Not the be all and end all but a start...
anchor: I feel generally secure in relationships and am comfortable with a mix of closeness with others and exploring new things on my own. When I was little I was able to find warm closeness with others and allowed to discover and assert my own independence. I talk about self-love now and again but it's not all that hard to feel.
wave: I am unsure in relationships and have a hard time settling and feeling safe. I am constantly vigilant and attending to the closeness in a relationship, often feeling like I can't get my emotional needs met, and as a result I have a hard time exploring and figuring out what's important to me outside of relationships. When I was little closeness with others was inconsistent and therefore I had to work really hard at creating it and managing it. My definition of "self-love" may be that I have to work hard at it and it's not very reliable. I have to prove myself, to myself, in order to earn it.
island: I am scared of people getting too close and swallowing me. I like to do my own thing and I resent interruption. I want closeness but I'm also nervous about it. When I was little closeness from others was rarely there and it was hard to get my emotional needs met. Therefore, after awhile, I learned it wasn't possible and quit trying. I focused on being independent and not needing others, as I was taught this need was wrong. My definition of "self-love" may be that I don't really have time for it and it's selfish, people that need stuff like that are weak. I keep busy doing things.
These blueprints are not who you are, they are simply your programming in intimate relationships, and they can change over time.
And of course these ideas of family and initial blueprints are situated in the larger context of a culture that has specific models of love and either supports or stresses the immediate family.
So...how do I love myself?
We've been asking the wrong question.
In doing the work I do on play within organizations, people want to get their teams to play more. So I say, play is an indicator of safety, if there is safety, chances are there will be play.
In the same way self-love is an indicator of connection and belonging. If there are strong ties between people, self-love will be present (though there isn't a quick fix for this and depending on history this often builds slowly, especially later in life).
It's through relationships we learn about love, and consequently self-love. Through reaching out and being seen and in that experiencing acceptance and acknowledgement, we start to settle back into our own skin and be okay in our capacity to self-love. It comes naturally when we know love.
Self-love comes slowly but surely when we are connected to others and experience their love for us.
The more conscious we can be of tuning into this experience of being loved, the more we can facilitate it. It's hard to let it in and really see love when we're not used to being loved.
Who loves you?
Who has loved you?
What's an experience you had this week of being loved (respected, cared for, treated kindly)?
How do I love (or begin to understand) the part of me that is not able to love myself?
What would I say no to, or be angry about, if I was on my own team?
It's not going to be perfect. It's going to be messy and annoying and you're going to fight with yourself. But, it's going to get richer as you go along. And that's love.
(My bias is that the process is greatly aided by involving the nervous system and beginning to tune into the sensations there. Maybe check out www.tarabrach.com for some meditations that involve the body, or check out an individual session with myself or someone trained in a more somatic based counselling.)
Am I full of bullshit?
I don't know if I love myself. It's complicated and messy.
The more I choose caring people to surround me, the more I feel ok in this world.
I have increasingly more moments of sweetness with myself and more anger when others don't treat me well.
And I don't really think about "self-love" that much.
I don't use "self-love" as a measuring stick and I don't shame myself for not having it when it's not there. I even have a fair amount of understanding for the part of me that's not able to find "self-love" and ultimately maybe that's love.
And for me that's enough...
And for you, I hope you sniff out kindness, and gentleness, and even just places where you can put your bum in a seat beside others, or hands in the air in an acro-fit class.
I hope you can lean into the discomfort of kindness even if at first you find it creepy and boring.