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How Do I Learn to Love Myself?

love myself (2)

You know how people say you can’t love others until you love yourself? Well, it’s trite, but true.

The reason you have to love yourself first is because, if you don’t, then in every relationship your focus is on getting the other person to reassure you that you are lovable. Which is not a reliable source of reassurance. Sometimes people are distracted, or in a bad mood, or equally preoccupied with wanting you to prove that you love them. Which leads to a lot of fights that center around accusations and demands.

Before I could even say what the rules were, I learned that I had to prove I was worthy of love in a variety of ways. And it wasn’t enough to be good. I had to be perfect. The best, if possible. The #1 seed on the tennis team with an undefeated record and no unforced errors in any of my matches, for example. And in the rare cases in which I could achieve this moment of perfection, the target moved. The carrot stick just a bit further, still out of my reach. I needed to work harder. Be better.

I’m not saying this to blame my parents. I know that they were under the same kind of pressure from their parents. Which they learned from their parents. And I did the same thing in my relationships. It’s painful to remember all of the unreasonable demands that I made on other people. How nothing was ever enough to reassure me that I was loved. If I wanted him to buy me flowers, and then he bought me flowers, I’d be like, you just did that because I told you to so you don’t really love me. It was a no one situation for both of us.

Not so long ago, I hit rock bottom. I couldn’t stand being this person in my relationships anymore. Which is why I embarked on that 4 year journey of solitude. I was determined to love myself, even if it killed me!

How does one learn to do this, you ask? Because you can just be like, I love myself! Done. Ready for love. I didn’t have examples of what that looked like, and there weren’t any textbooks on it in grad school. Self-love 101. So it has been a very slow process. Like learning a second language on your own. It has only been in the last decade or so that I have found any helpful advice on how to cultivate self-love, and that was when I learned about self-compassion. Which I write about a lot. But rather than make you go back and read 300+ blog posts, I’ll give you a cheat sheet on what I have learned so far.

  1. Forgive yourself for the love you didn’t give. We are all going about life, trying to love and be loved, using whatever limited resources we have at our disposal.
  2. Forgive others for the love you didn’t get. The same thing applies to them.
  3. Remind yourself that your feelings count. Even if you don’t know why. Or it doesn’t seem like a good enough reason. Or the feelings don’t go away when you want them to. Be willing to be there, with your pain, for as long as necessary.
  4. Embrace who you are, exactly as you are, in this moment. Your flaws. Your mistakes. The embarrassing things you’ve said and done. You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love.
  5. Strive to love better. Most forms of self-improvement come from a place of unworthiness. I don’t think we ever convince ourselves that we are worthy, but we can try to love ourselves–and others–despite all of our glorious imperfections. And it feels way better than blaming and shaming.

These steps have become my daily practice. My self-love workout. But despite my daily practice, my internal monologue still doesn’t sound very loving at times. But I try to forgive myself. Try to accept wherever I am in this moment on the path to wholeheartedness.

A History of Trauma

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There were 3 mass shootings last week. Three. Last week. Although there is only talk about 2 of them, because I guess not enough people got killed in the first one. I used to think about how hard it would be to live in the Middle East, where children are trained to be suicide bombers whose goal is to kill as many people as possible before sacrificing their own lives. Have we become a culture that does the same thing?

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was interesting to read what WWII was like from the German side. And a reminder of how traumatic war is. It seems the only way to survive was to forget–all that you saw. All that you lost. All of the things you did. All of the things you didn’t do. Forget that you saw dead bodies strewn about, or piled up in large heaps, and just went about your business. Maybe you even contributed in some way, directly or indirectly, to killing them yourself. But what other choice did you have, really, but to focus on your own survival? How could someone who lived through something so horrifying not have PTSD? It’s too much to process. Too horrible to make sense of.

In the book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine argues that war is a reenactment of unhealed trauma that repeats itself at the individual, generational, and cultural level. That’s deep. Even in the Bible humanity begins with murder. Brother killing brother. And the aggressor survives, earns his right to pass down his genes to the next generation.

