Love Yourself?

Last summer, while visiting my brother in Chicago, I insisted he stop the car so I could take a photo of a yoga studio. Not because it looked particularly different from any of the other store-fronts or even yoga studios we had already passed. I wanted to take a photo of its name: Self-Centered Yoga. I wondered what the focus of this particular yoga studio was: Centering the self? Centered on the self? Selfishly self-referenced? It struck me as funny, and I wondered if the owners were knowingly playing on the irony of the name – that to many people who don’t practice yoga, those who do are entirely too self-centered.

I share this story to illustrate my own ambivalence about the topic of loving oneself. Maybe being self-centered has gotten a bad rap? How and how much are we meant to love ourselves?

Even the bible presupposes self-love: the second of the greatest commandments (Mark 12:31) tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself”. We get ample instruction in loving our neighbors throughout our childhoods – share, be nice, “stupid” is a bad word…but very little information is forthcoming about exactly how we are to love ourselves.

A couple of months ago, a friend shared with me that she was responsible for chauffering a speaker for the day, and that he had been very inspiring. She sent a link to his Ted Talk, and I watched it. In telling his own inspiring story as a survivor of trauma, he shared that one of the most powerful things he’d done to bring about change in his own life was to love himself; to believe he is both loved and worthy of love. Looking himself in the eyes in a mirror, he tells himself he is loved.  (Here is the link to Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s powerful Ted talk: https://youtu.be/K_WL5iqvPlY)

A few weeks ago, someone I admire told a story about how using an affirmation of self-love has improved her energy, her relationship with her husband, and her ability to focus on her life goals. I admit, while I kept my skepticism to myself, I was doubtful. This story wasn’t about a healing response to trauma – it was about a young woman trying to live her best life. Hmmm.

I am currently reading a book which suggests ways we can make changes in our lives to live more in line with who and what we want to be. Every chapter ends with a list of “practical” steps or tools to take to accomplish this. Every list ends with “Love Yourself”. It took me several chapters to pick up on this, but then I went back and checked. Yep, every chapter ends with the exhortation. Love yourself.

And then last week I saw the video I shared at the top of this post. I was very moved, seeing this girl’s emotion upon realizing that the doll looks like her. She hugs it to her tightly and says, “I love you.” This simple phrase speaks volumes: you look like me and I love you; I need to believe AND express that I am loveable.

When the same message is repeated over and over again, and directed toward me (as opposed to being a repetitive cultural refrain or social media meme), I think it is important to pay attention. So, what am I supposed to be taking away from this particular thread in my life, popping up repeatedly and insistently over the last eight weeks?

Success coach and author, Jen Sincero (I’d like to take her name as my alter-ego!), says:

“We’re born knowing how to trust our instincts, how to breathe deeply, how to eat only when we’re hungry, how to not care about what anyone thinks of our singing voices, dance moves, or hair-dos, we know how to play, create, and love without holding back. Then, as we grow and learn from the people around us, we replace many of these primal understandings with negative false beliefs, fear, shame and self-doubt…And while there are countless ways that we rip ourselves off, there’s one way in particular that is, without a doubt, the most rampant and the most devastating of all: we invest everything we’ve got in believing that we’re not good enough. We arrive here as perfect little bundles of joy and then set about the task of learning to un-love ourselves!”   (from You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life)

Fear. Shame. Self-doubt. If I am honest with myself, I’ve invested significantly more of my personal capital in these three than in self love. It is undoubtedly true that this has been to my own detriment, as it keeps me from taking risks, from moving forward with confidence, etc. More important, what I am beginning to understand is that it has also been detrimental to the world I live in and am helping to co-create. Fear, shame and self-doubt cause me to respond to the world by closing in on myself, shielding myself from the prying eyes of criticism or ridicule for being the loser-failure I think I might be. And that closing in (those months of binge-watching “Castle” reruns, the 750+ games of “Monkey Wrench” word search, the daily hours of retweets about politics) keeps me focused on anything BUT impacting the world by sharing my unique gifts and best self. And if I am truthful, harshly judging myself leads me to be much more judgmental about other folks. I want to start labeling them: idiot, moron, baby, coward.

