I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I went to marriage counseling.
I was happy to be there, at least as happy as you can be to be in marriage counseling. Mostly, I was looking forward to that delicious moment when a trained professional would finally tell my husband what I had been telling him all along: he needed to change the way he treated me.
I wanted her to tell him he needed to work less and pay more attention to me, to put down his phone at dinner time, to compliment me more often, to avoid criticism and to “pursue me”. I was lonely in our marriage and sad that our relationship hadn’t turned out the way I wanted it to.
So imagine my surprise when, about three quarters of the way through our first session, the therapist turned to me and asked: are you willing to consider the possibility that the reason you feel so lonely has as much to do with you as it does with him?
I was shocked. I just sat there, dead still with my eyes all scrunched, like a scene from a sitcom or something [insert pause for audience laughter here].
And at the same time, after so much time of feeling frustrated and sad and at the end of my rope, I had this deep, pit-in-my-gut feeling like this was the answer to the guidance I had been asking for. It certainly wasn’t the answer I wanted and I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with it, but it was an answer nonetheless.
It was my first step in learning how to find love.
Do you ever feel lonely?
It’s not like you don’t have great friends and you might even be in a committed relationship, but do you ever feel like nobody really notices you? They might see you. But they don’t really see you—your strength, your pain, your beauty, your skills, what you have to offer to the world.
Your boss. Your spouse. Your friends. Your parents. Are they missing it?
Maybe your marriage isn’t exactly what you know it could be, or you wonder why you’re still single when you wish you weren’t. Maybe your friends are wonderful and supportive but you just don’t feel as connected to them as you wish you did. Maybe it seems like people always want something from you, like you’re giving out more than you’re getting back.
Do you ever feel that alone-in-a-crowded room feeling?
If this is you, you’re not alone. The world we live in can be a lonely place. We’re hyper-connected and at the same time not connected at all. We live these transitory lifestyles and depend on technology and social media but we don’t know how to connect up close.
But I think the real reason we experiencing this epidemic of loneliness is because we don’t know how to love ourselves.
We keep looking to outside circumstances to experience the love we desire—to jobs, to paychecks, to people, to marriage, to status, to relationships, to organizations, to thrilling experiences. We keep showing up for counseling appointments, hoping the counselor will set someone else straight so we can finally feel loved.
When the truth is, the love we are looking for has been with us all along.
We have the resources inside of us to cultivate a life, rich with love.
Love is the connective tissue binds connects us together, it is the substance that dissolves the walls of intolerance and hate and frustration and misunderstanding; it is a powerful force of change inside our bodies and hearts and minds, and also a powerful force of influence in the world around us. Love is what brings us peace, even in the midst of great conflict.
And if we can’t love ourselves, we can’t love anyone else—and we can’t let anyone else love us.
Ever since that counseling appointment with my husband, where the therapist asked that unforgettable question, I’ve been on a journey of learning to grow love from the inside, out. And what I’m learning is this: love changes everything.
What does it mean to love yourself?
Most of us are confused about how to find love. I certainly was that day as I sat in our therapist’s office as she explained to me that, if I didn’t love myself, I would never be able to accept love from my husband, no matter how he changed his behavior. She said it would be like a brick wall built around me, that no matter how hard he worked to love me, he wouldn’t be able to penetrate my lack of love for myself.
I was skeptical. But at that point, I was willing to try just about anything.
So I decided to do some research and stumbled across two books. One is called Anatomy of the Spirit by Carolyn Myss and the other is The Power is Within You by Louise Hay. Right away, Louise Hay’s definition for loving myself helped me moved beyond visions of simply “pampering myself” or giving into my every desire or whim.
She called self-love a “deep appreciation for who we are.” She went on to say:
When we love ourselves, we accept all the different parts of ourselves—our little peculiarities, the embarrassments, the things we may not do so well, and all the wonderful qualities too. We accept the whole package with love. Unconditionally.
After reading this, I started to notice how little love I had for myself. First of all, I noticed how negative my thoughts were toward myself.
Thoughts can be hard to catch. We often don’t realize they’re happening because we have so many of them—some experts say as many as 70,000 per day—and they can also be wordless or abstract. Some thoughts are concrete and discernible like, “I need to make dinner” and other thoughts are images or sensations that float by without our notice.
But when I began to pay attention, I started catching these little things. With my work, for example, I noticed that every time something went wrong, I would have a strong fear response. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought much of this. I would chalk it up to the stress of the job. But I started to ask myself: where is this fear coming from?
And I started to uncover thoughts I didn’t realize I had:
- This is all your fault
- You’re such an idiot
- That client is going to fire you
- Why did they hire you in the first place?
- You’re a total fraud
All this before I even really knew what had happened. I really couldn’t believe how negative my thoughts were toward myself.
Another thing I noticed was how many decisions I made out of guilt or a vague sense of self-punishment. Even decisions that were mostly good for me—like getting up early to go for a run or skipping my craving for ice cream—were often motivated by a feeling like I didn’t deserve to be comfortable or happy.
I was amazed, when I stopped to think about it, how many decisions I was making to try and prove I was worth loving.
Why don’t we love ourselves?
If loving ourselves is so great and brings all these benefits into our lives, why don’t we do it? Why are we so resistant?
What I found as I walked through my own process is that there are a lot of obstacles to learning to accept ourselves at all, let alone to radically accepting ourselves. Some of them are internal and some of them are external, but learning to let go of old thoughts and ideas was a huge part of my own process to learning to love myself.