In my own family, I can see the effects of trauma in some of my nieces and nephews and can trace the pain of it back to my grandparents. I’m sure it goes further back than that. I just don’t know their stories. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, this is why I chose not to have kids. At some level, I knew that I would do more harm than good. People who know me would say this isn’t true, but I know that trauma happens all the time and is often invisible to us. Even when we see it, we can become desensitized to it. And even when we know it’s happening to people we love, we sometimes look the other way.

I also read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb–a therapist who talks about her own therapy, as well as the work with her clients. A book that I had wanted to write, by the way. The very reason I started this blog. So she beat me to the punch. But she isn’t as crazy as I am, so maybe there is room for 2 books about therapists who are also clients.

But I digress. One of the clients she talks about is a woman who is about to turn 70 and is going to commit suicide on her birthday unless Gottlieb can convince her that life is worth living. Talk about pressure! Turns out that part of the problem is that she doesn’t want to be happy. Or rather, she doesn’t deserve to be happy. Among her list of crimes is that when she was married to an alcoholic and abusive man who beat their children, she would walk out of the room. And she didn’t leave him for a long time. She knowingly, willingly, participated in their abuse by looking the other way. None of her children have forgiven her. Why should she?

But what power do I have to stop a cycle of violence that began with the first offspring in the history of humanity?

My client asked me this question yesterday. Felt powerless, disoriented, and anxious in a world where children can buy weapons of mass destruction and are given permission to kill other people—particularly those who are deemed to be less than human. Everyone points fingers, argues about who is to blame, but nothing happens. What can I do to have some control?

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck also wrestled with what to make of the sibling rivalry that kicked off humankind. How do we go forward after we’ve killed our brother? The answer eventually comes from Adam’s Chinese servant Lee. He decided to study Hebrew with some ancient Chinese wisemen for several years. So that he could accurately interpret the 16 lines of the Bible in which Cain’s story is told. Just for kicks. And the answer is: not matter how deep-rooted the sin, there is always a chance for redemption.

In other words, we do have some power to stop the cycle of violence. And, in my opinion, it begins with self-compassion. I told my client that he has the power to be kind to himself. To commit to creating a space in his mind that is loving. That is dedicated to self-care, acceptance, and forgiveness. It takes practice, but with time, healing takes place. And the energy you create within you and around you will be filled with compassion, so that others can feel it when they interact with you. And so forth, and so on, until we create a cycle of love that breaks the cycle of violence.

So I’m trying to take my own advice. The cycle of hatred ends with me, within me.

Living With It

Bob

I am excited to start the year with a guest post from a friend I have known for 29 years. We met during our second year of college in a philosophy course and, though we probably didn’t know it at the time, connected in part because of our struggles with depression. It’s a rare gift to be able to see what the journey to self-acceptance looks like over the life span. For me, reading it was a reminder that wisdom is born out of suffering and self-compassion.

***

I remember wandering around my neighborhood with tears streaming down my face. It was a sunny day in Austin, Texas, but to me everything was hopeless, sadness was all around, and the future promised only pain. My Dad picked me up in his car, clearly worried, and not long afterwards I was hospitalized with depression.

That hospitalization when I was fifteen was a long time coming. When I was seven years old and my parents were getting divorced, I pulled so much of my hair out that I had to wear a hat to cover up the bald spot. When I was eleven, I starved myself for months and had to be hospitalized and treated for anorexia.

I’m nearly fifty years old now, and for most of my life I’ve lived with depression and anxiety. It comes and goes. I’ve contemplated suicide too many times to count. I’ve spent days, weeks and months wishing I were not alive, crying when I thought no one would notice, and feeling like I was crazy.  

I’ve tried various strategies – ignore it, fight it, drink or smoke it away. I’ve taken all kinds of pills, and I’ve seen psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and counselors.

I’ve read books about depression, spirituality, self-help, mindfulness and positive psychology. I’ve quit some jobs, taken other jobs, and moved several times, at least partly influenced by depressive feelings.

Through all of this suffering, I like to believe I’ve learned a few things worth sharing. Here are my “Top 3” insights regarding living with depression – because everyone loves lists right?   

