“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~Buddha
For a long time I joked that if I had a time machine, I would go back to 1989 and give my sixteen-year-old self a swift butt kicking. But then a few months ago, on my fortieth birthday, a friend posted a picture of me at sixteen on Facebook.
Seeing this image of myself totally threw me for a loop. Other than a school photo, it’s probably one of the few pictures I am aware of from that time in my life.
I spent some time contemplating this version of me glancing sideways at the camera. Under the surly expression of not wanting my photograph taken, there is undeniable beauty and innocence.
What makes it even more poignant is that I am the mother of a teenage boy who happens to be sixteen right now. His teenage drama has brought back so many memories of myself at that age.
For most of my career as a teenager I was preoccupied with being cool, with cultivating a counter-culture, bohemian persona (assuming clove cigarettes, On the Road, and a pile of mixed tapes constituted “bohemian”). Rolling my eyes at my mother was a near constant affectation.
I was certain that I knew it all; I had the rest of my life all figured out and I rejected anything that didn’t fit with my narrow understanding of the world. I now know there were countless experiences I missed out on by virtue of my stubbornness and general disdain for everything.
I avoided most of the mainstream high school dances and events. I dropped out of clubs and activities as soon as they felt challenging. I didn’t bother investigating the many academic and social opportunities that came my way.
What I would have regarded not long ago as a silly, selfish, snotty teenage attitude, I now realize is something else entirely. In that picture I see the seeds of pain and hurt—some already planted and taking root; some yet to be sown.
Lack of encouragement and confidence was written all over my face. The trauma of rejection and the fear of not measuring up was so apparent. That cool thing was just an act—a part I was playing to protect the hurt little girl that I really was.
It occurred to me as I observed her tentative gaze that this girl is still a part of me and deserves my love and tenderness, not my judgment. She deserves respect for the woman she is going to become and comfort for the child she has been.
Those reflections brought me full speed into the present moment. Seeing this image of myself in a new light forced me to examine the way I treat myself today. I tend to be pretty understanding and gentle with others, but so tremendously unforgiving with myself.
Maybe it’s a sense of guilt over squandering my potential. Or maybe I’ve grown to be hyper-vigilant about seeming unworthy. Perhaps I’ve just been metaphorically giving my inner sixteen-year-old a butt kicking all along.
Whatever the reason, when I notice in hindsight that I’ve made a bad decision or missed an important detail, I beat myself up. Whether it’s buying something that turns out to be a waste of money or spending time goofing off on the Internet, I often feel like I’m that teenager in need of a stern, judgmental lecture.
I have yet to really figure out why I’m so ruthless with regard to my own mistakes but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. If our culture’s lack of self-esteem is any indication, this seems to be a challenge for many people.
I’ve heard it said that until you can love yourself, you can’t truly love others. I’m not sure how much I agree with that. In fact, I’ve come to think of maternal love as loving someone else more than you love yourself.
What I do know is that struggling to love myself makes showing up in the world a big challenge. Showing up as my authentic self requires so much effort. In fact it’s nearly impossible when I don’t feel self-love.
I strongly feel that lack of self-love holds us back. It prevents us from connecting with our purpose and doing great things. I may be over-generalizing but the scarcity of self-love in our society seems to be at the root of so many common problems.
It’s important to understand that loving yourself doesn’t mean you are selfish or a narcissist or that you don’t take responsibility for your mistakes. It means that you treat yourself fairly and with respect.
Self-love means that I forgive myself for my errors and continue striving to be the best person I can be. It means I believe in myself and put the same effort into my well-being as I do for my loved ones.
It should come as no surprise that the practice of self-love is far easier said than done. But, in my often-imperfect journey to loving myself, I’ve learned a few things along the way:
1. Challenge the notion that there’s any merit to being hard on yourself.
Beating yourself up may have the short-term effect of making you work harder or be more diligent. But in the long run, being unkind to yourself causes resentment, a sense of defeat, and eventually some emotional scars.
2. Add a new twist to the Golden Rule.
We always teach children that they should treat others the way they wish to be treated. A good rule as we grow up is to treat ourselves according to the same standards we treat others.
You probably aren’t the kind of person who would call their child, mother, or best friend “stupid,” so why would you say that kind of thing to yourself?
3. Know that forgiving yourself doesn’t mean lowering your standards.
There is nothing wrong with striving to be the best you can be. However, it’s important to cut yourself some slack when you fall short of expectations.
Making a mistake or not being perfect is simply part of being human. If you didn’t do your best, it’s okay and it’s really not the end of the world. Dust yourself off, keep moving forward, and love yourself for all your imperfections!
While it’s definitely not easy at first, I promise that learning to love yourself really does pay off. The love and kindness we have for ourselves may eventually allow us to change the world!