Learning the Art and Craft of Loving Ourselves
During my twenties and thirties, if you had asked me if I loved myself, I would not have really understood the question. Deep inside, I had little idea that I only felt loved and respected for my accomplishments and how well I could fulfill the needs and expectations of other people. In my early years of self-reflection, I was shocked to discover how much of myself I had hidden to please others and to create a safe place for myself in the world. The paradox was that even if I had thought I loved myself at that time, I would have been naïve, because what I believed I loved would have been a fantasy of who I thought I was. This fact is true simply because I didn’t know those hidden parts of myself that contained some of my best potentials, as well as things I didn’t like about myself – repressed fears, desires, and complexes that drove my behavior.
When I first began to look into my heart, my mind, and my history and tried to figure out why I had a “good life” and yet was depressed, some of the people closest to me accused me of becoming self-absorbed, selfish, and neglectful of my obligations and responsibilities. But I needed to discover the roots of the obligations and responsibilities that I was living by, that were defining who I was, and seemed to be slowly swallowing my life. And then I had to free how I thought of myself apart from other people’s expectations, needs, and desires. This struggle became one of life or death – a struggle I needed to go through before I could understand the meaning of “loving myself.”
At this point in my journey, I had to be very careful. It is easy to get the wrong idea – which is that loving myself and having an empowered ego would lead me to handle life efficiently and would allow me to move through it with competence and confidence. Actually, the reverse was closer to the truth. Instead of losing my awkwardness, I needed to learn to accept it with grace. Instead of becoming invulnerable, I needed to learn to accept my vulnerability with self-compassion. I needed to learn that I must risk again and again for growth, and for love. And I needed to come to understand that my vulnerability would open the door to my authenticity and a greater experience of Life.
Empowering my ego does not mean constructing a platform for achieving the “good life,” triumphant accomplishments, or “enlightened” living. It is the foundation for living a more profound life where love and meaning, joy and sorrow, are always two sides of the same coin. It took a depression for me to come to this understanding, and all too often it takes something similar or a tragedy to break the domination and suffocation that exists in our lives and relationships to open us to the need to love ourselves. In the chapter on “Learning to Love Ourselves” in my book Sacred Selfishness, I explain that learning to love ourselves is a process that can only grow as we learn more about ourselves. And loving ourselves is a challenge of the heart to rediscover the feelings and the vitality we were forced to repress in order to form our identities and begin our social development. In my second blog in this series, “Emotions: The Royal Messengers of the Unconscious,” I explained that our capacity to love in any form depends upon our emotional awareness. Our feelings do more, however, than connect us to life. They hold the key to living a life of depth – full of imagination, animation, and an awareness of being close to all life and to loving ourselves.
In my Sacred Selfishness Workbook which is free on my website, I offer a path for opening the door to self-love one step at a time.
Remember, Love is difficult, the poet Rilke explains, in contrast to the sentimental way we like to think about it. Review your thoughts about love. Do you think it should just bring happiness, ease, or at least, security? Do explosions, struggles, and failure make you think love has failed? Life isn’t easy and love can’t be easy either.
Cultivating self-love is an odyssey with moments of difficulty and joy. It’s an excursion into knowing ourselves, of asking whether what we are doing is adding to or diminishing how we feel about ourselves.
Self-love challenges the boundaries of how we have fenced ourselves into practicality, conventional wisdom, and other people’s perspectives. We must gently ask ourselves whose voice are we really hearing in our head? Is it the voice of our heart or of our true self? Is it the voice of our heart? Is it the voice of our Self?
Self-love isn’t self-indulgent, it isn’t shopping sprees, outlandish vacations, sneaking sweets, or pouting moods. It is the commitment to growing in self-knowledge and in our capacity to love. Remembering to take the time for reflection isn’t egocentric, it is the key to having the kind of vitality that overflows.
Self-love is the foundation that determines how strongly we can give and receive love. Without it, our relationships will crumble under the slightest storm. Take the responsibility for understanding your fears and needs, and facing them in a loving way.
Self-love rests on self-forgiveness, being able to understand who we were when we failed ourselves, and what needs, hurts, fears, and deprivations were driving us. Only then may we meet ourselves with compassion and kindness. This is why our growth in self-understanding brings healing and reconciliation with our essential selves.
Self-love is learning how to be tough with ourselves and take the driver’s seat in our life when we need to break a destructive mood or habit. We must remember that being tough with ourselves means being committed, energetic, having high standards, and tenacity. Being tough with ourselves is the opposite of being hard on ourselves, which means being perfectionistic, self-critical, self-punishing, and unaccepting of our mistakes and weaknesses.
It takes an empowered ego to face the journey, the commitment, the struggles, and sacrifices we will encounter in the subsequent steps in our individuation process. It also takes an empowered ego to realize the joy and gratitude in this process, and to stay grounded and centered without becoming inflated or caught in illusions of power that can cause us to fly too close to the sun, and then crash.
As new steps unfold for helping to empower our ego, one of the first things we encounter is confronting our shadow. (As mentioned in my first blog, to find out more about the term shadow, refer to my book, Knowing the Questions, Living the Answers: A Jungian Guide through the Paradoxes of Peace, Conflict, and Love that Mark a Lifetime.) However, we often avoid confronting our shadow by hiding behind our conventional definitions of ourselves, our responsibilities, our obligations, and the busyness that they impose. This is actually a defense against facing ourselves. Initially, this kind of avoidance was my first line of defense against facing my Self and developing an ongoing, deep inner conversation with myself. So then, I had to gather the fortitude to stand up and find the true strength hidden in my shadow and stop being swallowed by my own life.
As my journey continued, I had to learn how to meet the poor, the beggars, the prisoners, and the wounded within myself, again and again, in order to enter the places I had previously desired to be immune to. These were the parts of my shadow and my anima (or your animus if you are a woman) that are the gateways to one’s authenticity, integrity, and the foundation for a full life.
Finally, I had to have the strength to encounter the Self – the greater Wisdom center, image of the Divine, and carrier of all the potentials of my life, which Jung noted was initially a defeat for the ego. This encounter, too, occurs over and over, once we have realized this point. It is a defeat for our ego – which actually must be strong enough to sacrifice itself to the Self, as it learns to stop seeking power over our lives and learns to seek a different kind of power, the power of love through our experience of life.
(Read Part One: The Ground of Individuation)
(Read Part Two: Emotions: The Royal Messenger of the Unconscious)
(Read Part Three: Emotions: The Groundwork for Becoming Self-Reliant)
(Read Part Four: The Need for Developing a New Value System)
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris