Is 'Self-Love' Solely About the Self?

A few nights ago at a French cafè on an evening over drinks, a friend asked me a question that-- in a similar way as my first blahg post-- has sparked quite a lot of reflection.

He looked abruptly at me and asked, "Camille, how do you love yourself?"

His question caught me off guard. Partly because I didn't know if I was misunderstanding his accent and partly because we were in the middle of playing a game of Monopoly (courtesy of the Chez Mon Ex... enjoy happy hour spirits and the destruction of your friendships over a spirited game!) so I was "in the zone."

"What do you mean?" I asked, leaning back into the soft cushion of our corner booth.

"Well," he said, "You just always seem to be really at one with yourself and like you have quite a good head on your shoulders. So I just imagine that you have some type of practices or methods of really knowing how to love yourself well."

I paused, fumbling with my words and trying to act as if I had some sort of worthy answer to his deep inquiry. I thanked him for the sweet compliment that was to me and immediately thought to myself, Reaaally? Can you really not see the ever-looming angst in my eyes?

"Well," I began, on account of the fact that we are studying political science and have been throwing around many jokes about our countries' similarly exasperating political climates (this is Trump era just before Brexit), "For one, I've somehow found an inclination to do away with much of the binary, limiting, dividing ideology that I was raised accepting, and that has helped a lot I suppose..." I trailed off, knowing that I was avoiding giving a real answer.

"Honestly I have no idea..." I admitted, "I feel like a lot of the time I doubt myself and really have to make a conscious effort to show myself love." I thought more and shared that one of the biggest things that I have been focusing on is allowing myself the space to feel. And that while I was raised believing it best to swallow my own emotions, and expecting others to do the same, I am now more often than not embracing them and appreciating every bit of my inner mental climate -- storms and sunshine alike.

We talked about the difference between allowing ourselves to feel our emotions and allowing ourselves to be overcome by our emotions, and how finding a balance between the two is a lifelong journey of understanding ourselves with empathy, which, in turn, will always make space for meeting others empathetically. In that moment, it was so easy to see the well-intent of the tough-love climate I grew up in. I'm actually not convinced it wasn't good for me in many ways, despite the aftermath which I still find myself sifting through.

I remember when I first left home, completely alone and walking through inexplicable depression as I navigated a life abroad, I was still very much steeped in the stew of black-and-white thinking. To this day, I find that many of the people I love are simply uninterested in deconstructing such an unrealistic perception of themselves and others. It has lead to a lot of pain.

And yet, somehow, I see why they remain there. At the crossroads of confrontation with our grief, our anger, our fear, it makes sense to tend to back away, or even turn away. When we were young and upset with what we could not control, perhaps our parents, out of love, persuaded us to stop feeling upset about what we couldn't control. I find myself still carrying the weight of this persuasion. It makes sense. Yet, eventually, we find ourselves in an existence which, in some seasons, can feel antagonizingly control-less. And so what do we do? We stifle our sadness. We invalidate our frustration by telling ourselves there's nothing we can do. And so, we do nothing. We back off: victimized, powerless, and we rob ourselves of the capacity to meet ourselves and our emotions with love and tenderness.

We cannot deny what is there, and we cannot selectively stamp out what is there. If we extinguish sadness, we extinguish joy. If we eliminate anger, we eliminate delight. It really is, I believe, well-intended to shut down that which is painful, and that which seems to have no answer, but to shut down something so sacred and so connective as an emotional landscape, is to exhaust our ability to love ourselves wholly, in every season, unconditionally, without question, without denial.

I cannot help but wonder if this kind of self-rejection is what fuels rejection of others, of whole people groups. In my experience, there has so often been a startling synonymy between those who embrace themselves with love and then embrace others with love in the same manner. I wonder how often, how easily, our "humble" dedication to live in perceived personal inner insufficiency paves a path toward living segregated lives, both internally and externally. How often does this result in a lack of love for your neighbor? How often does an inner critic translate to an outer judge?

In this season which I find myself simply incapable of self-loathing any longer, I chuckle gratefully at the words of this kind friend, who, in all honesty, seemed to be much more stable than I. It seems inner-dissonance for the sake of doing the "right" thing was, in fact, perhaps not the right thing at all. Perhaps this new dedication to self-love is inner agreement. Perhaps inner-agreement allows for outward agreeability, and not for the sake of people-pleasing, but simply for the sake of love. XO