‘To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides.’ – David Viscott
“You have to love yourself first.” How many times have you heard or read this? Have you ever felt completely disarmed – or just plain upset – by this idea that self-love would be the pre-condition for you to be able to love others and find “true love”? Have you ever thought: “I will never get there”? Well, you are not alone. And I will be brutally honest here: Loving oneself can be f***ing hard! For many of us, “loving oneself first” might even just feel impossible – I mean truly loving oneself, not falling into some kind of narcissistic self-centered pattern.
How do you love yourself when, growing up, you have constantly received the explicit or implicit message that you were not lovable? How do you love yourself when, later in life, traumas or significant losses have left you feeling unworthy and untrusting? How can you love yourself when you have made bad decisions that have dramatically affected not only your life but others’, when you have been battling terrible addictions, when everything in your life tells you that you are not lovable? You don’t even need to be in any of these situations for this idea of loving yourself first to make you feel that: 1) There must be something wrong with you because you are trying but you are not really feeling it like others seem to (because everybody says it, right? so they must be feeling it!); 2) There is a very high summit somewhere that you may never be able to reach.
So how do things work for those of us for whom “loving oneself first” does not fit?
Loving others and learning to receive love
We start by loving others, and by progressively learning to receive love – the second half is the hardest part, of course. There is a reason why, when I guide a loving kindness (or compassion) meditation, I always start by suggesting to send love to others and then, very progressively, to alternate between sending love to others and sending love to a version of oneself (as a baby? as a young child if there is a time associated with a happy memory?). Not-the-other-way-around. In the process of loving others, our hearts learn to open up to the feeling that we may receive in exchange. At the subconscious level, our mind also starts to integrate that if we are able to send love to at least someone or something, maybe there is that part of us that is loveable.
It might take more time to receive but the mere fact of having people into our lives who make us feel worthwhile help to progressively develop self-love. In many support groups, one of the key processes to help a person recover (in particular from addiction) is that the group cares for the individual, and holds them in a loving way until she/he can start loving themselves. This is also one of the ways in which different types of therapy help individuals heal from depression, loss, and addiction. In the healing room, one thing that I learned the very first day I started working as a shamanic healer is that you start loving the person you support the minute they come to you – it is not even a decision, and you don’t always like them, you just love them, and that’s the first piece of the healing, and maybe the single most important thing you need to do as a “healer.”
Honoring the choices that we are able to make out of love
Another way I have seen many able to progressively develop some sense of self-love is in actively recognizing and honoring the positive choices that they were able to make for others and for themselves (yes, here too, choices for others may come first). Here, I am not necessarily talking about big decisions. At times, we need to start with daily simple choices. This process may also involve revisiting what, in the past, we did well, and honoring those moments for what they were. This process is in part about rewiring the way the brain has been processing our past actions and in part re-writing the stories we have told ourselves, without forcing anything, but just allowing a slightly alternated version of ourselves to progressively emerge.
Deeply reconnecting with our soul and learning to love and serve it
For me, personally, this may well have been the most healing of all. As I deeply reconnected to my soul – that energy within me that was way bigger and amazing than anything I had known before – my commitment to serving it only deepened. When it might have still been hard to truly love and take care of myself, it was clear that I wanted to honor the soul that I was hosting in my human body and take care of her! Because I could not – I cannot – claim any credit for who and how my soul is. But I felt a sense of responsibility towards it, and I wanted it to be all that it could be. And this included being a positive presence in the world and not adding to any negativity.
Let’s be clear: this is not necessarily a step-by-step process to learn to love ourselves; at times, the mere thought of such an unattainable summit can be paralyzing. I am talking about a process through which we progressively heal ourselves, and become more alive, less defined by what has happened to us.
And then, maybe, we progressively become aware that, in that process, we are starting to love ourselves.
Not the other way around.
Béatrice Pouligny | Shamanic Healer and Spiritual Mentor