I am sure you have heard the comment you must love yourself before you can love another. Did it resonate with you? I was always a bit skeptical of its pithy way of tossing off one phrase to address a complex notion such as self-love—and its restrictive view of love in general.
How do we learn to love ourselves in the first place? Typically, we pick up whatever messages our caretakers gave us and take them in. Those inner templates usually form the basis of our relationship with ourselves unless we find that painful or limiting and work through different ways of relating to ourselves through therapy, spiritual work, or, sometimes, a very nurturing adult relationship. One might think the last of those would be a surefire way of getting that unconditional love we wanted as a child. Unfortunately, it is the least likely path to forging a loving, compassionate relationship with oneself because it often leads to depending on that person for a love fix. On the other hand, inner work has the potential to be deep and lasting.
If your parents were loving, encouraging, affectionate, and had the ability to correct your behaviors without putting you down for them, you are one very lucky person. Most children grow up in less sanguine circumstances where adults who feel pressured and stressed can act oblivious, or don’t mete out affection, positive feedback, or unconditional acceptance. Usually, their parents were the same way with them (or harsher). While growing up, you unconsciously absorbed those messages and continued repeating them. Though you can’t re-do your childhood, you can create a more loving relationship with yourself, a crucial ingredient to living a more contented life. After all, that is the most important relationship you will ever have, as you are with yourself every minute of every day.
How can you reindoctrinate yourself to feel compassion where once there was criticism? To sow kindness where once there was self-condemnation? To generate unconditional self-acceptance where once there was negative self-judgment? I have gathered a few tools to help you on that journey. I know it can seem like a Herculean task. With patience and loads of practice, you will change that internal litany. Watch your joy increase as you develop this new habit of almost automatic, reflective compassion toward yourself.
Before we delve into those aids for your journey, how about a little quiz?
Imagine I give you a beautiful wicker basket. Then, I start putting different pieces of fruit in it. First, a succulent, ripe peach. Next, a brown, mushy banana. Then, a luscious bunch of grapes. Finally, a soft, old cantaloupe.
What kind of a basket do you have?
Just take a minute and really think about the question.
What kind of a basket do you have?
You have a beautiful wicker basket.
You are the basket. The fruits are all your behaviors. You are beautiful.
You can make banana bread, throw out the cantaloupe, and put whatever you want in your basket.
Just like the basket, whose beauty does not depend upon what fruits it holds, you have value simply because you exist.
Here’s some really good news: If you don’t believe it, you can decide right this minute to choose to.
I have read that Louise Hay, the founder of Hay House Publishing, has a favorite affirmation she likes to say every morning in front of her bathroom mirror: “I love you. I really, really, love you.” If you practice that for 30 days straight, you will notice a difference in your relationship with you.
Another useful technique is to ferret out self-criticism and replace it with compassion. If that’s difficult, imagine your friend is saying those things about herself. How would you respond to her?
You can also write a list of every time you can remember feeling appreciated. It may have been something you did for a friend, family member, coworker, or stranger. Perhaps you just felt your smile appreciated when someone smiled back. Maybe it was the appreciation you felt from yourself when you knew you did something kind or generous for another. Add to your list as things come up and reread it when you want a reminder of how you make a difference in the world.
Getting back to the original question: Must you love yourself before you can love another? At the end of the day, I think there are millions of people who don’t necessarily love themselves but have bestowed plenty of love and care on others. That said, you are bound to enjoy life more if you lavish kindness, compassion, and love on yourself.
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