You can’t love the other unless you love yourself? I think putting such a hopeless and isolating burden on an individual is cruel. So, we’re not allowed to truly experience and claim the joy of loving and caring for others if we don’t know how to give it to ourselves?? Really!? That just seems punitive and mean…
But let’s back up a bit. How do we learn how to love as a verb (as opposed to an internal feeling)?
Here’s what I think… From birth, in every moment, we are learning what it looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels like to be loved or not. Gaze, touch, voice tone, proximity, pace of movement, and words are just some of the things that activate mirror neurons in the baby’s brain and trigger the building blocks of learning. Were we looked at with adoration, touched gently, spoken to with kindness, given delighted and focused attention? That’s evidence of love. Were we provided with good and wholesome food and drink, appropriate clothing, and balanced structure? That was loving care. Did we live and grow in a clean and pleasant environment? More evidence of caring. If we were looked at with disgust or ignored, we did not learn love. If we were starved, dehydrated, given non-nutritive food and drink, were ill-clothed, deprived of basic hygiene, we did not learn loving care. If we were raised with clutter, filth, poor lighting, cruel words, caustic sounds, we did not learn that we deserve clean, beautiful, peaceful surroundings.
It makes sense that if we do not have much (or any) experience receiving basic loving care, we would end up being more challenged in figuring out how to give basic loving care to ourselves. It’s not impossible to overcome the initial lack, but it translates into more work, a higher probability of overwhelm, and greater likelihood of giving up on truly experiencing self love. To learn how to give loving care to others is much more understandable because that is an action society repeatedly teaches us as a crucial skill for creating and maintaining connection with other beings. Of course at a nonverbal, survival level, caring for others helps us avoid abandonment and attack from our family, tribe, and community in general (safety in numbers and all that). And, it’s much easier to realize how worthy and deserving those other beings are than to truly accept it in ourselves when we have little or no base experience of it.
What happens when we observe others receiving adoring looks, words of praise, compassion, acceptance? What might one learn from noticing that others get nourished, touched with love and respect, nurtured, and live in beauty and peace? Perhaps we learn that others deserve loving care, but not us. And observing others being loved and cared for, we learn how to love and care for them too… and that can feel good. For some of us, focusing on serving, caring for, and loving others is the closest we get to feeling good about ourselves. Unfortunately, it can also serve as the main distraction away from doing the crucial work of learning self care and self love.
Okay, hold on… I am not suggesting that we have to stop caring for others or loving others or being of service to get our self love on. What I am suggesting is that we take time to reflect on how we treat ourselves as well as what unspoken expectations or desperate hopes we may have inadvertently, unconsciously, or even consciously placed on others. For some of us, the deprivation of loving care in our early years may be connected to a story that we are not “being good enough” or “doing well enough” to deserve the nurturing, praise, and compassion. That basic loving care must be somehow earned. If that is the case, then we might unconsciously be acting out an unspoken deal with other beings who are unaware of the conditions of the deal. For instance, the deal might be “I will sacrifice my own needs, wishes, and boundaries to show I love and care about you… and then I will expect to be loved and cared for back in the way/s I desire…” Only no one person out there can afford to pay that price. Nobody else can truly know and meet all of your needs, fulfill your wishes, or set and maintain your boundaries. So, if you gave all that up, it is on you to take it back.
If we go too long putting all of our caring and love into others at the expense of loving ourselves, eventually we will notice signs of increased discontent and dysfunction. Some signs include: annoyance, irritation, anger (outbursts or cold shoulder), resentment, bitterness, hopelessness, and a seemingly perpetual drought of joy. Some other signs include numbing out (addiction), isolating, depression, and attempting to hide your increasingly (and horrifyingly) growing needs which often are perceived by others as overwhelming. We become “too needy” or “high maintenance” or a “black hole of need”.
Kind of bleak, huh? Well, no. Not entirely. Most of us have experienced lack of loving care in some way or another and at different intensities and lengths of time in our lives. And lots of us have learned how to grow their own garden of self love later in life. Sounds great! Hopeful even! So then, what can we do to generate self love and manifest self care?
More about that in Self Love, Part 2…