Absaroka Wilderness, Montana, 2014

How Do You Love Yourself?

The concept of self-esteem was a pill we were taught to swallow when all the kids rode Big Wheels back in the day. I don’t think I was told “You need to love yourself”, but it was something along those lines and even then the concept felt selfish and squishy.

Later, I had this idea that if God loved you, then why would you need to love yourself? Self-love felt like the cheap knock-off. But then love from what felt like the often quiet, and rarely seen God was never enough. I worked to get the love I wanted from relationship, and ultimately marriage, but that too left me dry.

This last year, through incredible personal turmoil, I needed love desperately and I was no longer in relationship to try to get it. I began to open up to the idea that loving myself I might experience some relief of the pain I was experiencing. In awkward stops and starts I fumbled into trying to love myself—I needed real and lasting love more than ever.

Somewhere on the way it was made clear to me that the way I spoke to myself was drastically different than the way I spoke to my friends. Something was out of wack!

For instance:

Imagine that a close friend is sick. They are at home and they live alone. What would you do for them?

Imagine that friend made a mistake at work, maybe even a pretty big mistake. What would you say to them?

What if this friend needed to talk to someone about some struggles they were dealing with and tried to text you or even call (I know, gasp!) Would you answer them? Would you shift things around so you could talk?

Perhaps you’re a total dick, but I doubt it. You’re probably thinking of the things you’d do to take care of someone you care about. Most of us would probably think empathetic thoughts even for acquaintances. Here’s the kicker though, my experience is that most people, myself included, have little to no idea how to love themselves. We don’t even realize it’s something we could do.

I left my keys in the car.
Fuck. I’m such an idiot. I can’t believe I did this again.

I’m feeling sick.
Keep going. I have work to do.

My body is run down.
Eating healthy is too much work. Exercise feels pointless.

I’m feeling unattractive.
I’m so lazy. Oh man, look at that round part on my belly. Ugh. I wish I had that sixpack.

I made a mistake at work.
Dammit, why can’t I get my shit together. I will never get this right.

I try to show love to someone I care about, but they don’t notice.
Why did I do wrong? I must not know how to do this.

You get the point now, imagine if treated your friends like this in similar situations. You wouldn’t have friends for long. You’d be nominated for the a life time membership to the ass-hat society. I know there are a lot of us (though not everyone) who say some pretty rough shit to ourselves.

I’ve known myself longer than anyone else in my life. I’ve spent more time with myself than anyone else in my life. What I say to myself about me has a profound effect on how I feel, and how I treat others. If I am judgmental of myself I will likely judge others harshly. If I am perfectionistic, I probably require perfection of others. If I have compassion for myself, I am more likely to have compassion for others. These aren’t ground breaking realities. This is kind of kindergarten stuff, but I don’t know very many people who actually do it.

I’m more publicly talking about what is going on in my life a little bit at a time. On June 19, 2016 I was confronted about my drinking and really my sanity (or insanity). I was such a controlling, angry, scared, love-sucking person. These traits were the natural destination of a train that started when I was a kid. My childhood was emotionally confusing; I grabbed for control. I was a sensitive kid hungry for affection and my parents aren’t affectionate people, so I became anxiously attached and manipulated people to get the love I needed.

The love I had for my others was often mixed up with selfish reflexive love needs. I ached for others to give me what I had no idea how to give myself, what they often couldn’t offer me. The more that I asked from others, the more I hurt them with my expectations and the more angry and resentful I became.

I had to move forward. This year I had to start learning to love myself or accept that I would never be in a healthy relationship.

Below I’ve listed a bit of how I came to try some of these things, but the reality is that I was so starved for love that I had to give it to myself or no one else would. I had to either start loving myself or totally abandon myself—and I was to scared to do the latter because I knew it would likely mean I’d drink again and land in the naked dirt of oblivion.

I’ve been in relationship with myself for a long time, but hadn’t been treating myself very well. So it’s taken a lot of time for my inside-self to begin to trust my words and actions and believe that I’m going to stick around and keep loving me. The more I do it, the better it gets and the more I grow in calm, restful confidence that even when things get hard, I always have myself to love me when all else fails.

