"Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is."
- Brene Brown
I don't believe that there is any word in the English language as misused and misunderstood as "love." Search for the word and you will find so many convoluted uses and definitions. I love this sandwich. I love my car. When we finish the sandwich or the car breaks down, the love is gone. This makes love appear to be fleeting and trivial.
Another problem with the word comes from the way that people who claim to "love" one another treat one another. I love you often translates to I own you. I love you, so you are an extension of myself and I can hurt you, take advantage of you, use you up and toss you aside, just like my car.
Many of us come from family systems where love meant control. I love you as long as you think how I want you to think, believe what I want you to believe, make choices I approve of. Or on the opposite end, love means giving you whatever you want because maybe you will not love me back if I don't. Love equals fear and emotional blackmail.
And romantically, love is passion or obsession. It's not love until you are keying someone's car or getting stabbed. Yes, this is extreme but I've facilitated enough domestic violence groups to know that many people believe this. Perhaps the old adage "love hurts" is more relatable.
If any of these are love, then I want no part of it. I understand why people give up on love.
I have come to a different understanding. It is an understanding that did not come easily, and that I have undying gratitude for, so I will attempt to put words to a wordless understanding.
There is a saying that used to make me angry, sad, or confused when I heard it. "You can't love anyone until you love yourself." I felt this way because I had nothing resembling warmth, or compassion, or acceptance toward myself. I had criticism, judgment, blame, even hate. I didn't realize how closely these attributes resemble the way that most people love one another. I didn't realize that the way "love" came out in my own relationships was through jealousy, control, and contempt.
I had a lovely and tenacious therapist in my early 20's. Attending therapy was the MOST loving thing I could have done for myself at that time. She told me every time we met that I needed to love myself. I am naturally an empath, so feeling the pain of others was ever-present for me. Their pain mattered, mine didn't. I remember a moment, thinking about the suffering of someone I knew and a voice inside my own mind finally spoke, and said "why don't you care about me, like you care about her?" This voice was the beginning of discovery. I stopped, and I listened, and I cried, for ME. I remember literally hugging myself, and I promised to do better. I promised to do better, for me.
What did I discover? I discovered what love means. Loving ourselves is the only way we can be the lover and the loved in one. It is the only way we can have automatic feedback on how our behavior lifts, or destroys. Love is a great light, and it brings up our shadows. Love allows us to look at them and bring healing light in. I discovered the attributes of self-love. I will try to list them here, in my imperfect way.
Acceptance. There is no love without acceptance. I am imperfect. I make mistakes. I act against my own values. I have some wrinkles under my eyes and more weight than I would like to carry. I eat too much chocolate. Love lets me look at all of these things and say, beautiful anyway. worthy anyway. powerful anyway. And because of my acceptance, I make fewer mistakes. My actions are more aligned with my values. I am able to be more accountable.
Respect. Respect is the minimum requirement of love. Respect means always being aware of the dignity and humanity of one's self.
Compassion. It's amazing to me how few people practice self-compassion. Self-compassion looks like valuing my own emotional responses enough to allow myself to feel them. It looks like being present to myself and caring about how I feel, and taking the action that I need to feel supported, alive, and safe.
Discipline. Most people don't think of discipline as an attribute of self-love, but it is. True self-love means we are aware of behavior that is harmful toward ourselves, and we do our best not to allow it to continue. We lovingly re-direct ourselves, as we would with a child. We don't enable ourselves.
Forgiveness. You are stuck with you for the rest of your life. Nothing can be unforgivable. Self-resentment turns to shame, and shame makes us hide from ourselves, from the truth of our actions and their impact, from intimacy with others, from our emotions. This is not permission to continue (see number 4), but nothing can be unforgivable.
Warmth. Self love includes a warm feeling toward the self. It includes liking yourself, having affection for yourself, loving your own quirks and imperfections and laughing at your own internal dialogue. This attribute of self-love makes you happier and more fun to be with.
Boundaries. When you love yourself you understand you are precious. You are worthy of being defended. No one is allowed to fuck with you. You speak up, you walk away, you fight back. You teach people how to treat you and you know you are worthy.
...and of course we do none of these perfectly. See number one.
The powerful thing that I learned about self-love, true, deep, radical self-love is that it transformed my relationship with others. We cannot give what we do not have. When we love ourselves deeply it fills us up and pours out, and we come to accept others more, respect others more, hold others more accountable (without judgement), forgive others more freely while understanding acceptance does not mean allowance and we can love from a distance if that is for our own good. We feel more warmth toward others. We experience less jealousy. We can celebrate the accomplishments of others. When we say "I'm so happy for you" we realize we actually mean it. With all of this, we hold strong boundaries and put our own needs first.
* a note on anger. I was taught when young that anger is a sin. I realized later that this prevented me from having boundaries, and I did not believe I was worthy of my anger. Anger can be the form that love takes. When we defend ourselves, when we walk away from abuse, when we defend a child or fight for a cause, this is love manifested as anger.