Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #6 — On Loving Yourself: It’s not what you think.

#6 — On Loving Yourself: It’s not what you think.

One of my favorite things is irony.  I see it a lot in my work.  I see people unwittingly working against achieving what they claim to want the most.  I see people inadvertently alienating those they care about the most.  And I see people trying to conceal what they believe to be their own unattractive traits, only to make those traits all the more visible.  Yet of all the ironies I encounter in my practice, by far the most common, and also the saddest, is the irony of people desperately struggling to get someone to love them. 

Many of these are forlorn and lonely people, who have somehow come to believe that if they behave in just the right ways and do just the right things, they actually can make someone love them.  Some even couple this belief with another, that while they might not be healthy and happy as individuals, they will be fine once they “get into a relationship.”  The ironies here are obvious.  In the first case, you cannot make someone love you, you can only let someone do that.  In the second, being healthy as an individual is not a result of a healthy relationship; it is a requisite for one.  You cannot take two unhealthy people and add them up to make one healthy relationship.  The math simply won’t work! 

Yet the misguided beliefs persist.  And often the people who are the most adamant are those who have just finished some sort of self-help book and who have just read something like, “You can’t expect someone else to love you unless you love yourself.”  So, adopting the belief that all will be well once they learn to love themselves, many come into my office reciting that mantra and expecting me to show them how to make it happen.  The ensuing conversations always go the same way.  I point out that, while “love yourself” makes a great sound bite, it is really devoid of any practical guidance.  Next, I suggest a hypothetical scenario:  Imagine going home at the end of the day and then sitting down and saying to yourself, “Now I’m going to love myself.”  Exactly what would you do?  What would it look like?  No one has yet been able to give me a definitive answer. 

For those who are able to set platitudes aside and consider reality, the discussion finally shifts to something more substantial.  In the best of circumstances, children are raised by parents who love them unconditionally, without reservation or judgment, making the children feel uniquely valued simply for themselves — just for being who they are.  The clinical result of this parental acceptance is that the children develop what is called a healthy attachment with the parents, which ultimately enables them to become accepting of themselves just as they have been accepted by their parents.  This self-acceptance subsequently allows the children to grow into generally healthy adults who don’t feel the need to please others just to be accepted.  And, of course, since these self-accepting adults are not dependent on others to validate them, they have a much greater likelihood of having healthy relationships.  The irony here, then, is that the more able we are to be alone, the less likely we are to be that way.

So, it’s worth considering, instead of a vague “love yourself” sort of dictum, wouldn’t “accept yourself” be more practical?  For fun, I sometimes use the movie character “Dirty Harry,” created by Clint Eastwood, to illustrate.  In the second movie of this series, Magnum Force, Harry’s memorable line is, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”  The point here is that acknowledging limitations relieves you from having to worry about what you don’t have or what you can’t do.  Instead, you are free to take what you do have and what you can do and make the most of them.  Imagine being able to look at yourself in the mirror, honestly see what’s there, and then say to yourself, “Maybe it’s not everything I’d like to have, but it’s mine; so I’ll take it out and see what it will do, and if other people don’t care for it, that’s their problem.”  This single measure of self-acceptance effectively makes you immune to other people’s judgments and criticisms because you have essentially rendered them irrelevant. 

Surprisingly, framing the situation in this way often meets with considerable resistance.  A lot of people who come to see me already have a deeply held dislike, in some cases even loathing, for themselves.  Surely I couldn’t be suggesting that they start accepting someone who has so clearly been deemed unacceptable!  Surely no one with such faults and inadequacies could be accepted without reservation!  Surely no one so unredeemable could be accepted without some kind of transformation at the hands of the guru-therapist.  Sadly, many have family histories that seem to confirm these misguided beliefs. 

Once again, I remember sitting in the cheap seats at Fenway, easily taking in the interactions of an entire team on the field.  What was abundantly clear from up there was that each position on the team has its own specific requirements.  A successful team cannot be made up of nine pitchers or nine catchers or nine shortstops no matter how talented these players might be.  The person playing each position must bring some special, even unique, strengths or talent to that position.  And so it is in life’s ballpark.  Each of us brings some unique strengths or talents or other characteristics without which the whole team is incomplete.  The challenge for each of us is in learning just what our particular strengths or talents are so we can develop them.  Added to this challenge, of course, is that some strengths are obvious in people while others are not.  The variation from person to person is significant.  And for people who are predisposed to view themselves negatively, who are constantly preoccupied with all the things they have been told that are wrong with them, the prospect of recognizing and appreciating their own strengths is often dubious at best. 

And so a final irony emerges.  By being preoccupied with negative aspects of ourselves, we lose the ability to see anything else.  Our knowledge of ourselves and who we truly are is, therefore, incomplete.  And this begs the question, how can we accept someone we don’t really know?  Self knowledge must precede self-acceptance or “self love.”  In this, I think we can all benefit from following Dirty Harry’s advice — turning on our interest and imagination as we look at ourselves and our experiences, without expectations or assumptions, and being open and willing to learn.  If we can remain interested and seek to understand rather than judge, we can free ourselves from the burdens of our limitations and allow our strengths and talents to emerge.  With more complete self-knowledge, we can truly start to be self accepting.  And with real self-acceptance, we can finally learn to love ourselves.

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