Love yourself! Friends urge us to do it during painful breakups. Relatives insist on it during heart-to-heart talks. Mystics say the ability to do so is within us. Rehabilitation centers limit our access to all the risky things we like to indulge in as substitutes for it. Audio programs, webinars, and beachside retreats promise to release us from the problems that arise in its absence while multiplying the miracles that emerge in its presence.
Self-love is also one of the primary goals in our therapy sessions, though it goes by many names: awareness, mindfulness, relaxation, stress management, enjoying life, gratitude, self-care, self-compassion, empathy, forgiveness, processing emotions, honoring needs, developing assertiveness, setting boundaries—even anger management. So why is it so hard to do?
Look at the type of animal we are: an omnivorous predator with a prefrontal cortex that can closely observe not only what’s external but what’s internal—subtle inner phenomena like our own feelings, impulses, thoughts, and sensations. And what about our limbic and autonomic nervous systems, all functioning pretty much without our conscious steerage, preprogrammed to react to perceived threats in semi-predictable ways? Added to the mix, we have a mental basement in which many of our formative experiences—including painful losses and betrayals—remain stored long after we grow up and away from caregivers and others who have hurt us. Like asbestos hidden under layers of paint, our buried pasts affect us in the present, even when the current paint job looks impeccable.
One important aspect of understanding self-love involves figuring out what it’s not. Think about what you tend to do when you feel unhappy or anxious. Most of us look to the outside world for distraction. Some of the most socially acceptable avoidance strategies masquerade as self-love and involve mindlessly ingesting coffee, sugary foods, and alcohol when we’re not hungry or thirsty. With the internet and digital devices nearly always within arm’s reach (or even on our arms, these days), we ingest more and more with our eyes, giving ourselves quick jolts of digital stimulation. It seems that, as a culture, we’ll do almost anything to take our attention away from the moment we’re living in with all its unsettling, in-your-face, nonnegotiable reality.
“In any given moment,” Catherine Steiner-Adair writes, “with a buzz or a ping, our devices summon us and we are likely to respond, allowing ourselves to be pulled away from our immediate surroundings and anyone in them, into the waiting world or elsewhere and others.” A part of the truth of this moment that’s happening right now is what’s going on within our bodies and minds: feelings, thoughts, sensations.
As a depressed teenager, I remember thinking, “Okay, I’m going to love myself. No big deal.” A few decades, colleges, careers, marriages, therapists, therapies, spiritual affiliations, and major life lessons later, I’m still working on it. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to love yourself successfully if whoever raised you happened to be a person (or a set of people) who could only love you in their own imperfect, human way, which seems to be the case with many of us. And unlike rocket science or physics or existential philosophy, self-love isn’t something you can figure out theoretically, do once and for all, and move on to the next thing from there. It’s a process that requires us to make key and uniquely personal choices, big and small, over and over again, daily, weekly, yearly, without giving up, without giving in, as we stumble, walk, limp, run, jog, skip, and drag ourselves through our own unpredictable, lifelong hero’s journey.
Luckily, slowing down is very doable even if your brakes are rusty or unresponsive. Just lifting your foot off the accelerator is a form of slowing down. Slowing down is a prerequisite to the conscious act of directing our attention inward. When we slow down—when we just briefly stop to witness what’s going on within us—we create a holding space for an amazing process to occur.
There’s one small thing I’ve consistently noticed about self-love, both in my personal attempts to master it and in my work with others who seek to expand their own capacity for it and its many benefits. The ability to make the right choices for ourselves, or to realize there are even right choices to be made, depends greatly on our ability to slow down. Luckily, slowing down is very doable even if your brakes are rusty or unresponsive. Just lifting your foot off the accelerator is a form of slowing down. Slowing down is a prerequisite to the conscious act of directing our attention inward. When we slow down—when we just briefly stop to witness what’s going on within us—we create a holding space for an amazing process to occur. This process is part of what distinguishes us from other mammals and makes us distinctly human. We can observe ourselves and allow our mental, emotional, physical, and even unconscious experience to emerge more vividly and directly.
It’s not just a form of exposure therapy—it is exposure therapy. Afraid of snakes? Hang out in a snake pit. Afraid of planes? Fly. Afraid of elevators? Push the button that will take you to the 18th floor. Afraid of the actual, lived experience of being yourself in whatever situation is occurring right now? Stop, slow down, and be. Be you now—consciously, intentionally. By stopping and observing, we give ourselves a titrated dose of whatever it is we tend to anxiously avoid. We allow whatever it is that’s happening to be felt and known. We start developing a tolerance for the layers of stuff we can’t tolerate most of the time when we’re reacting—a tolerance for our sensations, thoughts, and feelings.
It’s no coincidence that so many different self-help techniques and therapy modalities draw on our capacity to slow down as a healing principle in and of itself. Virtually all forms of meditation involve increasing our capacity to just be. Yoga slows down the mind through a consistent focus on our breath and our bodies. Imago slows down communication between a couple using a variety of techniques, including a structured dialogue. Hypnosis, somatic experiencing, and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) actively slow down mental processing and increase our connection to otherwise difficult-to-access inner phenomena. AEDP (accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy) works to harness our innate capacity for healing through interventions that slow down the therapy process and a person’s experiences in the room.
Slowing down isn’t all that difficult—if we choose to do it. We can slow down anytime, anywhere, whether we’re experts at loving ourselves or novices. We can always act as a holding space for our own awareness and our experience in this moment, if we pause (and resist the urge to send a text or buy another Frappuccino). We can relax, even if it’s just for a few seconds, and live with what’s here.
Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
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