As Christmas approaches and people are rushing around doing gifts shopping and arranging family meetings, I find myself reflecting more and more about one of the central themes to this holiday: love.
We all are longing for love. Aren’t we? And when I say this I don’t mean only romantic love, but love expressed and experienced in different forms: through human companionship, acceptance kindness. In my therapy work (as well as in “real life”) I constantly meet people who talk about how they suffer from isolation, from the lack of real connection and appreciation. They express the deep-felt desire to be listened to, cared for, acknowledged. Paradoxically, however, we often expect that all these things must come from the outside. That they should be expressed and given to us by other people. It is as if we had no right to give these very gifts to ourselves. As if there was some part within us that forbade us from accepting, acknowledging and nurturing our selves. Yet, this part appears to be always fighting another part, the innate part that tries to assert – sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a stifled scream – its birthright for love.
For some people the conflict between these two parts is very bitter and poignant, so that at times they really feel torn apart. This is certainly how it used to be for me… But how does it come about?
The topic is very complex indeed. It can by no means be even partially covered in this short article, but nonetheless I would like to say a few words and thus to open the discussion. In a very simplified form, it appears to me to be a conflict between “nature” and “nurture.” It appears that the sense of self-value, the sense of our own uniqueness and our right to be happy is something inborn in us. Otherwise we wouldn’t have ever felt offended or wronged. These emotions can only arise if that inborn sense has been impinged on. Even small children would cry sometimes “This is not fair!” Even animals can feel it! And I believe that this perception of unfairness comes from the deep-rooted, almost instinctual sense of justice intrinsically connected with the feeling of self-worth.
However, much of our upbringing and education aimed to make us fit for living in a society works through suppressing, reframing and restraining our instinctual urges. And – to a certain extent – it is, of course, a necessary thing and something that makes us self-conscious humans. What happens though is that the “baby gets thrown out together with the water.” It is as if from the old biblical saying “love your neighbour as yourself,” the second half has been chucked away, so we are left just with “love your neighbour.”
As we are constantly admonished to be sensitive to other people, to be considerate and care for others’ needs, we often get little confirmation that our needs and feelings are equally important. That being in tune with our feelings and needs can actually also help us better care for others. Thus we end up growing with the underlying sense of guilt and self-denial; unable to distinguish between being “selfish” and being in tune with our needs.
These issues are intrinsically connected with self-esteem. The more we have been denied as children the proper care and nourishing love that validated our inborn sense of self-worth the lower will be our self-esteem as adults, and the more acute would be the conflict between the craving for love and a suspicion that we somehow do not deserve it. Because the craving is strong and cannot be easily overcome we may end up demanding love from others. But others can never give us what we do not want to give ourselves! By which I mean that even if somebody loves me very much, if my self-esteem is low, I will constantly doubt their love and demand further and further proofs that would somehow never be enough. At the end this makes us totally dependent on other people for validating our self-worth and often undermines the relationships.
People I work with in therapy often ask me: but how can I love myself? How can I give myself love?
These are the questions I have been asking myself too for a long time. Is it possible to feel love for yourself in the same way you experience it towards another person? Could it be possible that your heart would suddenly be washed all over with that sweeping warm wave of tenderness that at times engulfs it when you are looking at your child or at your beloved? I must admit that I have never experienced it quite as strongly. However, I had a definite experience of the change of my feelings towards myself as a child. In fact it has been a really dramatic change. From deepest self-loathing to very warm acceptance, compassion and, well, I may say – love. Therefore I know that it is possible. And I have witnessed similar transformation in people I had the privilege to work with.
In my future articles I will discuss in more detail some specific techniques and skills that may help you find, adopt and nurture the wounded – and yet utterly precious – child within you. Here I would just suggest something very simple. And this is taking your time – even if just five or ten minutes a day (or whenever you can) – to simply stay quietly with yourself. Noticing how your body feels; whether you experience tension or discomfort in any part of your body. Noticing your emotions. What are you feeling at the moment? Are you content? Are you sad or angry? Notice how you feel without judgment. It is almost like stepping away from yourself and offering yourself the attention and empathy that all human beings deserve. By doing that you will gradually begin being more attuned to yourself, more in touch with your intuition and creativity, more self-aware and also more able to create fulfilling relationships with others.