In my more troubled youth, I was often told that to truly love anyone, I needed first to love myself. This advice, though well-intentioned, set up an unhelpful dynamic. Loving myself seemed as much like actual love as masturbation was to sexual intercourse – a solitary substitute for the real thing. Why would I want that?
In my mid 20s, while riding the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I had an insight: To love ourselves, we need first to experience being loved – not loved with strings attached, not intermittently loved, and not loved blindly, either, but loved for who we actually are, like Dr. Seuss loves: “You are you. Now, isn’t that pleasant?” Or Mr. Rogers: “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” Without this loved-at-the-core experience, loving ourselves is difficult to manage.
About 10 years ago, I received a variation of the “love yourself” advice, but this time I was better equipped for it. I had just completed five days at a Buddhist retreat. While there, I had been liberally sprinkled with what the retreat leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, called “dharma rain,” and some of it had soaked in. As we were leaving, a newfound friend said to me, “David, next time you think you need something from someone, try giving it to yourself first.” My initial response was still to see “giving it to myself” as emotional masturbation, but I knew her to be a wise woman; what she was telling me, I realized, had to mean something else.
My receptivity to her advice was enhanced by finding a different kind of love in the temporary community Thich Nhat Hanh and his monks and nuns had helped us create. There, I’d felt warmth and affection from nearly everyone I had met, shared meals and meditations, spoken heart-to-heart with one of the monks on a hillside overlooking the dining hall. Feeling loved had become broader and more available than it had ever seemed before.
I understood, finally, that receiving unconditional love from one person was not the only way to water the seeds of self love. I felt, viscerally, that I was not alone; on the contrary, I was fully embedded in the universe. The sun, the clouds, the trees, many human beings, as well as most of the creatures of the earth, in some way expressed their love, and I was among their recipients.
As the weeks passed, I tried to heed my newfound friend’s advice. Although at first nothing much happened, after a while I noticed a tiny droplet of warmth each time I tried to give myself something I thought I needed from someone else. Then one day, in the midst of grieving the suicide of a close friend, the love from the “lover” part of me toward the part that was hurting changed from a trickle to a flood. I was overcome by a love unlike any I’d previously experienced, an instant transfusion of compassion and caring pouring from a deep, wise-seeming part of me into a part that had always felt bereft.
Later that year, my lover and beloved parts united. Driving home after a 14-hour day of internship work and counseling psychology classes, I reflected on a particularly moving session I’d had that afternoon with a young artist whose mother had just died. And it struck me that I, who was so long separated from self love, was becoming someone who could love unconditionally and help my clients learn to love themselves.
In the years since then, it has become increasingly easier to love myself. A key to self love has been consciously encouraging awareness and openness toward both the parts that can offer love and the parts that need loving. I can feel loneliness and then truly comfort the lonely boy who still lives inside me, as if I am developing, within me, an ever-present father figure who can help “Davey” feel understood, cared for, and accompanied. As I learn to love myself more fully, I also become further empowered to love, care for, and accompany others.
Although the first rush of self love can be dramatic in its intensity, the preparation is often gradual. At first, it may appear that nothing is happening. But just as water can hover at its boiling point for a long time while energy is still being applied, eventually a quantum change occurs. As the water is transformed into steam, the unloved places inside us can transform into something whole and beloved.
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