  1. Depression makes you believe a lot of things that aren’t true. A psychiatrist told me this, after I complained to him that I was a lazy, worthless bastard, and a burden to everyone I knew. He was right and I was wrong. Don’t believe the things depression tells you about yourself. No matter what you may have done or what you think your faults are, you deserve love from both yourself and others..
  2. Don’t give up. Even if the future seems bleak and promises nothing but pain, hang in there because things will get better. Even if you don’t think it will help, see that new doc or try that new technique, whether it’s yoga, exercise, diet, meditation or medication. Your depression may not completely go away, but finding a way to manage it is essential. And it’s a lifelong process. You never know where that breakthrough might come from – and sometimes a smile from a stranger is enough to get through the day.
  3. You’re not alone. The hardest part of depression for me has always been the loneliness. I feel like no one loves me or cares about me, and connection with other people is impossible. Now I know that is the depression talking, because it’s an illness that robs us of joy and love. We are never alone, no matter how lonely we may feel. Chances are at least one person in your life truly loves you, and even in the rare case where you are truly isolated, please know that many of us have been where you are, and have felt what you feel.  

None of these 3 insights are especially original, but that’s okay. I actually find it comforting that what I’ve learned from my experience of depression reflects what others have learned as well.

Maybe this is a fourth insight, or a corollary to #3 above, but it’s love that’s gotten me through. Love from family and friends who cared enough to help me when I’ve been down. Sometimes I’ve needed a lot of love, patience and support, when I wasn’t in a position to provide anything in return.

Your depressed mind may tell you that you don’t deserve love or help, that people don’t want to be bothered, and you’re not worth it. That’s not true. Reach out, ask for help. Tell someone how you feel.  

Your closest and most trusted friends are the ones who will hold you when you’re a basket case, tell you they love you, and never judge you. Those friends are keepers. Not everyone is equipped to provide this kind of support, but you might be surprised what other people have gone through, and how willing they are to help.

Sometimes I still feel like that teenager wandering around in the middle of the day and crying his eyes out. I feel fear and dread and sadness, without any apparent reason.  

But I know now this pain is universal, a drop in the enormous bucket of pain that the universe dishes up every day. It’s the pain that we have in common, and seeing that is what can unite us, and make love and joy possible.

Charles G. lives in the Upper Midwest with his family. He works in marketing, likes to travel, and gets by with a little help from his friends.

Accepting Love

I always find reading previous journal entries enlightening. Here’s an excerpt from 7 years ago about my struggle to be “normal”:

There’s always this doubt that I’m doing things right. Like if I’m passing for a normal human being. I have to learn what normal people do from observation and piece it all together. Like maybe the way someone feels when they have a learning disability in a non-disabled world. You kind of don’t want to have to point out to people that you don’t get it so you pretend that you do.

A clear precursor to Normal in Training.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been reading journals from way back. Once I got past the entries about Rick Springfield and started having real relationships, it was difficult to read some of them with compassion because I was so frickin’ crazy. I know I still struggle with accepting love, but back then I was downright out of touch with reality.

In one entry, a friend of mine would repeatedly call me in the middle of the night to tell me that he loved me. Granted, he was drunk every time, but based on my experience in working with college students, it is when a person is drunk that they often reveal their deep, dark secrets. I have an eating disorder. I think about suicide. I’m in love with you.

My response in my journal was, I wonder what he means by that? I’m going to have to ask him next time. As I read this, I was like, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you delusional?! Is it not obvious what someone means when they tell you they love you? And then the next line was, why doesn’t anyone like me? Which was even more maddening to read. No wonder my ex boyfriends would tell me that nothing was ever enough.

I get it now, though. I couldn’t take in anything good. I didn’t believe I was lovable, and there was nothing that anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

I have been depressed for the past few weeks because, even though I did a much better job of saying no and conserving my psychological energy, eventually my work load was beyond what I am capable of carrying. Because I have such good friends, many of them recognized the signs (not being social, turning down tennis) and checked on me, invited me to dinner, sent me food. Because they know me well enough to know that I never have food.

It was difficult for me to accept their love. I have the same reaction to love as I do to pain. I can feel myself tightening up, trying to brace myself against it. It’s the craziest thing. But since I was practicing mindfulness, I did what I do when I realize I’m trying not to experience pain–I let myself feel it. Consent to it. I imagined giving the love space, letting it move within me and around me, and to express itself in whatever way it wanted to. I told myself that it was OK to let them love me.

