“Here’s what I have learned; self-love is a state of mind where you appreciate, respect and honor yourself. It is a state of mind where you do not break promises to yourself, where you are as kind to yourself as you are to others and where you forgive yourself as easy as you forgive others. Self-love is about being your own best friend, because make no mistake, the most important relationship you will ever have in your life is with yourself.” realifeofanmsw
When I look back on myself in the year 2005, I thought I was not judgmental and had mostly positive self-talk. That is because all of my judgements and inner critic thoughts were unconscious. I thought I was OK, but looking back I see that I didn’t love myself. I was not as kind to myself as I was to others, I did not forgive myself easily, and I was definitely not my own best friend. My needs, when I could admit I had them, came in last place.
It was about that time that I felt a hole in my heart, so I started seeking. My path to self-love included: learning to meditate, seeing my mental chatter, toning down my inner critic, getting comfortable enough with discomfort to sit with my inner wounds, cultivating self-compassion, asking, “Are you sure?” and based on the answer to that, updating my stories.
Seeing Mental Chatter
I had some wounds from my childhood that I kept buried pretty deep. I didn’t even realize those stories were still playing in my mind until I had been meditating regularly for a few years. When I learned to slow down the mental chatter, I was able to see more of the stories I was playing over and over in my mind. I realized that I had a very strong inner critic.
Toning Down My Inner Critic
A healthy inner critic helps you recognize where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to do to set things right. But for me, as for many of us, my inner critic went overboard, throwing dart after dart of scolding, shaming, nit-picking, and faultfinding. No wonder I felt that something was wrong with me.
I encouraged my inner critic by holding myself to a high standard of perfection. When I failed to meet that impossible standard, I heard the same words repeatedly – “I’m not good enough.” This came from the voice of my father who would say when I got all A’s and a B, “What’s that B doing there?” What I heard was you are not good enough. Ouch!
“While still under the tyranny of the Critic, we believe that self-love depends on constant striving, success, and the love and admiration of others.” Sharon Salzberg
Since I believed I was not good enough, I wasted a lot of time trying to prove myself to the world. I became a know-it-all and do-it-all as I hungered for approval from others so that I could feel better about myself. For many years, I unconsciously listened to the mantra “You’re not good enough,” believing it and allowing it to shape my life.
Like each of you, I have had incorrect stories playing out in my head for much of my life. I thought I had to know everything and do everything in order to be enough. I thought that having needs was bad, that I had to take care of myself without help from others. I thought I had to brush any unpleasant feeling under the carpet, or it would overwhelm me. My story said don’t get too close to friends, if they see the true you, they will reject you.
“To truly love ourselves, we must challenge our beliefs that we need to be different or inherently better in order to be worthy of love.” Sharon Salzberg
By practicing looking deeply and asking, “Are you sure?” I found that many of my stories were untrue. And those false stories definitely didn’t serve me. They made me rigid, inflexible, clingy and at times closed off. Those stories limited who I was and what I experienced. I have been practicing letting go of these stories, but when I am feeling particularly stressed, they come popping back up.
I haven’t made my inner critic go away, but I have reduced the power it holds over me. With practice, I am on the verge of not believing that my failures are who I really am. I am learning to simply acknowledge my critic and say, “Oh, yes, there is that story again.”
As soon as I do, the judging thought loses some of its power over me. I can decide whether to listen to the story, to believe it, to act on it or to just ignore it. When I don’t listen to my critic, I find that disaster doesn’t strike. This gives me the courage to listen to my inner wisdom.
“When you recognize and reflect on even one good thing about yourself, you are building a bridge to a place of kindness and caring.” Sharon Salzberg
I had been creating unhelpful neural pathways for years, so it will take practice to strengthen the helpful ones while letting the unhelpful one’s atrophy. When I take the time to feel how good it feels to release my inner critic’s grip on me, it gives me the strength to release its grip time and again.
