Self-love is the sugar-coated pill we prescribe when we don’t know what to say to a friend plagued with a broken heart, broken leg or broken life.
But a universe of confusion and misunderstanding dangles between the command of “love yourself.” Even when the advice is well-meaning, telling someone they need to love themselves more or practice self care when they are experiencing loss or depression feels cruel.
The concept of self-love sounds comforting while you’re drinking a fresh cup of coffee, watching Super Soul Sunday, and feeling expansive about life. But what is self-love and how do you do it, especially when you are experiencing trauma?
Self-Love is a Practice
Self-love doesn’t come with an instruction manual.
Few of us come into the world knowing how to love ourselves and even fewer still have had models who modeled how to love ourselves with consistency and conviction. At best, we confuse self-love with getting a massage or treating yourself to something expensive when you can barely pay the rent. At worst, we mistake self-love for arrogance and manipulation to get our emotional needs met.
Self-love is none of these things.
I define self-love as kindness and compassion extended to the person who needs it most – you. However, it can be challenging to be kind and compassionate toward yourself when it feels like everyone and everything – from your family to government to Instagram girls exist to tell you how wrong and broken you are.
In such an environment, it’s hard to know who you are and what you want – let alone act on it in ways that are self-loving and true. That’s why it’s essential to create time in your life to spend with yourself – even if it’s five minutes with the door shut while you meditate or pray.
Learn to sit in silence, even when the spider monkeys of worry, fear and doubt swing from branch to branch in your head. Let the monkeys screech, howl, and throw things. They will go away when you stop feeding them your attention.
Wait for guidance in the form of compassion to show up. Like a wedding usher, let it gently walk you down the aisle and to your next step. If guidance or compassion doesn’t seem present in that moment, thank the universe for allowing you to at least have five minutes alone.
If none of these methods work and all you have is a bunch of monkeys screaming at you about your thick thighs and stupid job, there is another thing you can do – blow up your life.
Blowing Up My Life
I blew up my life two years ago.
After both my parents died within three years of each other from cancer-related illnesses, I sold, discarded or stored everything I owned. I moved to a small, beach community in the Mexican Caribbean with three suitcases. I knew no one and barely spoke Spanish.
Without the distractions of cable television and a car, I unflinchingly looked at myself and my life. I spent long, lonely nights in the jungle dealing with accumulated grief and loss. I mourned the deaths of my parents and embraced the bitter sweetness of our complicated relationship. I stopped pretending to want marriage and children when I preferred solitude.
External circumstances of the daily life of living in Mexico also conspired to teach me to love myself.
I lived in a vodka distillery in the jungle while I was homeless for several weeks. I endured three successive bouts of parasitic infections in as many months. My consulting clients left one by one and I had no income. I regularly dealt with scorpions, spiders, snakes, lizards and other creatures that wandered into my home from the outside.
These trials taught me two, important things about self-love. First, loneliness and boredom will not kill me. Second, no one is coming to rescue me from the life I created by chance and choice. When I learned to lean into life and stopped wishing for an external event to save me from feeling unloved, worthless, and abandoned, the path to self-love appeared.
The Path to Self-Love
You don’t have to blow up your life to achieve self-love. That’s just my way and I’m a bit dramatic.
The path to self-love is traveled by practicing self-acceptance. You will never, ever be perfect. But you will always be perfectly you. That’s the you, you must learn to love fiercely under all circumstances.
Love yourself when you are fired from your job and your lover leaves you days later. Love yourself when you don’t have enough money to pay the rent and the electric bill with the same paycheck.
Love yourself when you are angry, confused, jealous, horny, and frustrated. Love yourself when gravity pulls your breasts down and your hair starts to gray and thin at the edges. Love yourself and keep loving yourself by accepting and loving your own messy humanity.
Loving yourself means acknowledging the present circumstances; resisting the urge to judge or escape; finding the kindest explanation to interpret events; releasing what hinders your growth; and taking the next, right step with faith and optimism.
When you practice this form of self-love and compassion you will no longer confuse the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of perfection. You will not negotiate, compromise, beg or barter to be in a personal or professional relationship that isn’t right for you. You’ll stop worry about finding love because you realize you are love.
Loving yourself won’t solve your problems. But it will prevent you from increasing your unhappiness by making daily and life choices that betray the essence of who you are. Staying true to yourself is the ultimate act of self-love.