Here are the things I do to practice loving myself that have made a massive difference in my life.

  1. Learning to listen.
    I can’t hear what I’m feeling unless I take the time to listen. In order for me to listen I had to quit drinking (for you that might be stuffing feelings by over eating, or over-working, or working out obsessively, etc). In my case I quit and then in time I was able to hear. I’m 19 months sober now and I can hear my insides talking to me. Listening often means choosing to sit with myself (meditate for five minutes) instead of numbing out or distracting myself with Netflix. It means taking notes on how my body feels when I feel big uncomfortable feelings instead of just thinking about my feelings and coming up with a story about them.
  2. Mindfulness practice. Working on growing my mindfulness practice has given me ears to hear myself and others more clearly. Mindfulness is simply the practice of observing or noting what is going on externally or internally, physically, emotionally, or psychically—and not evaluation what you see and hear. This lack of judgement of my experiences helps me to just be present in what is, not what I think it should be. I can be present in who I am now, not having to assess myself based on who I think I should be.
  3. Comfort myself in healthy ways.
    Sometimes comforting myself looks like ice cream which is better for this alcoholic than drinking, but ice cream is also basically frozen cocaine so it’s not a good consistent way of comforting myself when I’m feeling uncomfortable. I’ve learned to put my hands under warm water in the bathroom for a few minutes. Sometimes I’ll rub my thigh and reassure myself with a kind word. Other times I’ll put my hand on my heart, apparently that releases dopamine! Sometimes I’ll just gently squeeze my arms the way that a lover or a parent would to let you know they are there.
  4. Do nice things for myself.
    Just like if a friend were hurting, I can give myself a meal, or I can get my ass to a relaxing massage. I can go see a movie or choose to hang out with friends who I know accept me regardless of how I’m doing.
  5. Say loving things to myself.
    So you romantics already know what gets the juices flowing here. Love notes and kind words can do so much to heal my inside-self. I imagine writing a deeply kind and thoughtful letter to a friend but with my own name on it. The more I do it, the more accepting of the idea I am. Yes, it feels super weird at first.
  6. I accept myself as I am.
    I have to tell myself regularly that I accept myself the way I am. Bruises, wounds, ugly parts (physically, emotionally, spiritually) and all. Just like with other people, I know I can’t maintain this posture perfectly, but I can keep coming back to it. I like this writing by Ram Dass. It reminds me that I’m just a tree.

When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

There are more things to add to the list, but these are the practices that sustain me regularly to keep me coming back to the most consistently available person in my —me.

If you are in pain, you’re more likely to be interested in what I’ve written here because you’re tired of feeling like shit on a fucking stick. So this will matter for you. If it doesn’t connect, that’s AOK, let it go, go read something you’re nuts about.

I’m starting to love myself for the first time in almost 40 years of life and I’m really enjoying the outcome. I’m not judging myself like I used to. I’m not running from the truth like I used to — because I’m not afraid of the outcome. If someone needs to leave me, that’s okay, they can, because I’ll be okay with me, myself, and my God. Today, as I closed the book on a 13 year marriage to a really incredible human being I spent a lot of the day loving myself, so here at the end of the day, I am okay. I’m emotionally tired, but I’m not undone.

Most of my life, I’ve tried to control my life and this included anytime I needed to change. Like a good controlling person I thought I could read my way out of my trouble and pain. It turns out the pain brought me to a place of deep surrender, but the reading ended up giving me tools to help me get my ass in a love hospital. That sounds like such a bad R&B song, but I couldn’t help myself. Some suggested readings:

So if you’ve got this far, all two of you are still excited. I’m interested in creating an event or doing some workshops on these topics here in the United States. If you’d like to join me and some of my love and compassion oriented heroes for something like that please…

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Thank you friends. May we all be filled with love and compassion for each other, the broken hearted, the weak and the meek, and those who are all emptied out.

Matthew Smith is either two wily bear cubs stacked in a trenchcoat or a full-grown man — some days it’s hard to tell.