Knowing I was going to work on this article this morning, I tried an experiment. Standing in the shower, that private space, I said to myself, out loud: “Good morning, Kathy. I love you.” Hearing the words, I teared up — a sign to me that I had touched something tender inside myself.
Like many of you, I say “I love you,” quite a lot — to other people. I almost never say it to myself. And no wonder. In our society, the idea of loving oneself is pretty problematic. Look at these words in our language: self-absorbed, self-centered, self-satisfied, self-important, selfish. Our language implies that “focusing on oneself” means “focusing on oneself to the exclusion of others.” The negativity in the “self” words hints that having a warm relationship with oneself is contradictory with having a warm relationship with others. Remarkably, the first definition in the dictionary for “self-love” is “an excessive regard for one’s own advantage”; and other definitions include “conceit, vanity, narcissism.”
In the dictionary and in common parlance, there’s nothing positive about self-love.
Yet perhaps especially at this time of year, for those of us connecting with extended families, or choosing not to, or being alone while others are gathered — the life-serving power of self-love is particularly worth exploring.
While many of us may disagree with the dictionary’s definition and acknowledge that “self-love” can be positive, we also have surely absorbed some of the negative messages about self that are so pervasive in our culture. We criticize ourselves internally in ways that we’d never speak to someone else, we worry about taking up too much space, we hold back on mentioning our own desires or preferences. Maybe we don’t even notice our own desires or preferences. We shy away from celebrating our accomplishments out loud. We don’t look at ourselves with the warm embrace we give others and say, “I love you.”
What if we could transform our language and our ways of thinking about self? I want to transform the meanings of self-love and self-centered. What if “I am self-centered” meant: I am in touch with my own center. I am in connection with my own feelings and needs. I am centered enough in my own being to be fully present to myself and others. Then — what a joyful thing to be self-centered.
In Nonviolent Communication’s vision of a different kind of society, we speak of a world where everyone’s needs matter. This includes our needs as well as those of others. NVC suggests the radical possibility that self-centered, self-centering practices can in fact serve as the foundation for our ability to love and contribute to others, rather than inhibiting this possibility. We see self-love, self-acceptance, and self-understanding as essential practices for living in alignment with the idea that everyone’s needs matter.
So while we give much attention in NVC classes and retreats to building our capacity for relating with others, we also focus on the tender, inner work of relating with ourselves. This work, like any relationship work, takes courage, creativity, and stamina. There is, perhaps, some mystery involved. But like any relationship work, there are also simple, daily practices that help build one’s capacity for self-love. Strange as it might sound, I feel convinced that self-love, or at least a growing capacity for self-love, is a learnable skill.
As for me: I think I’ll try the thing in the shower again tomorrow. You?
Kathy Simon leads BayNVC’s Living Peace retreats and its Immersion Program (BIP), and has seen how a supportive learning community can contribute to both subtle and dramatic transformations in our relationships with ourselves and others.