You know it’s important to love yourself, right? But what does it really mean to love and care for yourself?
For some people, self-love means taking a warm bath or pampering themselves with a massage or manicure. Yet, the elusive self-love that we seek requires something deeper than anything we can “do” for ourselves.
Self-love means finding peace within ourselves — resting comfortably within the depths of our being. We might find temporary respite by doing something to nurture ourselves. But a deeper inner peace requires cultivating a certain way of being with ourselves — a warm and nurturing attitude toward what we experience inside.
The suggestions that follow are derived from Focusing(link is external), developed by Dr. Eugene Gendlin. Sometimes called the Focusing Attitude(link is external), this is simply a way of being nonjudgmentally kind, present, and mindful toward whatever we happen to be experiencing.
Gendlin(link is external) has stated, “The client’s attitudes and responses to the felt sense need to be those of a client-centered therapist.” In other words, we need to have empathy and unconditional positive regard for whatever we are experiencing inside.
Being Gentle with Ourselves
It’s often easier to be kind and gentle toward others than toward ourselves. Judgmental voices from the past may have left a hidden residue of toxic shame, which blocks us from honoring — or even noticing– what we’re really feeling.
Being gentle with ourselves means being kind and friendly toward the feelings that arise within us. It is very human to feel sad, hurt, and afraid sometimes. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to become mindful of these feelings and allow a friendly space for them.
When clients notice difficult feelings, I may ask, “Is it okay to be with that feeling right now? Can you be with it in a gentle, caring way?” I might also help them find some distance from painful feelings so that they are not so overwhelming.
An attitude of gentleness toward our feelings is one way to have more spaciousness around them. We can “be with” our emotions rather than be overwhelmed by them.
Psychotherapist Laury Rappaport (link is external)offers some gentle inquiries into our feelings in her book, Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy:
Can you be friendly with that (felt sense)
Can you say hello to that (felt sense) inside?
Imagine sitting down next to it…Can you keep it company much the way you would keep a vulnerable child company?
This gentle way of being with ourselves is an antidote to shame. Rather than battling ourselves or trying to fix or change ourselves. we find more inner peace by simply being with our experience as it unfolds.
Allowing Our Experience to Be as it Is
When I invite clients to notice their feelings, they sometimes reply, “Why would I want to feel that?” I explain that when we push feelings away, they often come roaring back. Or they get acted out in ways that are destructive to ourselves or others, such as by drinking alcohol or through other ways of numbing ourselves, or transferring our pain to others through raging or blaming.
Loving ourselves means experiencing our feelings just as they are. Often we try to push away unpleasant experiences and cling to pleasant ones. But as Buddhist psychology(link is external) suggests, we create more suffering for ourselves by clinging to pleasant things and having an aversion toward painful feelings.
A subtle sense of fear and shame may prevent us from allowing our experience to have its life inside us. For example, if we feel (or show) sadness, hurt, or anxiety, we might think we’re weak. Or perhaps we were given messages that it’s not ok to feel; we’re afraid that others might judge us.
Embracing the Wisdom of Not-Knowing
If we’re honest with ourselves, we might notice that we’re often not clear about what we’re feeling. Our feelings are often vague and fuzzy. If we can allow ourselves to pause and make room for ambiguity and patiently welcome and explore our blurry, vague feelings, they may gradually come into clearer focus (thus the term “Focusing(link is external)”).
For example, we might notice anger toward a partner, but something deeper might lurk beneath. We’re aware of the tip of the iceberg, but in order to see what lies below, we need to look more closely.
Our society values knowledge and decisiveness. But often we’re unclear about what we’re really experiencing. Politicians who don’t mouth strong opinions about everything often are seen as wishy-washy. It actually takes strength and wisdom to say, “I’m not sure about that. Let me think about it.”
Human feelings are gifts to be welcomed. But we need to find a way to be with them so that they become allies, not enemies. Emotions such as grief allow us to release pain so that we might move forward in our lives. Other feelings may be more fuzzy, such as a clutching in our stomach or a tightness around our chest. As we bring an attitude of gentleness toward it, we might begin to have a sense of how it relates to something important — perhaps how we’re not honoring ourselves or being afraid of looking foolish.
Feelings often contain wise messages, if we can only decipher what they’re trying to tell us in the best way they know how. If we can cultivate a warm and friendly attitude toward our feelings, they’re more likely to become friendly allies on our life journey. New meanings, insights, and openings arise and our lives move forward in a more fulfilling way.
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships(link is external). His other books include The Authentic Heart(link is external) and Love & Betrayal.(link is external) He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally. www.johnamodeo.com