I often tell clients that receiving love is not selfish. It is a gift, and refusing it hurts the person who is giving it. That it is more generous to accept it with gratitude than to tell the person that you don’t deserve it and list all of the reasons why. I actually told a client this yesterday.

I also told a friend that this is what I’ve been trying to do to make myself feel better, so now he reminds me that I have great friends who love me, and that I need to let them. Which pisses me off. Because even though it’s good advice–my advice–I still don’t like to be told what to do. He knows about this flaw, as well as all of my other flaws, but he loves me, anyway. I’m trying to let myself believe that, at least.

And you know what? It really did help. So I’m going to add it to my list of strategies of what to do when I’m depressed–to let people love me.

What Would You Do?

evil and free will

I just finished reading The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, and I highly recommend it. I was ambivalent about reading another book about WWII because we read so many of them in book club, but this one got over 34,000 5 star ratings on Amazon. I’ve never even seen a book that’s been read by over 34,000 people, much less one that had a rating of 5 stars. So I figured it had to be good.

There are so many things to like about it. It’s written by a woman and from the perspective of female characters. Hannah’s intention was to educate people on the important contributions women made in the war, because they cannot be found in history books. It did not have the kind of violent and gory descriptions that give me anxiety attacks, like Unbroken did. Don’t get me wrong–I thought Unbroken was a great book; I just didn’t read half of it. It was a love story–a traditional one, and also one about two sisters. And, perhaps most importantly, it made me think about why God allows bad things to happen, and whether I would risk my life to save other people.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. One of the lessons that I get from it is that it is inevitable that we will choose the wrong thing. That is one of the consequences of free will. It’s sort of like the Bill of Rights–having free speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of the press means that there are a lot of things that we may have to tolerate that we vehemently dislike. That we consider evil.

The only way I can make sense of the Holocaust is to think of it as an extreme case of how much free will we have. We can choose evil if we want to. We can choose to engage in it. We can choose to pretend we don’t see it. We can choose to do nothing about it. To follow orders, keep our heads down, focus on our own survival. Perhaps it’s extreme to think of self-preservation as a form of evil, but had there not been people who risked their lives, Hitler would have won.

I wish I could say that if I had been alive during WWII, I would have been willing to risk my life to save other people. That I have that kind of integrity and courage. I don’t know for sure, because one of the things I’ve learned from psychology, and personal experience, is that you never know what you’re going to do until you’re there, in that moment.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so much free will. That there were some safeguards so that we weren’t capable of doing so much damage on such a grand scale. I don’t know if I trust myself–or others–that much. I mean, there are some warning signs. In many of the near-death experiences books, the people always say that when you’re making the wrong choice, you come across many obstacles that make it difficult, but when you make the right choice, everything goes smoothly. I’ve found that to be true, too. Still, that’s obviously not enough of a deterrent to keep people from doing evil on a grand scale.

But then again, in every act of hatred, you can find many acts of love and kindness. They are powerful. They are healing. They help us move on, choose life, find happiness again. People who have faced horrific tragedies talk just as much about the outpouring of love they receive from people who they don’t even know as they do about their losses. So perhaps if I continue to practice compassion, when the time comes, I will be brave and choose love, even when it’s hard to do. That’s what I’m counting on, at least.

Suffering and Compassion, Part 3

This year I have decided to more fully participate in Lent by reading Wonderous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, by Richard Rohr, since I got so much out of reading Breathing Under Water. In each chapter, Rohr provides his interpretation of the scriptures for that day, then quotes the scriptures, and then offers a “starter prayer” for contemplation. I have found praying in this way much more fruitful. Although I usually don’t get an answer right away, by the next day I often have some insight that deepens my understanding of God.

One of the more difficult messages to digest in Rohr’s books is that God wants us to choose love, knowing full well that we will suffer as a result. Knowing that it will break our hearts. Because it is only through experiencing love, and the suffering that results from loving, that we can truly understand how much God loves us.

I have to admit, this really pissed me off. Like many people, I wrestle with the question of why God lets people suffer. I write about Easter every year in an attempt to understand the nature of suffering. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that God never promised that life would be free of suffering. The fact that Jesus died on the cross makes it explicit that no one is immune from suffering. But, on the bright side, God is with us in our suffering, even when we think he has abandoned us. Which is something, I guess.