Looking Deeply at My Wounds
Turning down the volume of my inner critic was not the only thing I needed to do to uncover my self-love. I had to look deeply at wounds from my childhood. Over the two years of my meditation teacher training, I learned to look at those wounds. Thich Nhat Hanh says to hold them like you would hold a crying baby. I thought this meant that would sooth them pretty quickly. But for me, holding them was more like holding a colicky baby who just won’t stop crying.
My friend at teacher training would encourage me by asking if I could be with it for just a moment. In trying to do so, I developed a visual that worked for me. I visualized that the wounds in my heart were covered in gauze, and it was a lot of gauze. When I would sit with them, I would open up the gauze to let the air get at them. My father, who was a doctor, only let us have a band-aid to stop the bleeding. He said wounds heal faster if you let the air get at them. So, I would open the gauze for a moment and let the air get at it (sit with the wound). When it got to be too much, I would cover it back up. Over time, the amount of gauze needed to cover the wounds diminished and I could keep it off longer and longer. Today, I no longer even need a band-aid. The wound is not totally healed, but I am strong enough to be with it.
Cultivating Loving Kindness & Self-Compassion
At SnowFlower, my meditation group, I learned about loving kindness practice. I really struggled with it. I could do loving kindness for loved ones and neutral people. Difficult people were a piece of cake. But I could not do loving kindness for myself. It felt too inauthentic.
“But when we come from a place of inner impoverishment, love becomes merely hunger: hunger for reassurance, for acclaim, for affirmation of our being.” Sharon Salzberg
Around this same time, I was studying how to be self-compassionate, to treat myself like I would a good friend. At my teacher training, Tara Brach would put her hand on her heart and say, “It’s OK sweetheart.” I thought, there is no way I can call myself sweetheart. But I did put my hand on my heart and felt the calming influence.
I continued to try to practice loving kindness for myself. I gathered up lots of phrases as the traditional ones did not work for me. The words felt more authentic. I also started repeating a mantra daily: “I am enough, I am worthy, my needs matter, I am perfectly imperfect.” Recently, I surprised myself, I caught myself saying it’s OK sweety-pie. And most of the time, I can genuinely send myself well wishes. There are still days when the love is blocked – it’s a lifelong practice.
Updating My Story
At a recent retreat I had a breakthrough. I was feeling very judgmental about everything on Friday night, just finding fault with everything. The judgments continued on Saturday morning. At the small group discussion, a friend said, “I wonder what is underneath feeling judgmental.” And I responded, “I guess it wouldn’t kill me to look deeply.” So, for the rest of the sits on Saturday I sat with feeling judgmental.
Then on the first sit Sunday morning, I was sitting with it and into my head popped my father’s voice, “What’s that B doing there?” I always thought he said that because he thought I was not good enough. This is in spite of the fact that my sisters said I was his favorite. So, I asked myself, “Are you sure?” And the answer was no, I am not sure. I just assumed the story that I was not good enough. The story could be that he believed in me and that was his not so skillful way of trying to motivate me.
“When we don’t tell those we love about what’s really going on or listen carefully to what they have to say, we tend to fill in the blank with stories.” Sharon Salzberg
I felt like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders. Joy bubbled up inside of me. If I wasn’t worried about hurting my shoulder, I would have done cartwheels on the path to breakfast. Updating my story removed another block to my self-love. I truly believe that I love myself with all my imperfections.
But my practice is not done, as there are still times when I feel the love is blocked. But when that happens, I know that I can begin again. I can ask myself, “Are you sure?” and update my story to be more empowering. I can remember that I don’t have to know everything or do everything to be enough. Even being perfectly imperfect, I am enough. I can live authentically, looking inside for love. I don’t have to strive to be who I think people want me to be. I can use that energy to be the best me that I can be.
“When we contort ourselves, doggedly trying to find some way to become okay, our capacity to love shrinks, and our attempts to improve ourselves fill the space that could be filled with love.” Sharon Salzberg