We all want it. We all know it’s what we “should” feel about ourselves, a goal to strive towards.
It’s almost become a cliche how ubiquitous that phrase has become, especially online — on social media, in articles, in celebrity interviews, in all the content we consume.
In her eponymous TV show, RuPaul says a total of 159 times: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?”
Self-love is a buzz-word. So omnipresent that I think there are a lot of assumptions about it. Assumptions that I had myself, until today.
I think I’ve come to a realisation about self-love and I want to share it with you.
I had a therapy session last Monday and my therapist and I talked a lot about my anxious attachment style. Anxious attachment frequently stems from a past where your child self was exposed to inconsistent, aloof or abusive relationships (often with parents). In my case, my anxious attachment style originated with my mother, who would withdraw her affection from me when I did things that she didn’t like (such as support gay marriage, fail to appropriately show enthusiasm for her extreme political beliefs, forget to clean my room on a strict schedule etc), who ultimately gave me the silent treatment for a year after discovering my sexuality, and who is now estranged from me. It was then exacerbated after my father also estranged me for over a year, and one of my best friends ghosted me after six years.
As a result of these experiences, I internalised a belief that there was something wrong with how I relate to people.
If people who for years were loving, who I shared my true self with and trusted, who I was vulnerable with, who told me all the right things — if they could suddenly and for a seemingly minor reason discard all that and discard me, and never give me a second chance— this must be because of something wrong with me that made that happen. Otherwise, it made no sense.
I can’t think of them as evil horrible people who “never loved me” because otherwise that means all those years of love I experienced with them was a lie. And believing that, how could I trust anyone again? So instead of believing that I believed that I must have done something, without realising, that put them off.
Thus my anxious attachment style formed, one where I scrutinise everything I say, try overly hard to be the best, most accommodating, most giving person possible, the most understanding, the most empathetic. Which leads to incredible amounts of overthinking. Anxiety that doesn’t go away until I get reassurance from my loved one that I’m OK, that they still love me, that they value me. And paradoxically, a sense of shame about my need for reassurance.
Maybe that neediness was what drove my other friend away? Maybe I am demanding, or entitled, or “too much”. Yes, I must be “too much”.
And so I then hate myself for feeling so needy, like it’s embarrassing to show how much I care, that it’s intimidating, and yet I feel like I have all this love inside me that wants to be given and so much that I want to receive, and so I war with myself.
I told my therapist, and she said that I should practice self soothing and sit with my feelings and work towards not needing other people’s reassurance that I’m OK and still loved.
When she first said it I felt defensive and a bit attacked, because it immediately triggered that sense of “she’s saying that because my desire for reassurance is a bad thing, I was right, I am too much”.
But I knew this feeling wasn’t a logical feeling, and was more a trigger, so in the days since therapy I’ve been returning to that thought again and again, turning it over in my mind.
My therapist said something else to me. “What if you are too much for this person? What if that caused them to leave you? That wouldn’t mean there was anything inherently wrong with you.”
At first that didn’t make much sense to me. Someone I love, deciding not to be with me anymore, because I was “too much” for them, that must mean I was too much and thus wrong. Or they must be wrong.
It was an alien concept. Even though now that I write it, it seems like it should be really obvious.
So I started to wonder if theoretically it’s possible to love yourself even if no one else in the world loves you.
But what even is self-love?
When I first tried to feel it, I tried to look inside myself for someone to feel towards the way I feel towards my soulmate, or how I feel towards my best friend. And I kept coming up blank, like I was grasping at a void.
The reason for this is because I was looking inside myself, expecting to see a separate person in there to love, but there isn’t someone separate in me, except for constructs and aspects that I’ve created to engage with my own psyche. It’s like trying to look into your own face, without a mirror. You can’t do it.
So then I started to think about how I feel when I truly let myself feel worthy of the love that OTHER people show to me. Is that self-love?
When someone tells me they love me, and I BELIEVE them, and see myself as they see me, and realise that I deserve their love — that is a profound, joyful, incredible experience. It’s true catharsis. When I’ve felt that, really let myself believe that, and know it to be true, I’ve cried with sheer joy.
But is that really self-love? For a long time (years) I’ve thought that “feeling that you deserve the love of others” and “self-love” were the same thing.
I realised suddenly that this feeling I have when I let myself believe that I deserve the love of others and thus let myself receive their love, boils down to a belief that “I’m a good person and thus worthy of love”.
This belief is what drives me to be a “giver” and I invest so much of my energy and emotional labour into being “a good person that gives always more than I take, that is never entitled, that is altruistic” because if I am like that, then I will feel worthy of other people’s love. (And yes I can take it too far, to the point of near-codependency and a saviour complex, which I’m trying to work on).
That revelation that I’d been having? I was worthy of others’ love.
Except that’s still one level removed from unconditional self love.
Because being “ a good person” is still defining my self worth in relation to how I treat others.
Is it possible to feel unconditional self love?
It’s a hard concept to conceive because I feel instinctively like self love is something you either “deserve” to feel, or you don’t. When I’ve felt what I believed was self-love, it’s felt like “I try my best to be kind and act in good faith and help others, thus even if I fail sometimes, I still try my hardest, thus I deserve to love myself”.
While I will always try to be a good person, I started to wonder — what if there was a way to feel self love even if I don’t deserve it?
What would it look like?
Perhaps I had been thinking about it all wrong, imagining that self-love feels like the love for I feel for others. Because then I am looking for someone else inside myself.
What even is the Self? Not the ego, not who I feel myself to be right now, or my child self, or my Ideal self I strive to become?
At my core, I am a consciousness that engages in the physical world, that has subjective experiences, that makes sense of those experiences through thought, that creates meaning and patterns, exploring the world and relating to other consciousnesses. I am Alive. And through living, through what I’ve learned and who I’ve related with, I’ve developed a personality, an ego, memories.
Fundamentally though, at my core, I am Alive, I am Aware, I am Conscious.
That is who and what I am, when I strip away everything else. All societal conventions, all morality, all my constructed meaning in relation to other people.
What do I feel when I am in that state?
Pure wonderment. Delight. Curiosity.
So what is unconditional self love? Perhaps it feels like being struck dumb by a vivid colour on a leaf caught by sunlight. Perhaps it feels like shivering in ecstasy when a soft-edged wind caresses my skin. The intense scented sour-sweet of a blueberry, carrying memories of childhood. The twisting colours of synaesthesia coiling pleasure through my skull and down my spine while I listen to a piece of music. The feeling of “flow” when I am lost in a good book, or immersed in creation for its own sake.
Perhaps what it boils down to is delighting in the experience of being alive, loving the way I see the world, the way my imagination works, the colours I see, the synaesthesia I have.
And that is something I can do whether I “deserve it” or not because it’s an inherent part of my consciousness that is there no matter what I do to others or achieve at or fail at in relation to others.
I think that’s what unconditional self love looks like. Being fully present in the moment and appreciating LIFE. More and more. Even when it’s painful, or sorrowful, because all feelings are experience.
And I am alive, and here to experience. I don’t need to “deserve” this, I don’t need to ask permission for it. No one else can give it to me, no one else can take it away from me. I can only deny it to myself, or allow it to myself.
The love of self, is the love of being alive.
So think to yourself, and define for yourself, what does unconditional self love feel like to you?