But I still don’t want to suffer.

Now Rohr is trying to convince me that, not only must I endure suffering, which is hard enough, but that God wants me to actively and willingly choose suffering as a consequence of love. That this is how we fully understand what it means to be human. This is how we gain wisdom. This is how we can more fully experience God’s love. Those all sound like great things, but it wasn’t exactly making me want to sign up for more pain and suffering.

When I told my brother this, he pointed out how much suffering I was willing to endure for tennis. Which is true. I have written blog posts describing how I’ve had asthma attacks, thrown up on the court, played through depressive episodes and physical pain. I’ve been sick from hunger, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. I’ve experienced humiliating losses. I’ve had bad tennis breakups. But I would never give up tennis just so I could avoid the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of playing this game that I love so much. Life would be much worse without tennis.

I’m pretty sure God loves us more than I love tennis. Which means he must really love us a lot. And, consequently, suffers a lot. All the time, billions of times over. Regardless of whether or not we choose to love him, or how many times we mess up. Willingly, repeatedly, from now until the end of time, God chooses to love us.

That’s pretty deep.

Who would have thought that tennis would teach me about the depths of God’s love? The benefits of tennis never cease to amaze me.

So I’m experimenting with focusing my intentions on being loving to myself and others whenever I’m in pain. Which is what the practice of compassion is about, after all. It’s going pretty well, I think. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but I guess it makes the pain more bearable. More meaningful. More worthwhile. I do feel happier, more peaceful of late. I don’t feel as anxious and depressed. Which could be because of Daylight Savings Time, in all honesty. But it could also be that the benefits of choosing love really do outweigh the costs.

I guess we’ll see.

Good vs. Evil

power of one

Yesterday there was another shooting, but this time it was near my hometown. By another person who was inspired by Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Charleston. Who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. And killed two young journalists in the process. Two people doing a feature story on the Chamber of Commerce on the morning news–because he wanted to make sure he got on the news.

In general, I believe that love is stronger than hate. That good trumps evil. But in moments like these, I sometimes wonder. Because one person’s hate has the power to destroy so much love. One act of evil can put an end to all of the good that these two people brought to the world.

The killer got his wish. No one may have paid attention to him before, but now he will be remembered forever. People will know his name. His act of evil has been immortalized. If I were to try to do the opposite of what he did–to perform one grand act of love, of goodness–it would not have the same impact. What does that say about the power of good vs. evil?

Still, in my state of helplessness, I do what I can. I pray. I send compassion. I’m sure it does something, but I’m not sure what. If I ask God to send them extra angels–even some of mine, and just leave me one–will they be surrounded by them? Will angels be there with them while they grieve? Will they sit with their pain? Will they make them feel God’s love?

If I send compassion, if I feel their pain, will it lessen their suffering? Make the pain more bearable? If I cry for them, will it absorb some of their tears? Or maybe sending love and compassion becomes a force that sits side by side with the grief, anger, and confusion. Maybe it helps to balance out the good and evil in the universe.

The people affected in these tragedies always say they feel the outpouring of love. During 9/11. Sandy Hook. And yesterday. During natural disasters. And even during our private tragedies. The friends who bring food when we are sick. The people who prayed for my father when he was depressed. Even though they didn’t know him. Just because they love me. I was deeply moved by how much other people cared about my family’s suffering.

When I went on the self-compassion retreat in May, we did this exercise where we imagined someone we knew who was suffering and we sent them compassion. And then we sent it to ourselves, because we felt their pain deeply. The whole time I was doing this, I thought, is this really going to help? Is sending compassion going to actually make a change in this person’s life? They didn’t even know I was doing it.

The instructor’s response to this question was perhaps one of the most helpful things that I learned in this retreat. He said that he didn’t know if it helped the other person to send them compassion, but it helps him to send it.

That’s a good enough reason for me. Sending angels and compassion helps me feel less helpless. And it helps me to put love and goodness at the forefront of my mind.

Because that’s one way that I won’t let that guy win. I won’t let him fill me with hatred.

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Adam Ward and Allison Parker