Now that Valentine’s Day is lone gone and you can’t even find those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates in the store, I thought I’d write about love. But I’m not talking about romantic love here. I’m talking about self-love.
(No, not the narcissistic kind. If you want to know more about that, check out this great article here. And take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory test here. If you get a high score (above 30), get some help.)
I grew up in a classic Midwestern Protestant family, back in the good old days when we didn’t talk about self-love. We didn’t boast or brag, and our parents took great care not to exhibit pride about what they or their children accomplished. In church, I was expected to recite the prayer of confession with other congregants, even when I was so young I hadn’t understood what I’d done wrong. But one thing was clear: the assertion that we were not worthy of God’s love. Yes, the prayer of confession used those words, and that was a message that came through loud and clear to me.
I know I wasn’t alone in this upbringing. My Catholic friends reinforced whatever self-doubt I’d developed by reminding me we were all sinners. On a grander scale, many theologians have written how self-love isn’t tolerated by Christianity. Anders Nygren argued in Eros and Agape, for example, that “Christianity does not recognize self-love as a legitimate form of love. Christian love moves in two directions, towards God and towards its neighbor, and in self-love it finds its chief adversary, which must be fought and conquered.” Karl Barth, who Pope Pius XII considered the most important Christian theologian since Thomas Aquinas, said self-love could never be acceptable to God but rather is “an affection which is the very opposite of love” and that God would demand that such an impulse should be “reversed.” (Both quotes from http://www.christianrecovery.com/abuse/dox/self_esteem_article.pdf.)
Suffice it to say I’m no expert, therefore, on self-love. And I know I’m not alone; just Google self-esteem and you’ll be reminded how many people suffer from lack of self-esteem or even self-acceptance. Religious upbringing is only one factor in how our brains learn to think about ourselves. There’s also social media, parental expectations, competition in academia, and impossibly high standards of beauty and success taunting us from the entertainment industry. In fact, sometimes I wonder how anyone who isn’t naturally narcissistic could love himself or herself in today’s society.
Unfortunately, lack of self-acceptance, or esteem, or love, isn’t just something you can switch on and off. Scientific evidence has shown there’s a biological basis for how we feel. Serotonin, for example, fluctates when our self-esteem is impacted. Also, neuro-pathways are influenced by thought patterns, and when we repeatedly think negatively about ourselves, those particular anti-self neuro-pathways are strengthened.
But low levels of serotonin and our thought patterns need not be permanent. Just as we can exercise our muscles, we can exercise our feelings and thoughts about ourselves. And, unless we have an unbudgeable belief that self-love is sinful or harmful, we can learn to love ourselves. Here are three paths to increased self-love.
20th century Zen master Thich Nyat Hanh said that understanding is “love’s other name.” What that means to me is that learning to love yourself must necessarily start with seriously understanding yourself. Sounds easy but, if you look deep enough, you may start to find behaviors and thoughts and feelings that you can’t quite explain. For example, I had a bit of a passive-aggressive hissy fit recently, and while I understood the basics about the underlying conflict, and what the trigger was, there still remained a mysterious cloud around it. I had a hard time getting a clear grip on my thoughts or being able to match words with feelings.
Give thanks for loving yourself
I know this sounds impossible, or just plain weird. But poet/philosopher Kahlil Gibran, wrote that, if you love, your desire should be to wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving. I admit he wrote this in reference to loving another person, but why should love of another be any different than loving oneself? Although I’m grateful in my heart for being able to love others, I have never thought about giving thanks for being able to love myself. But it makes perfect sense. Why not?
The actress, author, and award-collector Anna Deavere Smith said “real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.” Spiritual educator and activist Parker Palmer wrote that when we can’t match our personal values with the world, we not only “hide our true identities from each other [but] we become separated from our own.”
In other words, you’ve got to not only stand up for what you believe in but you need to behave in keeping with your true, authentic self. You can’t love yourself if you’re hiding who you really are.
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In his poem Love After Love, Derek Walcott writes that there will come a time when we will each look in the mirror and once again welcome–and love–our selves. We will once again accept our selves back into our hearts and lives. I hope he’s right. I want to be part of that celebration.