The practice of self-love

How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

Every article, every self help guide, every book on relationships, tells us the same thing – learn to love yourself first! You must love yourself before you can really love anyone else. They’re right, theoretically, but what does that really mean? How do you actually love yourself?

How do you get to that place where you’re not just repeating silly affirmations, and pretending to love yourself, but genuinely feeling feelings of love for you, within your body?

It’s a process… Unsurprisingly, it involves self-discovery, self-awareness, and changing some internal habits.

It’s quite difficult to love yourself, authentically, when all of the dials and levers inside are set to self-hatred, criticism, shame, and unworthiness. So to correct the internal settings, the process begins with learning the internal landscape, finding all the self-hatred, and doing some work to shift into a more loving direction. The more adjustments we make, the more the real feelings of love can flow. 

First, we have to listen. 

There are many different practices that teach this kind of internal listening, but basically it means refocusing the attention to what’s happening inside at any given moment. We must learn how to listen to our thoughts and judgments, paying particular attention to the internal dialogue.

How do you talk to yourself?

Specifically, what do you say to yourself?

Are you mean and harsh with yourself?

Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?

One example of this is when I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I found out that every time I looked in a mirror, or walked by a reflective surface, I would almost automatically grimace internally. I braced for a negative reflection, and with lightening speed my eyes would immediately be drawn to everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself too? Many of us do…

If you do this with your appearance in the mirror, or in whatever other manifestation you do this to yourself, try to make the shift to kindness for yourself instead of shame and criticism. Actively change the internal dialogue to a more loving tone. Look for the good things in the mirror, and accept whatever you think is “wrong” in that moment.

You can take a judgment like “I’m ugly because I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good, desirable, and authentically beneficial about being overweight. Really. Question and change the perception of being overweight as a negative, and turn it into an asset. Assume pride about being overweight, rather than shame, and investigate the benefits of begin overweight. (I assure you there are plenty!)

Beginning to change the automatic negative beliefs and assumptions about the reality of what we consider our imperfections is extremely important. This can become a rather radical practice, upending a lot of our previous beliefs about ourselves and others. Turning negative judgments about reality into positives, helps us with acceptance and stops the unending cycle of shame. 

We have to learn how to treat ourselves more compassionately. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old? Find that innocent child still living within you. Treat yourself as if you were that little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love, with encouragement and tenderness.

Just doing this alone will shift so many things for you.

 

Second, study your enemy – the inner critic.

This part goes a little bit deeper, and opens the door into real inquiry and discovery.

In a relatively simple sense, there are two voices inside the mind – there is an inner judge (who dishes out criticism), and an inner victim (who is hearing and receiving the criticism). The inner judge says “you’re so stupid! You should be ashamed of yourself! Everyone is laughing at how stupid you are,” and the inner victim hears and accepts the judgement, believing that it’s true, and sending feelings of shame into the body. 

Most of us aren’t aware of the separation of these two internal perspectives, and we are deeply identified with a singular “me,” inside. As we begin to create the space of awareness and separation, and to see the distinct operations of the judge and the victim, we gain a lot more control about what goes on inside of us and how that makes us feel. In effect, we are working on dis-identification with the judge voice, and solidarity with (and a strengthening of) the victim voice, the authentic true self within.

To begin this practice – as you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling bad about yourself, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). Find the source of the bad feelings, typically it’s a negative opinion that your inner judge has generated. 

The negative opinions of the inner judge are not real, and they aren’t true. The inner judge is trying to criticize and shame us into perfection, so that we will be loved and accepted by others. The inner judge doesn’t understand how to source love from within. He is confused about where love comes from or how to experience it, so he pushes and berates us, thinking that that will turn us into perfect humans, incorrectly believing that that will make us feel love.

This entire mechanism operates on the lie that love can be sourced from outside, and that securing the love and approval of other people is the way to feel love and happiness. This is not true. 

When we begin to see and understand the silliness of what’s happening inside, we can take the judge’s power away, and really begin to pursue self-love.

