There’s a lot of talk out there about self-love as something we need to do. We’ve gotten past the notion that self-love (or self-care) is selfish and bad. We long since recognized that we are relentlessly hard on ourselves and that this is to our detriment in the form of low self-esteem, depression and self-sabotaging behaviors.
We understand that this lack of self-love comes from deeply rooted habits of thinking we developed when we were not yet conscious and still dependent on the people around us who were responsible for our emotional and physical nurturing, when we ourselves were too inexperienced at life to question their judgments of our character, our worthiness or how they treated us.
We understand the positives that result from loving and caring for ourselves, like strong self-worth, improved physical and emotional health and better personal choices. We understand that, of all people, we are hardest on ourselves, and that if we can learn to value and love ourselves, we become more compassionate toward others and can love them in better and healthier ways.
But what does self-love involve, exactly, beyond bubble baths and “Me Time?” This is something I’m still working out.
I’m a middle-aged female. I’ve been raised to be attuned to the needs, wants and feelings of others before my own. That is part of our collective training and our job description as females. I’m also a life coach and like many others who choose this and related work that involves supporting the greater wellbeing of others, I got into this racket because I not only enjoy it, but because I’m good at it. We’re good at it in part because we’re wired to be highly attuned to the emotional states of others. For many of us, it was a skill we had to develop as youngsters for our own emotional survival.
Along with compassion for other people, this sensitivity to their emotional energy is a prerequisite for being effective on the job. Together, they help you relate to and understand people and to see their humanity, their strengths and their goodness, even through some very fucked up thinking or behavior. When you can help clients to see these same things in themselves, you equip them to heal and grow.
But there’s a downside to this, a shadow side, and it’s one to which both women and people in the wellbeing industry are especially at risk :
We become emotionally codependent rescuers of others.
We are drawn to the unlicked kittens in the world like a shark is drawn to blood in the water. We want them to feel loved and understood and validated. In itself, this is an honorable impulse.
But when our methods of offering love, understanding and validation to others mean fixing their problems, cheering them up, pleasing them, soothing them and calming them down, because it is our felt duty? When this is a drive, something automatic in us, an intense pressure we feel and don’t even stop to question? When our own wants and needs are secondary as a matter of policy?
The hit we get from doing this is the validation of others, of course, the doggie treats of praise, approval and feeling needed that allow us to think well of ourselves, and this reveals the twisted logic underneath our motivation and the unhealthy boundaries that give rise to it:
This is how I earn love. This is what makes me a good and worthy person.
As a source for genuine self-love, this is completely unsustainable.
Lately I’ve been on a jag of pushing back and looking under the rocks of self-limiting beliefs like this one for the evidence that supports them. When it came to believing that it was my duty to rescue others, solve their problems, make sure they are happy and feel loved, this took the form of two simple questions:
Do I think it is the duty of others to do this for me? Is this how others earn my love?
The answer to both questions was a resounding NO.
I am a fully functioning adult. My life, my moods, my problems, my happiness, my desires, my peace of mind are not someone else’s job. Why then do I think their lives, moods, problems, happiness, desires and peace of mind are mine?
That made no sense at all.
Dear reader, I started staying in my own lane after that particular awakening and it has simplified and improved my life immeasurably ever since like nothing else has.
What does it mean to stay in your own lane? It means:
- Rescuing yourself first.
- Solving your own problems and allowing others to solve theirs.
- Recognizing that other people’s happiness or moods are not under your jurisdiction (nor under your control, in any case), and vice-versa.
- Recognizing that support (listening, being compassionate, asking questions, offering hugs, etc.) is helpful while enabling (doing things for them that they can, and should, do for themselves, etc.) never is.
- Not allowing yourself to be dragged into battles that are not your own, nor involving outsiders in yours.
- Recognizing the line between being “gracious,” which preserves your sense of dignity, and being “ingratiating,” which comes from neediness and does not.
- Recognizing that while abusive behavior in others comes from deep damage, and deserves compassion, letting them into your lane is not only unhelpful to them, it will delay you on your own journey.
- Recognizing that the deeply damaged are best served by competent professionals (and that you are probably not one).
Because this is a new practice, I still feel some anxiety when putting these 7 principles into play because it goes against my immediate impulses. I know this will change with time. But having unpacked the beliefs behind those impulses, I am no longer in denial about the BS they are nor the harm they cause me, so I no longer feel the urge to give in to them. Most important, I cannot deny the sense of dignity and self-respect that staying in my own lane has brought me. This is self-love.