Frankly, I am not afraid of becoming a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, trumpeting statements like “I have a great mind, one of the best minds”. I don’t have that in me. But “imagine,” says Jen Sincero, “how different your reality would be (and the reality of everyone surrounding you) if you woke up every morning certain of your own lovability and your critically important role on this planet.” That might be a reality very worth investing in.

 

More Than A Flimsy Web

I know what they're going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!
I know what they’re going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!

Many people are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality typology. (If you are not, here’s an easy introduction to the concept.) My personality type, which has remained fairly consistent over 20+ years of periodic assessments is INFP – which stands for introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. INFPs often feel a bit odd, resulting in part from the fact that only roughly 1-4% of the adult population assesses as this type. My type has been described as “passionately concerned with personal growth and development”; we may present a “calm and serene face to the world, and can seem shy, even distant around others. But inside they’re anything but serene…”. And this: “The INFP needs to work on balancing their high ideals with the requirements of every day living. Without resolving this conflict, they will never be happy with themselves, and they may become confused and paralyzed about what to do with their lives.” (read one full description of the INFP here.)

Do I really need to ask those of you who know me whether any of this is ringing a bell? I have heard many variations on the comment “Is there ever a time when you aren’t thinking?”, most recently when my friend Molly said, “I just don’t think deeply about these things like you do. I’m more practical, and go right to how to fix it.” (I’m paraphrasing Molly, apologies if I didn’t get the tone right – she was complimenting me!)

INFPs are idealists, and among the four types of idealists, they are categorized as “healers”. The problem with being in relentless pursuit of personal growth and development is that the INFP’s gaze – I mean MY gaze – is so often turned inward that we forget it is our mission to help others heal. I forget that I am my best self when I am turning an empathetic and loving gaze outward, rather than the more frequent self-critical (and inward-directed) navel-gaze.

This discussion of my “type” is all prologue to the heart of what I want to share today.

Two weeks ago I made what was intended to be a low-key trip back to Iowa to visit friends. I didn’t call everyone I know and make a bunch of advance plans for get-togethers. Instead, once in town I contacted people one at a time, setting up coffee or breakfast dates. These past months of major transition in my life have included so many great group activities, contrasted with long periods of aloneness, that I was craving deep conversation and one-on-one reconnections with dear friends.

As often as I have, in recent years, received exactly the thing I most needed, one would think I’d have learned to trust this life process. But I haven’t. It invariably surprises me each time. Throughout the weekend, my friends offered me the gift I most needed – the gift of their own questions, pain, struggles. The gift of saying (figuratively, not literally), “But enough about you, I’m ready to talk about me.” When friends trust us to take in their difficult emotions and return a commensurate depth of regard, to take their trust and return love in its place, it is an immeasurable grace. Denise Levertov expresses this so beautifully in her poem, “Gift”:

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

–Denise Levertov

If there is a gift and a lesson in the beauty of my friends choosing to trust me with their questions, part of the lesson is this: that my deep questions and broken places are also a gift to share. Not my angst-y whining about “what am I going to do?”, but the truth that lies beneath that – the hurts and cracks that I rarely choose to share (it’s so much more convenient to pretend that the surface concerns are the real issues, isn’t it?).

Saturday, I did my best to offer that gift to another friend. I found it so incredibly hard – I put my sunglasses on in a dark coffee shop so I didn’t have to make eye-contact, for crying out loud.   I did a horrible job of expressing what I was feeling, but my friend did a good job of listening. And he directly stated the action I need to practice: “You have to open up and make yourself vulnerable if you expect me to know what you’re feeling.” True words for all of us at those times when we feel lost or misunderstood.

I want to thank the people in my life who offer me the gift of their neediness, their hurts and their questions. I understand how difficult it is to see that as a gift you give rather than as a burden you drop on an “unsuspecting friend.” But I know it is a gift because of how much it means to receive it. This alone should be enough to remind us to pass the same gift on to others, though it often isn’t. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is not just a way of opening to our own growth and insight. It is also a way of helping those we love stretch their capacity for empathy and compassion, to take on the role of healer and give up (for a time) the incessant self-absorption endemic to our days.

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Handle with compassion