The Greatest Love of All (Learning to Love Yourself)
The one quality all happy people share is the ability to extend loving kindness to themselves. It’s like a perversion of the great opening line of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: All happy people are alike; each unhappy person is unhappy in his or her own way.
Happy people experience self-love. Unhappy people have a version of self-aggression that is unique to each person. And yet how much effort do we spend training people in this skill? How many people go around every day beating themselves up for feeling inferior, or imperfect, or unworthy? Couldn’t this be the basis for the overwhelming number of people who report experiencing anxiety these days? Could it be related to the World Health Department naming depression as the number one health epidemic last year?
Maitri is a Sanskrit word for loving-kindness— an unconditional acceptance of yourself. It is the foundation of compassion.
What Is Loving Kindness?
Loving kindness is the simple aspiration to be happy. It includes wishing for our own happiness, as well as the happiness of others. But it's more than a wish - it’s the confidence that we can actually be happy - that we deserve to be happy - and it involves an active participation in that process.
But true happiness is different than the temporary happiness we might feel when something goes our way. True happiness not dependent on outer circumstances. It comes from within-- it comes from loving ourselves. But before we can experience it, we have to learn to recognize it. Can you identify moments in your life when you were happy for no good reason? This recognition of what makes us truly happy is the beginning of loving kindness. When we can extend loving kindness to ourselves, it is the birth of self-love.
What Inhibits Loving Kindness?
Self love comes to some of us not automatically, but rather by conscious effort.
Essentially, whenever we compare ourselves to others, we inhibit loving kindness. Pressure to fit in, to look a certain way, or accomplish goals can make us feel like we fall short. Often, that pressure is our own state of mind responding to the "outside" world’s values. Our family, work environment, friends, and culture all influence us, whether consciously or unconsciously, to behave in certain ways. When we deviate from the established norm, we may criticize ourselves harshly for not measuring up.
For example, it’s easy to get seduced by images of happy lives we see on social media, and hold ourselves to unrealistic ideals. All that personal PR can wreak havoc on our state of mind. We may feel everyone else has it all together, while we struggle with our fear, anger, and confusion. If we then add another layer of judgement, we’ve got a perfect recipe for self-criticism. Getting caught up in the carefully composed images of others’ lives takes us out of the present moment. It takes heroic discipline to avoid getting hooked.
How Do You Develop Loving Kindness?
Essentially, the way to develop loving kindness is to give space to situations and accept things exactly as they are, flaws and all. When you notice that you are being hard on yourself, take a mental step back and let the situation or circumstances breathe. You don't have to immediately rush to fix a problem, or react to a strong emotion. Giving things space allows for new perspectives to arise. When you are able to give space, you invite the possibility of acceptance, which is the ultimate act of love. Then you realize that your happiness is not dependent on outside circumstances. That experience is pure freedom.
Pema Chodron talks about maitri as the basis of compassion.
Without compassion, our experience of being human lacks the warmth of connection. We may seek healing through spiritual practice or therapy or a million other ways, but without loving kindness, meditation practice or therapy will be an intellectual exercise. Maitri is an experience of acceptance. Studies show that self-acceptance is key to finding happiness. You can’t intellectualize unconditional acceptance or friendship with oneself. There has to be an actual experience
How Do You Learn To Love Yourself?
Recognize that you are whole and complete just as you are, right here and right now. Yes, that means even if there are things that feel out of alignment. We are perpetual works in progress--it is part of the human condition. The best way to start to silence the voice of your inner critic is to first learn to listen.
Make a habit - a practice - of returning to awareness in the present moment without elaboration. Just notice the urge to react, and step back to take in a larger vantage point. We learn to love ourselves by showing up for ourselves in times of need, rather than meting out punishment for not yet being perfect. When we allow ourselves to unfold in our own time, even if it is slower than what we want, or what others expect, we are practicing self-love. (And it wouldn't hurt to schedule periods of internet abstinence!)
Sometimes it seems easier to be kind to others than it is to be kind to ourselves. If this is true for you, try looking at yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you, and see what they see. When you can give yourself a break for not being perfect, you are on your way to developing self-love.