Here are a few of the obstacles I came across:
First of all, we face a culture that tells us we can never been thin enough or trim enough, never be fit enough, smart enough, sexy enough; never have enough money or enough social status. We are being influenced daily by advertisements that point out our lack and sell us their corresponding pill or a program.
What if we simply said, “I acknowledge I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I accept myself fully and completely, just as I am.”?
Additionally, our early experiences are formative in our lives and negative or critical words spoken to you early in your life stay with you for a long time. Think about things your teachers used to tell you, or your parents. Did they make you feel guilty or ashamed of yourself? What about that kid on the playground who used to call you names?
Now think about how you’ve allowed yourself to cultivate these thoughts over the years by ruminating over them and dwelling on them and playing out the tape, over and over again.
Speaking of early experiences, many of us grew up with religious teachings that told us we were filthy, awful people undeserving of any good thing. The truth is we are made in the image of the Divine. We are so deeply loved. You are worthy of receiving love. You are worthy of loving yourself.
We also have our fear, which we use as a layer of protection to prevent ourselves from getting hurt again. The problem is the more we use fear to protect, the less likely we are to feel love. Painful experiences will happen to all of us in our lifetimes; and the very force that makes us resilient enough to rebound from those experiences is love.
Are you willing to let go of your fear and believe you are strong enough to face this world, unguarded?
Finally, we have our egos. Way too often we think we’re the center of the universe. We think the world revolves around us. We worry if we drop the ball on this one thing, the rest of the universe is going to collapse around us. This is simply not true. When we embrace our own humanity and say, “I’m not perfect—but I don’t need to be,” we begin to feel our love for ourselves return.
We feel an awe and wonder at our place in the universe, rather than a burden of responsibility for making the world turn.
The truth I want us all to catch here is that, while there are outside factors influencing our ability to love ourselves, most of the control lies in our own hands. We can learn to cultivate a deep and enduring love for ourselves.
How can we learn to love ourselves?
In my own journey, the most profound thing I’ve done to cultivate a deep love for myself is to change my thought patterns. Thought patterns, like the ones I shared above, are both evidence of our lack of love for ourselves and also the very thing standing in the way of accepting and growing the love that is already there.
We all have negative thought patterns keeping us from loving ourselves. Some are more obvious than others.
If you don’t think you have any negative thought patterns, try putting yourself in a situation where you feel profoundly uncomfortable. Ask yourself where that discomfort comes from. What is it about? What is it telling you? Also notice your criticism of others. Our criticism of others is often a reflection of how we feel about ourselves.
- Do you find yourself criticizing others for not being thin enough?
- For not making enough money?
- For the clothes they wear?
- For being “dumb”?
Our criticisms of others give us these valuable hints about how we feel toward ourselves. And when we can mine out the negative thoughts we have about ourselves, we can begin to replace them with loving ones.
If you’re still having a hard time figuring out the negative thoughts you have about yourself, my suggestion is this: get less busy. It is in stillness and silence and solitude that negative feelings about ourselves rise to the surface so we can catch them. Learn to sit in stillness, to meditate, to fall asleep at night without the TV on. In these margins you will learn to hear and understand how you feel about yourself.
Loving thoughts will change your life.
The process is really simple, honestly. I started, for example, by taking a negative thought I had about myself like, “you’re never going to succeed” and replacing it with a positive thought, or a few positive thoughts like, “the success you desire is coming to you in its time” or “you deserve to be successful”.
I would write these positive thoughts down in my journal or repeat them to myself when I felt overwhelmed or anxious or lonely.
Slowly but surely, I started to believe them. I felt less anxious, more at peace with myself, less likely to lash out in anger or pout when things didn’t go my way. My relationships got better—including and especially the relationship with my husband. I was no longer waiting for him to change his behavior so I could feel good about myself.
And here’s the crazy part. My husband’s affections have naturally shifted toward me as I’ve learned to love myself. I don’t have to coax him to stop working. He just does. I don’t have to ask him to put down his phone. He does it without my asking. This is how to find love.
It’s amazing how much easier it is to like someone who likes themselves (tweet that)
Do you believe you deserve to have a good life?
By that I don’t mean everything will work out perfectly for you all the time or that you will get everything you want. What I do mean is that the love you feel for yourself can stay with you no matter what takes place in your life.
That love will comfort you, keep you company, keep you at peace and even transform you into the person you’ve always wanted to be.
Love is the most powerful force in the world.
I used to have a hard time resting or even sitting down—especially if I was stressed. People would come over to my house for dinner and I would be on my feet the entire time, serving food, washing dishes, refilling drinks. These days I realize that most of what people want from me is just for me to be with them—after all, I’m likable! I like myself.
I used to be racked with guilt and anxiety over the smallest things. I’m learning that comes from a place of self-hatred and perfectionism and love for myself is slowly curing that. When something would go wrong in life, I used to take it as a failure on my part. Now I see situations that don’t go my way as either unexpected blessings and/or an opportunity to learn.
A year an a half ago, I honestly wasn’t sure my marriage would survive. And over the course of the last 18 months, that relationship has totally transformed. I don’t even recognize us anymore. And I’m convinced the transformation is because I stopped waiting for someone else to do something different so I could feel good about myself and chose to feel good about myself—just as I was.
The love I always been so desperate to feel had been with me all along.