How do we love ourselves? What is self-love? Is it simply an abstract idea, or is it possible to love this being we call home? This temple of the body with everything that comes attached to it--the psyche, the emotions, the blood, the cells, the brain and heart. We are complex beings in our entirety, so, how do we come into loving relationship with our self?
These are complicated questions, ones that do not have simple answers and can take a lifetime to investigate, but what might be possible to understand is the process of coming to know ourselves. This process is an enactment of self-love.
I've worked on this for decades at this point knowing from very early on that something was wrong but not quite sure what it was. I assumed it was that I was fat. It didn't matter that I was 5'3" and weighed 105 lbs in high school; I was convinced that my thighs were bigger than anyone else's who'd ever existed. As a result, I was pretty sure I didn't deserve to live, let alone feel good about myself. It took a lot of stress in my early life for me to get that message about myself, and while I am exaggerating somewhat, not entirely. What I know today is that it didn't have a thing to do with my thighs but more that I was estranged from my body, and therefore I judged it as something alien to me rather than something so intimately core to who I am in this life. Coming to love myself has included loving my body. By seeing it as an innate aspect of who I am and realizing that it is an incredible machine that's been given to me as a gift, I find myself deeply grateful for it, despite my intermittent judgments about its supposed short-comings.
Most of us do not grow up with a deep sense of who we are at our core. Instead we grow up with vague ideas about whom we should become, and then we try to live up to them. We are given a name and a gender, which could be congruent with our sex or not. Core values, deep-seated beliefs, and ideas about the world are instilled in us immediately upon arrival in this world. As we learn and grow and interact with life, our sense of self grows accordingly. As we have meaningful experiences, these experiences form core beliefs that make us feel good about who we are, and they also make us feel bad or limited in ways that are painful. These beliefs mold the structure of our character in significant ways, and we form our identity upon them by reinforced experiences. For example, if we get a lot of validation when we are small for simply being who we are, we grow up with a healthy sense of goodness at the core of our identity. Conversely, if we are constantly yelled at and always getting in trouble for impulsive behavior, we learn that there is something wrong with us. We don't exactly know what it is that is wrong, because in essence it is an untruth, but we will have that deep core belief mended into the fabric of who we take ourselves to be. A lot of this is set for life by the time we're four years old, without us even knowing a thing about how this process has taken place.
In my experience anything that is not rooted in love is not truth. Therefore, the only true identity that we can have is one that is made of love. Short of this, we don't exist. In other words, we have all kinds of ideas about who we are, and who other people are, but many of these ideas are limited, negative, judgmental and condemning even. We often think we/others are bad, unworthy, even fundamentally flawed. When we start looking more deeply, trying to see what's inside of our sense of self, we run into these limited ideas and mistake them for the truth. Yet what is at the core of our being, underneath it all, is love. Everything else that we encounter along the way is simply what's in the way of this love being known. Stuff that got put there inadvertently--beliefs that we mistake for who we really are. Michael Meade in his mosaic voices venture, talks about the etymology of the word genius, and how it points to our inborn spirit and gifts that we come in with. He talks about how each and every one of us has something to contribute to this world simply because we exist. I love this and find that it is true. We all have something of value, we simply have to find it, and we find it by looking within.
Most of us have issues with our bodies. In some way or another, we feel the pain of our imperfections, despite the fact that who we are in actuality is far more than our physical body. Yet, our sense of self is so deeply and completely tied to the body. We also live in a culture that lets us know that unless we are some kind of an Avatar, under the age of 25, and freakishly rich that we're rather insignificant. The result of these messages is that we either ignore our bodies altogether, not wanting to feel anything in relation to them, or we're constantly try to improve them by changing something about them in order to achieve a kind of abstract perfection that is impossible to attain. We wish our nose was smaller, our thighs thinner, our lungs sturdier, our belly flatter, our chest broader, our feet narrower, our forehead smaller, our hair shinier, our skin darker, or lighter, our eyesight better, our fingernails stronger, our legs longer or our abs tighter. The more we buy into these messages the crazier we become trying to achieve an impossible goal. If we work out more, have this procedure, lose these pounds, buy these products, then we'll be worthy. And on and on it goes. How do we stop it? Is it possible even?
I struggle with a particularly strong case of perfectionism with regards to my body. I have body parts that are not symmetrical; my ears for example are lopsided. My one hip sticks out slightly more than the other giving me a bit of a muffin top on one side. I agonized over these and other "issues" for years before I came to understand that since I cannot change them I must learn to accept them if I want peace in my life. I now see these imperfections are part and parcel of what I've had to have intrinsically close in order to be constantly reminded to either choose love or to be in pain by choosing something less, like judgment or condemnation. As I accept my body, I let go of the deep self-judgment I've carried for years. This process is akin to saying a mantra. It takes repeated, sustained effort to yield results.
Not one of us on this earth can help the body we are born into. We don't choose, at least not consciously, what we will look like from the tips of our heads to the bottom of our toes. So much mystery as to how we've come to be is wrapped up in the body, and yet if we believe that there is a greater force in this universe, one that's had a hand in how we've come to be here on Planet Earth, can we entertain the idea that maybe this greater force, which many call God, might just have gifted each of us with exactly the perfect body for who we are? The foibles we each have to come to terms with, the imperfections we must accept despite all the messages in the culture suggesting we do otherwise, could these be the exact things we need in order to come to know our worthiness and to understand that within our imperfect body is our perfect self.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash