The older I get, the more time I spend in a place called self-love.
It’s not a destination I have fully settled into yet, but at least I spend more time there than I used to. It’s not just a hotel that I visit a couple of times a year – it’s an apartment I’ve furnished with some of my favourite books, artwork and comfortable furniture.
There are moments when I want to stay in that apartment, but I get pulled back to old familiar locations, like self-criticism, self-doubt, body shame, insecurity and fear of abandonment. When I make a mistake that hurts someone, when someone criticizes me, when my old trauma is triggered, or when I haven’t been tending my membranes and I’ve extended myself to the point of exhaustion – those are all times when it’s harder to stay in my cozy apartment with my favourite things. That’s when I use my tenderness practices to soothe my body/mind/heart and eventually I find my way back.
Before I made tenderness an important part of my life, I used to go on self-defeating loops in my mind. First I’d get triggered into self-criticism and fear of abandonment. Then, because I’d read a lot of self-help books about the importance of self-love, I’d try to find my way back there. Because I was already in self-criticism mode, though, I’d start to blame myself for not being better at self-love. Of course, that loop never served me well because personal growth can not happen in a place of self-criticism.
When I interviewed her for Know Yourself, Free Yourself, my friend, psychologist Dr. Jo Unger told me that “we react to self-criticism with defensiveness, just as we would when receiving criticism from others. We try to protect ourselves and we defend our choices and behaviours.” In other words, we become our own worst enemies, creating a war within our own heads.
How do we get out of these loops, then? How do we find our way to self-love when the self-critical parts of us keep blocking the path? Once I started on this Liberation and Tenderness journey I’ve been on, I started to find a few answers to those questions.
Firstly, I learned about systems theory and began to realize that my own tendency toward self-criticism and fear of abandonment wasn’t just a personal failing but was designed into the systems I was born into. That was an important piece for me, because it meant that I was neither fully responsible for developing (or dismantling) the self-critical parts of myself, nor was I solely responsible for my lack of self-love. (It also meant that my family and community were not solely responsible – the systems were much bigger and more complex than that.)
Capitalism, for example (a meta-system that infiltrates every other layer), doesn’t want me to find genuine self-love because then I might stop buying things to try to compensate for the emptiness in my heart. Capitalism wants me to keep seeing my body as shameless, because then it can convince me to buy all the body-shaping clothes, all the age-defying creams, all the self-help books, all the beauty products, and all the diet plans. If I love myself too much, and everyone else does the same, we might stop feeding the growth that capitalism relies on to live.
Contrary to what some of the self-help books teach, self-criticism is not just an inside job. It’s been shaped by many forces, from our earliest days of life. Unless we understand that, it doesn’t matter how many self-help books we read. We might get better at self-care, and perhaps even self-acceptance, but genuine self-love will remain illusive.
Secondly, I learned that, though I’ve been shaped by systems and the systems are still alive in me (and I help shape systems), I still have the freedom to make choices. I am not a slave to the systems. I can choose to heal the trauma that has left me with a fear of abandonment. I can find community support instead of trying to face this challenge as an individual. I can choose to deconstruct the beliefs that the system has convinced me I can’t live without. I can choose to challenge the voices in my head that tell me I need to climb the ladder of acceptability to be worthy of safety and belonging and I can work with my community to co-create spaces where the ladder has no value.
As Sonya Renee Taylor teaches in The Body is Not an Apology, we can choose to collectively dismantle the ladder. “Divest from this ladder. It’s only real because we keep trying to climb it. We have no more use for it. When I don’t have the ladder to climb and I understand my natural birthrights, the ladder is imaginary. We already came here with everything we need to be destined to be who we came here for.”
Thirdly, I discovered that Tenderness was my path back to self-love (no matter how many times I get triggered into self-criticism or self-doubt). When I started to experience Tenderness as an external entity (as I wrote about in The House That Tenderness Built), something that was always available to me whenever I chose to receive it, I found I no longer had to rely solely on my own internal resources (resources that often got blocked by self-criticism) to get to self-love. I could simply trust in it, the same way I trust nature to hold me when I go for walks in the woods.
When I write conversations with Tenderness in my journal, she teaches me how to treat myself and how to divest from the ladder. When I soothe my body with Tenderness practices, she reminds me how valuable, beautiful, and sensual my body is even if it doesn’t measure up to capitalist beauty standards. She reminds me again and again that I am worthy of love and she silences the voice of self-criticism.
“Everything is a candidate for inquiry,” says Gabor Maté, “even intensely negative experiences like self-loathing. Rather than admonishing ourselves for hating ourselves, we can be curious as to why self-hatred arrived on the scene in the first place. A question posed in that spirit often illuminates. When the beauty in us can compassionately accept the beast – allow it to ‘be our guest,’ if you will – the latter may transform into a handsome and loving companion; at the very least, it can relax and stop hounding us so ravenously.”
That brings me to some thoughts about what self-love really is. Last week, during a lunchtime conversation at Brave Earth, British-Chilean artist and activist Felipe Viveros shared that in mapudungun (the language of Mapuche people, an Indigenous tribe in Chile) there is no word for hate. “Ayün”, the word used for love, means that there is a special kind of light in your eyes and that I can see myself reflected in that light. The only way to understand hate, then, is to say that the light in your eyes has gone out and I am no longer able to see myself reflected.
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about that in relation to self-love. When I look in the mirror, I want to be able to see myself reflected back to me through the light of my own eyes. I want to stand in that light and nurture it for so long that it is never at risk of going out. I want that light to shine as brightly as it can so that everyone I meet can see themselves reflected.
Another conversation this week had a similar impact. My friend Michael was talking about wonder and awe, and how it’s easy to be in wonder and awe when we look at nature. It’s harder to do, though, when we look at ourselves. But if I am a part of nature (which I am), should I not be able to witness myself with wonder and awe? Since then, I’ve been trying to look at myself that way, witnessing myself as a beautiful and adaptable part of nature, the same way I look at the trees in the jungle on my daily walks here in Costa Rica (where I’ve been for a month).
A couple of weeks ago, I took a series of photos of the texture of leaves in the jungle. It was remarkable to place them all together in a collage and see how much variation in shape, size, colour and texture there was. Each leaf has adapted differently to its environment, doing its best to absorb whatever light is available to it in the jungle, to turn that light into energy. In a sense, the way the leaves respond to the light is just the way I want to respond to the light I see in my own eyes when I look in the mirror – to photosynthesize it into energy and to pass that energy down to the tree that holds me.
Since then, just the way I did with the leaves, I’ve been marvelling at my own body and the bodies of the people I encounter. What beautiful variations we all are! What wonderful ways our bodies have adapted to our environments! How remarkable it is to witness the ways we’ve all reached for the light, transformed it into energy, and helped to reflect it to others!
Today, as I write this in the shade of a circle of tall palm trees, I send a wish out to all of you, my readers. May you see the light in your own eyes and may you reflect it to all you meet.
Curious to learn more about Tenderness and Liberation and how they relate to self-love? Join me for the upcoming online course (starting March 6), Know Yourself, Free Yourself: self-exploration as a path to liberation and love.