The supreme happiness of life
is the conviction of being loved
or more correctly,
being loved in spite of yourself.
~ Victor Hugo
Everyone craves the sense of safety and well-being that comes from feeling loved and accepted; yet frequently love (for others, from others and for ourselves) seems to be given or withdrawn according to perceptions of good or bad behavior, strengths or weaknesses, flaws or abilities, body image and age. Love is too often conditional, or perceived as being so.
It is often hard to imagine or believe ( I hear this from my therapy clients all the time) that you are lovable or deserving of love because of ______ ( fill in the blank!). Maybe you will feel worthy of love when you_________( again fill in the blank), sometime in the future, a future that never arrives.
Often this sense of shame about who you are will cause you to perform all kinds of (usually unconscious) strategic maneuvers to keep people from getting close enough to see your flaws. The fact that the term "impostor syndrome" resonates widely in our culture today, speaks to how many people feel they are hiding and fooling people about who they really are. And that it's absolutely necessary to do so, or risk being rejected.
Imagine how free you would feel if you felt inherently lovable, just as you are (despite whatever you feel to be your flaws)! Imagine how you might do things differently, feel differently, take more risks, feel more open, more satisfied and less inhibited. Imagine how it would alter your relationships if you could be more authentically you, no longer needing to hide all the time behind a social persona. Relationships of all kinds would feel profoundly different, whether friendships, intimate or family relationships, co-workers. and community relationships. I realize that this is more easily said than done. However, maybe it would be worthwhile to sit down and write about this, meditate on it or enter therapy to find ways to truly embody a sense of your inherent lovable-ness.
Life can only be understood backwards,
but it must be lived forward
- Soren Kierkegaard
One of the great paradoxes of life is that we live our lives the best we can and yet only when we are further along in life and we look back, can we see our life clearly: the roads not taken ( and those taken), the choices that took us in one direction rather than another. Whether we live our life in a spontaneous manner or a more planned,directed one, it still really can't be understood until we are older and have some perspective. Then we can see our life, as though from an aerial view, its theme, its meaning, its trajectory.
Yet as Kierkegaard says, all we can do is live our lives forward, the best we can, with the information we have at the time, imperfectly pursuing our dreams, desires, and passions in spite of our limitations and fears, and the impact of our health, family history, race, gender, and social class.
What does it mean to live your life forward? How do you do this? How do you decide what's important to you? What is it you seek as you live your life forward? Is it financial and career success and/or satisfaction, happiness (and what does this mean to you?) a partner and/or family, good health, good friendships, social or political activism, travel?
There are so many possibilities that each person chooses or works toward in their own unique way. The infinite permutations of all these possibilities make each life one of a kind!
And how do you deal with getting or in some cases not, all the things you desire? As much as you may try to control your life and life in general, you do not really have complete a say in what happens. Illness, natural disasters,(in)fertility, love appearing or not, staying or not, job(in) security, etc etc. There are so many pieces to the puzzle of life that don't form a coherent narrative, until time has passed and there is space for perspective to look backward and see what your life has been.
The wind does not break
a tree that bends.
~ African Proverb
Challenges and change are a consistent part of life. Throughout each individual lifespan, everyone will face challenges in at least several realms: physical or mental health, employment, family, relationships, housing and financial to name some major ones. Life isn't about avoiding these challenges per se, but more about how to approach and deal with them, learning to respond more than react.
If fear and anxiety are your default way of facing challenges and change, the defenses you developed to protect yourself will tend to be rigid or controlled. This makes it difficult to bend and sway in the wind or the storm; instead it may feel like you will snap in two, as you may have learned to brace yourself against the wind rather than being flexible and bending with it.
When you are able to accept and face a challenge and not be overwhelmed by fear, your defenses will not be as rigid. This will allow you more ease and space to go with whatever you are facing, to creatively bend with the figurative wind or storm, finding ways to be flexible and graceful in the face of a howling wind that feels threatening to your life or survival.
Where in your life right now could you use more flexibility in facing a situation that may be troubling or threatening? Can you imagine how you might soften your stance and bend or sway, going with the challenge rather than resisting it?
Loving yourself does not mean
being self absorbed;
it means welcoming yourself
as the most honored guest in your own heart.
– Margo Anand
Recently I have been asking friends, family and acquaintances if they love themselves. This question often catches people by surprise, and makes them stop and think. Most people can list things they like or even love about themselves, but it's often difficult to acknowledge or feel love for themselves as a whole.
Anyone can name those they love, whether a partner, family,friends,or pets and can usually describe what love feels like. Yet people often have a much harder time discovering, acknowledging or feeling love for themselves.
More often then not, our culture teaches us that loving ourselves is the equivalent of being self absorbed, selfish, egotistical, or narcissistic ( In Greek mythology the already vain Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water, not realizing it was himself, couldn't bear to leave his "Beloved" and eventually drowned).
Children are taught to not be selfish and to share, which are great social skills and tools for developing empathy when in balance with a healthy valuing of self. Yet the ingredients of perfectionism and shame often make it into the mix, creating a fairly lethal concoction of self-loathing.
What would it be like to begin to shift away from the expectation of perfection, and accompanying shame for not achieving it? What might it be like to give up the feeling of being an impostor or a fake and stop hiding from yourself and others? Can you imagine beginning to welcome yourself EXACTLY AS YOU ARE, as the most welcome guest in your own heart? Can you imagine loving yourself as fiercely, passionately, and wholeheartedly as you love your Beloved, your children,your cat or dog (despite their flaws)? It would be nothing short of revolutionary!
Our strength will continue
if we allow ourselves
the courage to feel
scared, weak,and vulnerable
Strength is usually seen as the opposite of "weakness." This culture teaches us, both male and female, to "man up" and push away any feelings that are perceived as weak such as uncertainty, fear and vulnerability. Many therapy clients have a difficult time talking about and facing these feelings because they judge them as weak and therefore unacceptable.
Yet, paradoxically, true strength lies in having the courage to allow yourself to feel scared, weak, uncertain and vulnerable. It takes a significant amount of courage and determination to stop pushing those feelings away. It also takes courage and motivation to push past the shame that often comes up for having these "weak" feelings in the first place.
And sometimes it simply is desperation to feel better, to change things in life, that will push you to feel all those unacceptable, painful feelings. Allowing yourself to feel any and all feelings as they arise, including fear and vulnerability, is true strength!
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley