III. Trying to Self-Love and Exhausting Ourselves With the Ephemeral Notion of "Unconditional L
Here we have this received truth that “you have to love yourself first before someone else can”. Sure, this is lovely thought in a meme, or on paper. Except that it doesn’t really work like this.
For one thing, it’s really fucking hard to love yourself if all you received in your life were messages - verbal and physical - that you didn’t matter, weren’t enough, were always wrong, had to work for your love and could never, ever get it right, no matter what.
This comes from the same kind of thinking that tells us self care is about spa days and spending a lot of money on yourself. I think of this beautiful post that I read on Facebook about self-care being an unlovely thing that often means taking care of the very stuff that we don’t want to do but will help us do life in a better though possibly boring way, and ultimately help us feel more together and more whole.
Self-love can be a hard slog. I like to start people off with self-liking, actually, something that I usually just call self-affinity: like when you meet someone new and you know you are initially drawn to them (affinity) and you spend some time getting to know who they are and what they like. You take them for coffee and notice that they like cream, but no sugar. So when you have them to your house a week later for coffee, you thoughtfully put in cream, no sugar, and still confirm with them that this is ok. This kind of paying attention to the mundane details of someone’s preferences is part of the act of liking. So when we bring this same attention to ourselves, this is the beginning of self-liking.
Another thing about this is that we love in the ways that we were taught to love. People like to bandy about the term “unconditional love,” but I think that an incredibly large portion of the love that we have on Earth is conditional - as in, we are humans and we learned how to love from other humans, and it’s really hard for us to express love without it going through our learned filters.
We can’t all be Amma, we are not Jesus, we don’t have hours per day to devote to the study of non-attachment to suffering, but we do all have feelings and we often have a hard time expressing them. The relationships that we have where “unconditional love” is expected usually do not express that constancy of love: even if it’s there under the surface somewhere, the felt experience is conditional. Maybe what we need is a different notion of unconditional love. Maybe it needs to have more to do with showing up again and again, acknowledging when we have messed up the connection with our close person, and showing up again.
If you want to learn to be more unconditionally loving then it can be very helpful to learn more about the conditions in which you learned about love and consider how you might want it to be otherwise.
Perhaps if self-love and unconditional-love didn’t have such a sanctimonious all-or-nothing feel to them, then I could get behind them as useful concepts. But, as it is, they often exist miles away from the Western-world human reality in which most of us live.
Maybe self-love could mean showing up for yourself again and again, even when it’s uncomfortable and not very fun: like not smoking that joint at 10 AM because already the day feels like too much and you just want to check out; or stopping the automatic reaction inside that has you reject what someone is saying to you because it makes you feel too exposed and vulnerable. Maybe in self-love you get to make mistakes and fix them and give yourself a chance to change the language that you use with yourself. Maybe you get to be angry and then cool down and humbly apologise to yourself and be loved anyway. Maybe we get to do this without the shame that we carry that makes us feel inherently wrong. Maybe self-love is a verb, as in, something we do, not an unchanging state we finally reach. Maybe self-love is the process by which we heal. Maybe it’s got more to do with tenacity than sitting on a mountaintop in some zen state.
I recently read about the “survivability” of the parent as the basis for building trust in a parent-child relationship. If I’ve got the nuance right, then building trust has everything to do with the parent showing up again and again and being open, even if sometimes they are closed. If your child is hurt and runs to you and you open your arms, this builds trust. If you go away to a meeting, and come back when you said you would, this builds trust. It you mess up by being too sharp or reacting too quickly out of anger, or fear, and you own it afterwards, this builds trust.
For the past nine years my mom and I have had a tumultuous relationship. We live in the same house but we don’t share the same kitchen (thank goodness). I’ve had the experience of being in my own childhood context while I’m trying to raise my own kids in a house with my partner and my parents. This has had good moments and bad moments. My mom and I have had many, many clashes. I have told her to “fuck off” dozens of times in these nine years. The astonishing thing is that she’s still here for me. She still loves me and I know it. After one particularly fast exchange of “Hey, Rachel…” “Fuck off, Mom…” I told her how incredible it is that she’s still here, even after all of those “fuck offs” and I wondered aloud what happens to people who don’t have that with their parent. She immediately told me the story of a young man who was in trouble with the police and when they took him back to his parents, his parents wouldn’t take him and pushed him out of their house. My mom said that he had killed someone within an hour of that rejection. Which was intense to hear, but had the effect of letting me know that my mom understood exactly what I meant.
My own dance with this self-love thing has been long and intense in spots, mundane in others. After the first big realization that I didn’t actually love myself in actions - as in, I did not treat myself in a way that you would hope to be treated in a healthy love relationship - mostly what the process consisted of was becoming aware of the ways that this abusive self-love played out and (possibly) where it came from. It wasn’t comfortable. It’s not perfect now, by any stretch.
But I do know that the sanctimonious “you have to love yourself first thing” isn’t a concept that I can get behind especially if people are further shamed for not being able to do it.