Most self-help advice stops there – bringing the inner judge (sometimes called the “inner critic”) into awareness, and then trying to dominate or silence him from within. This doesn’t really work. The inner judge is much more powerful than that, and the feelings of shame he produces in the body can’t be merely dismissed with the mind.

The only way to really combat the critic is to understand deeply how it operates, discover the sources of its power, and begin to dismantle it at the source with discovery, awareness, and acceptance. 

Some of the more interesting parts of this work are that the thoughts of the inner judge are not arbitrary nor random! The judgments generated by the inner judge are the results of the standards of perfection we created long ago. It works almost like a perfect computer program inside. This is what’s known as our “programming” or “conditioning.” The standards of perfection, which live deep within, are the codes responsible for creating these critical thoughts.

They sound collectively something like this:

When I am __________ (stronger, faster, richer, in better shape, healthier, more successful, married, etc.), then I will have made it. Then I will deserve my own acceptance, my own love, my own approval. That’s when I’ll finally feel good about myself.

This is how we love and approve of ourselves only conditionally, only on account of having achieved something. There are tons and tons of beliefs and standards like this within, which not only feed the inner judge, but keep us from feeling our own love. 

Our inner judge is always comparing us to some standard of perfection, and letting us know that we’ve failed, and thus making us feel ashamed and unworthy of love.

Here we encounter the second lie in the mechanism – no matter how much we try, how much we achieve, how much effort we exert, somehow according to the inner judge we always seem to fall short. No matter how much we succeed, no matter how “perfect” we become, the goal posts always manage to move farther away.

Just when we think that we’ve finally achieved some standard of perfection, and we will finally feel love and happiness, (earning respect, approval, or admiration from others), the inner judge manages to undo it. We remain in the never-ending hamster-wheel of striving for something we cannot ever achieve. 

This whole psychological mechanism appears almost funny when we really see it. It’s foolishness. 

The thing we are desperately trying to achieve or attain is already here, already freely available within us! It’s been here the whole time. It has nothing to do with our external efforts. It has nothing to do with how we look, or what job we have, what others think of us, or what’s in the bank account. Our own love and acceptance, the thing we most want to feel, is always available unconditionally within. 

By bringing our standards of perfection into awareness, we become able to release them, to release ourselves from the prison of them, and actually feel better now! We can start giving ourselves love now, in the present, not at some future time.

So what are these codes, these standards of perfection? How do we find them? 

They aren’t always self evident. It takes a bit of investigative work within. This is the real purpose of meditation work – to get still enough and quiet enough externally to begin watching and investigating the internal process. I personally am not smart enough to keep all of these things straight in my mind at once, so for me, writing it all down is essential. My meditation work always involves getting still and quiet, and then doing all of my investigative work on paper. 

The practice goes like this: whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?

You begin by asking “what or who is it that I should have been in that moment? What/who am I comparing myself to?

The answers you come up with are your standards. Write them down!!
 
 
They sound something like this:
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who never skips a day at the gym – I must be super disciplined.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t spill the coffee – clumsiness isn’t sexy or cool. I must be suave and cool all the time.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t trip or fall in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has a perfectly clean house at all times.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has perfectly behaved children.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has a dog that never barks or displays aggression.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who is always stylish and well put together.”

This list can get quite extensive… Seeing it all down in writing, recognizing the internal hostility, recognizing how impossibly contradictory and untenable these standards are, begins a profound dismantling process. Most people are shocked the first time they complete this exercise. They can’t believe how awful and how ridiculous this list can be. 

The more we do this, the more we recognize how silly these standards are (and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is), the more room we can make within for love. Seeing these standards clearly and honestly, we can begin to let them go, and accept who we actually are – terribly imperfect, flawed, vulnerable (often deeply wounded) humans, who generally have very little control over life’s ups and downs. 

Bringing compassionate acceptance and tenderness to this subconscious process is how we bring light into the darkness.