When we struggle with frustrations, overwhelm, anger, anxiety, our family members or keeping our socks together in pairs, there is this one advice we hear often:
That is good advice. When we fully love ourselves, life becomes infinitely better. When we love ourselves every moment, we can handle economic crises, lunatic presidents and in-house tantrums with ease and elegance.
Question is: how the heck do you do this?
It is like saying: oh, just become enlightened and things will be fine.
I have to guess that this is true, because I have not been enlightened so far. But I am sure Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie and the Buddha rarely get upset about dog poo on the beach or their in-laws’ approval.
So, how do you do love yourself? Never mind all the funny exercises like telling your image in the mirror how wonderful it is, writing little love notes or getting into a bubble bath, the core of the confusion remains: what does it actually mean to love yourself?
Love Or Preference?
In fact, what does it mean to love anyone? We do not usually chew on that question. But that does not mean that there is not a lot of misconception. What does it mean to love and be loved by someone else? Is orange flavored chocolate the key? Like all intangible concepts, love is overloaded with memes, ideas, stories, myths, and expectations that cause more problems than they actually resolve. And more importantly, that take us further and further away from the truth of it.
In many instances, love is used as a term that simply describes our preference. A way of judging something as making us feel good versus making us not feel good. We love mushrooms and Johnny Depp, but we hate spinach and dogs. Or we love dogs and keep five of them in our small apartment. We love sunshine and hate rain. Unless we try to grow a vegetable garden, which is when we begin to love the rain and hate snails.
Then, of course, there is what we call romantic love. Which mostly means our expectations for the object of our desire are increasing exponentially. We do not expect mushrooms to save our souls. But think of all the love songs that howl about losing oneself in the other, drowning to be saved and other expressions of helplessness and dependency.
“I can’t live if living is without you” is certainly true when we apply it to ourselves, but the idea nevertheless does not really help us grasp the meaning of love.
We attach our fears, needs and desires to people or objects and confuse the satisfaction that comes with their fulfillment as love. Alternatively, if they fail to fulfill those needs, our love quickly turns into hate and despair.
We love our friends as long as they tell us what we want to hear, we love our job until the day we get a new team leader, we love our car as long as it is new. We would love our lives if only we had more money, a better husband, more successful kids, nicer neighbors, a cooler job, and the cats would not shed all that fur on the sofa.
The One And Only
What about the one love, then, that we hold to be the purest: Mother’s unconditional love for her children. Millions of parents and children in therapy cast a certain doubt over that idea. If you have done your work, you will have noticed that the love for our children is usually tied to a set of conditions so comprehensive it makes the Encyclopedia Britannica look like a leaflet. And again, we can find a clue there.
What if, when we were children, we had received the message that while there are boundaries to be respected, other people to be considered, lessons to be learned and there is pain in the world to be experienced, no matter what emotional response we show, in every way we are and show our true selves, we are accepted? What if, in the moments of our biggest tantrums, our deepest sadness, our silliest behavior, our parents had embraced us with the same grace, love and compassion they showed us when we were ‘good’?
As long as our perception of love and ourselves is still blurred and veiled by all the expectations of what it should do for us and all the judgment of what is good, i.e., lovable and what is bad, i.e., unworthy of love, we will find it hard to love ourselves. In fact, most of what we call love is merely our way of saying: this makes me feel good.
There Is No Unconditional Love
‘Unconditional love’ in itself is a pleonasm. There is no such thing as conditional love. You either love, i.e., accept what is without any reservations, judgments, expectations and conditions or you do not. There is nothing in between. Love does not judge. Love does not choose. Love does not differentiate between pleasure and pain. Love is pure acceptance. Love is receiving without discrimination. Full surrender. Love is unconditional. All else is not love.
For the time being, then, let us substitute the word love with acceptance. When we accept every moment and every person the way they are, we begin to see perfection and feel the love. When we see beauty through, beneath, and beyond the good, the bad, and the ugly, we begin to love. And that is where we start with ourselves.
When you accept the mistake you made, you show self-love. When you accept that right now you are not as strong, as smart, as successful as you want to be and that is okay, you grow your self-love. When you accept that pimple on your face, not so that it can finally go away, but even if it stays forever, you begin to really understand what love is.