Wherever you look these days, self-love is in style. Ranging from necessary spiritual disciplines, developing your body, and working with boundaries to the more indulgent and consumer-driven decadent spa treatments, $100 aromatherapy candles, and designer crystal-infused psychedelic water, you cannot seem to escape its allure.
A quick look on any social media feed, and you will find self-love, self-care, and being kind to yourself peppered throughout in colorful memes and slide decks. Often, these love categories are conflated as being the same and can be easily obtained, without much self-reflection or work, through a 10 minute video or a hasty purchase.
But behind the media oversaturation lies a stark truth. Amid the chaotic and unprecedented complexity of the modern world, we are desperate to belong, mitigate our suffering, and be happy. And despite its promises to the contrary, the marketplace cannot deliver a quick, consumable fix.
The cure for our lack of awareness, connection, and meaning cannot be found outside of ourselves. It is an inside job: it can only emerge from within.
In awakening to our emergent potential and inherent goodness, most of us will enter through a gate of suffering or a sense of dissatisfaction. Loss, grief, illness, change, aging, fear, depression, anxiety, emotional overwhelm, or apathy—the list is as endless as the people who feel them. This is the common thread and our shared human experience.
Before we delve any further into the subject of self-compassion, I believe it is important to make several important distinctions. Self-love and self-compassion are not synonymous. Self-love can be characterized as deep affection with feelings of warmth, caring, and attachment. It is centered in being and a radical acceptance of oneself in all the myriad forms and ways in which one arises. In one way, it can be viewed as the full flowering of self-compassion.
Self-compassion can be defined as a sympathetic awareness of suffering, an allowing of what arises in our experience without getting stuck in it. Self-compassion begins with the intention of wholehearted kindness towards ourself. It is rooted in dynamic action and strategy; not as a tool to manipulate our emotions or feel better in the moment, but as method of self-discovery and deep empathy.
While clouds may block the sun, they do not diminish its radiance. Our problems, obstacles, and circumstances seemingly challenge or cloud our perception. Yet we are not them. Who we are is immensely more and fully interconnected, and all spiritual traditions hold this view in different forms. The trick is how do we engage with this mystery of emergence.
Start where you are. Not to escape the pain, confusion, or dissatisfaction of your current situation, but precisely because you are feeling pain, confusion, or dissatisfaction.
Throughout my years and life events, my self-love has ebbed and flowed with my circumstances. Surviving abuse and sexual assault, coming out as gay in my teens, painfully exiting from the seminary, losing wealth and position, threatened with violence, experiencing homelessness, and most recently enduring a traumatic spinal injury which left me in chronic pain and bedridden before surgery, my self-love has reached abysmal lows. I was seduced and ensnared by a range of negative emotions including rejection, shame, guilt, despair, and more. I felt not only unlovable and bad, but suicidal on several occasions.
When I reflect and tease out the common threads of recovery in each of these scenarios, self-compassion was the gateway to healing. First, I tired of the isolation that arose from my reactions to each event, and longing for something more. I came to understand that I am not alone in my suffering. Suffering is a shared human experience. Second, when I allowed the simple kindness of treating myself with the same unconditional regard that I did those I loved, the self-judgment began to subside.
Third, when I brought mindfulness to the dynamic range of emotions swirling around my pain and suffering, I trained in feeling them fully in their rawness without the usual rush to judgement and reactivity. This was unusually hard for me, as I carried an unconscious belief that emotions would either totally possess or annihilate me through their sheer gravity and weight. Only recently did I realize this was false belief. In working through the unrecognized trauma of survivor’s guilt surrounding my HIV/AIDS work in 90’s and the incomplete grieving of the many friends and clients who succumbed to the disease, I now embody a fuller emotional intelligence.
It is encouraging to see how the science backs up my understanding. The framework I used above is drawn from leading self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristen Neff’s seminal book, Self Compassion. Recent studies in both neuro- and positive psychology affirm the positive outcomes of self-compassion including increased emotional resilience, greater life satisfaction, curiosity, and happiness.
Self-compassion is the gateway to a full and rich self-love. From my engagement and practice, I see the essence of kindness as a state of receptivity and love as a place of complete embrace. The poet Rumi states so eloquently, “The wound is where the light enters you.” When you have suffered enough and are ready to let go and try something new, only then can something new emerge. With caring support, tender encouragement, and a patient diligence, the fertilizing practice of self-compassion bears the abundant fruit of a radical acceptance of self.
Remember that you are not a project to be solved, but a mystery coming into form.
So be kind to yourself.
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Cover image, Love Yourself, 14×17 inches, oil pastel, by Ericson AF Proper
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