The Foundation of Self Love

by David A. Yeats LCSW

Self Love is an idea that can bring up confusion and conflict for a lot of us.  A key perception in our culture that has been fostered by religion, nationalism, corporate environments, as well as the history of self sacrifice of our founding story as a nation, is that self love equates with selfishness.  And selfishness equates with self-centeredness, ego, and a lack of team spirit.  So a focus on loving ourselves can be confused with self aggrandizement and exaggerated self importance, and a lack of concern for others.

The most difficult hurdle for most of us regarding our love for ourselves and our care for ourselves is that we have been taught in general to not see ourselves as that good, or that important. Further, if we do see ourselves as good and worthwhile we may sometimes be considered by others to be selfish, self-centered, or egotists.  We are trained to be self-sacrificing and compliant with the goals that our families, our schools, our communities, our armed services, our churches, and our country, etc. have told us are true and good. For many, this internal conflict between self care and self sacrifice perpetuates self-doubt, low self-esteem, and dependency on others’ judgments, and can result in being so fearful of any independent thought or behavior that we may become frozen in our growth as humans.

So the first step in self love and self care is overcoming that training or brainwashing.  These perceptions and the goals that go with them shape all of us as we come into the world and learn about the world around us. It is only as we mature, and begin to see that some of what we have been taught does not match what we have learned and experienced as we grow that we may start to question these dogmas of childhood. 

When we have a strong conflict with what others expect of us, we begin, possibly for the first time, to consider that maybe there is another approach besides compliance, sacrifice and deference to authority.  When we move into our teens, for example, we may feel that what our parents have expected is in conflict with what our friends expect, and the seeds of more autonomous thinking may take root. Of course, if we become too preoccupied about pleasing our peers, we reestablish the same dependent thinking pattern.

Once we see that forming our own opinions and judgments, as well as acting in ways that reflect our own internal sense of self and our own values, is a good thing, or a necessary thing, we may start to see that we might be good and important, even if we think a bit differently than those who have taught us and brought us up.  We may start to see, too, that self love and self care are about a lot more than insuring food or shelter, or pleasing and accommodating what others want. Physical aspects of life, including food, shelter, hygiene, community, economic stability, exercise, etc. are important ways we pay attention to our self care, of course, and caring for ourselves in these ways are valued and encouraged by our culture, in fact, material well-being is one of the hallmark values in our world today. 

But that is not the end of it, only the beginning.

As we start to explore thinking and acting more autonomously, we may become more reflective, and we see that physical well-being is important, but that there are other aspects of ourselves that require our attention too.  Our mental and intellectual (cognitive) functioning are critical to our being able to take care of ourselves in the world, to be competent, and meet our needs. Our culture does value cognitive success and achievement, but largely because this fosters greater status and material advancement. For example, our culture places a high value on education, and our intellectual growth can be well nurtured and encouraged through the education system.  

On the other hand, our emotional or affective development and our intuitive awarenesses are devalued and minimized in our culture to a great degree, unless they serve to advance our material or social status.  Yet these aspects of who we are—our emotions and our intuitions—which we see ever more clearly as we move toward listening to and trusting our internal messages, (rather than assuming the conclusions of the culture), significantly enhance our possibilities for joy, well-being, and quality of life.

The central motive of most human behavior is our feelings.  The emotion we feel now in most cases will determine the choice we make.  If we move in deliberate and disciplined ways toward creating within us more positive emotions, our life choices will be wiser, well considered, and in line with what we experience as a sense of well-being.  We can create an internal momentum toward greater self confidence, self awareness, self direction, and self empowerment.

The opposite is equally true: if we feel negative emotions, and we spend our time focusing on feelings of anger, hurt, disappointment, fear, suspicion, derisive judging self or others, anxiety, worry, revenge, aggression, passivity and so on, we will create a life experience that reflect that focus.  We will feel victimized, powerless, fearful, hopeless, and self doubting.

Our feelings result not from the moment to moment shifts in our experiences or life conditions, but from our moment to moment interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions about what our experience and life conditions mean to us. And what things mean to us, as we will see, changes depending on the stage of development we find ourselves in.  

At one stage, I might interpret an aggressive driver as a personal threat that I need to respond to in kind; at another stage of development, I might interpret the same aggressive driver as a person who is trying to get to the hospital, or as a 20-something year old who hasn’t yet learned to be considerate of others or to control his impulses.  I may take the first of those as a personal affront to me, yet see other motives for the aggressive driving (an emergency or immaturity) as less personal.

So self love and self care hinge not just on our intellectual abilities, or on our physical security, but also on our stage of development and our understanding of and relationship with our feelings, that is on our capacity to make different interpretations, assumptions and conclusions. Taking another perspective will generate a different set of feelings, resulting in different motives and different actions.

As we develop this first step, an ability to take different perspectives, we can see that the misguided messages of our childhood training can be understood as one of a great many possible perspectives, and we can choose a perspective that better matches our life experience.

The second step of self love and self care is to consciously focus on moving toward emotions that feel better, and not get seduced by the drama and the trauma of swimming around in the murk of negative feeling.  The way to do this is to consider other perspectives that might be possible—such as 
-the perspective that each of us is doing the best we can, despite how it can look; 
-or the perspective that, for example, the aggressive driver turns out to be a friend or 
      family member which creates a more compassionate feeling for me; 
-or the perspective that I am going to look at each moment in my life in as joyful or 
      positive a way as I can, always reaching for a better thought.

We can’t shift to positive emotions predominating through most of each day right away, but we CAN shift over time, with consciousness, focus, and deliberate effort. It is a choice, and a practice.  

One other aspect of who we are that is virtually invisible in our culture is the part of ourselves we can call intuition.  Intuition is that part of our self that notices our existence, our being.  Intuition is not actually a part of our self, but rather the whole of our being.  Notice for a moment your sense of being.  Just being.  (Or as Ram Dass says, “be here now”).  This is the part of each of us that holds the wisdom of who we are, the part that feels our being, the part that, when we tune in to it, guides us through our life.  This is the part of us that is our spirit, or is connected to Spirit (which the culture refers to as “God”).

Not that we need to think of our intuitive self as an aspect of Spirit (or spirituality), if that doesn’t fit our internal experience.  Language has its shortcomings.  We can notice only that we have a being, we are a being, that we are—and recognize that noticing from this perspective offers an immense resource of guidance for our lives, because we more and more are able to include in our experience and our life conditions what we can access from our inner being.

Thus, the third step of self love and self care has to do with taking time regularly, even for brief periods, to quiet our minds enough to notice our being, or our presence here.  Meditation is a means for some, nature for others, walking, breathing, and other ways as well.  The point is to access, in a calm and matter-of-fact way, without drama, our intuitive wisdom, that is always there. 

As we challenge the brainwashing of our childhoods, focus on positive emotions, and take time to feel our being in this moment, we create a wise and grounded foundation for increasing a sense of self love and self care.