Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Recently I was asked during a podcast interview what message I would give to my 20 year old self. I thought for a moment, my throat began to tighten and tears welled up in my eyes.
"Love yourself first,” was my answer.
I was raised a Christian. Christianity taught me to love others as I love myself, there’s a lot of talk in churches about agape brotherly love for other Christians. There’s some talk of loving sinners while hating the sin. What the church never taught me was how to love myself, although they did to each me to judge myself.
My mother started bringing my brother and I to the church when I was 13. It started as a punishment for a bad report card, she made me go to the church youth group. The subconscious lesson? I wasn’t smart or obedient enough so I had to learn to be more holy.
From age 13 to 18 I was an active member of the church. I even began to internalize Christian judgments and the person I judged most harshly was my self. I spent my most formative teenage years hearing the message over and over again, “you’re a sinner.” “You aren’t worthy,” and not just in the generic “all have sinned” kind a way but me specifically.
When I started dating my first wife at around 17 years old her parents told me I wasn’t worthy to date her, my grades weren’t good enough, I came from a broken (divorced) family and I wasn’t conservative enough of a Christian. I was a sinner.
My own mother echoed those statements, first telling me that my first wife was “Gods chosen partner” for me, then telling me I wasn’t worthy of her and had to work hard to make sure that I deserved her. I had to become more “Holy” so that I would deserve her love. This message was repeated by my mother well into my 30’s.
Judgment cannot exist in the same space as love. If my mother was judging me then could she really love me? And if my own mother couldn’t love me, how could I love myself? I have done a lot of work on my relationship with my mother in the last few years and I now understand what my teenage self couldn’t; My mother could love me, and also fail to love me in the moments she was being judgmental. I now understand that my mother was judging herself and holding herself to impossible standards of “Holiness.” She judged me because in those moments she was judging herself. She was failing to love herself first.
In investment culture there is a saying “Pay yourself first.” The concept being that when you take a portion of your income and put it into savings BEFORE you pay bills or splurge spend; you build yourself a safety net that gives you peace of mind. From that place of financial security you can embodying sovereignty with calm confidence.
When you love yourself first, you embody the same sovereignty on an emotional level. You can’t give from an empty cup, but when your cup is overflowing with an abundance of love you can share that love with those around you. You can “love others as you love yourself.”
When you have the calm confidence that comes from the emotional security of loving yourself you are less likely to be triggered by the words or actions of other people.
Had I been taught to love myself as a child, when someone judged me I wouldn’t need to respond defensively, get angry, depressed or feel unworthy. I love myself and am secure in who I am. I would be able to see the judgements of others for what they are… their opinions, many times formed by their own insecurities and lack of self love.
“The work” is integrating that on a daily basis. Now when I feel triggered I practice taking a breath, reminding myself that I love myself, and the judgments of others have no power over me. That frees me to respond to those judging me with compassion.
So how do you love yourself in practice?
Take inventory of the thoughts you think about yourself.
How do you feel about yourself? What is your confidence level? Do you feel secure or insecure? Where do your opinions of yourself come from? Are they your opinions or do they belong to your parents, teachers or other “authority” figures, peers etc? Use these questions as journal prompts. Write out your thoughts. Be patient with this process. It can take days, weeks or months to get clarity. You may feel blocks, like a brick wall in your mind. This is totally normal, your ego wants to protect you from uncomfortable or painful thoughts. I like to talk to my ego like he is my 11 year old son. I reassure my ego that he is safe, that I want to heal so that we can live a happier more joyful life. It may take some time before your ego believes those positive affirmations. Remember that if you have been listening to these thoughts about yourself your whole life, you’re not going to unlearn them overnight.
Patience with yourself is a powerful way to love yourself.
Not only did I internalize my mothers opinions about me, I had a 5th grade teacher that was extremely judgmental of me. She used to tell me that I was a lousy student and a “bad kid.” She even banished me to the back of the classroom. She moved my desk away from all of my classmates next to the slop sink in the back of the classroom. My classmates also believed her assessment and ostracized me.
As a defense mechanism I adopted her beliefs into my persona. “I’m a lousy and disobedient student.” So I set out to become the most entertaining, disobedient classmate I could be. I leaned into class clown rebellion against authority, rebelling for no other reason than deep down I felt hurt that I was rejected.
Empathy is another way to practice self love.
Empathize with the part of you that is hurt. I can look back at my 11 year old self and have tremendous amounts of empathy for a little boy who wanted to feel love and connection from his classmates and wanted validation from his teacher. I can remember the loneliness of being ostracized to the back of the classroom. It’s understandable that my ego came up with a way to make it hurt less. In the mind of an 11 year old if I couldn’t get positive attention then it makes sense that I would choose to act out to get negative attention since that is what my teacher and classmates seemed to want to give me.
I had forgotten about Mrs. Udel and the 5th grade but recently those memories came back up and I realized some of the things I still believe about my self today are a result of those experiences.
Forgive those who hurt you and remember to forgive yourself for believing their judgements.
I have set my intention to forgive Mrs. Udel. I don’t know what she was going through, or why she decided a talkative 11 year old was the “worst student” but I now understand that her judgements had nothing to do with me, they were simply her perception. As a part of this forgiveness process I wrote Mrs. Udel a letter, explaining how I viewed my time in her class and how she treated me. I expressed how it made me feel then and how I carried those beliefs my whole life, but that I forgive her and I am releasing her opinions. I no longer believe them. (I didn’t actually send her the letter although I considered it.) As I write this I am choking up which means there is still some unprocessed hurt. So I will continue to be patient and empathetic with my inner child until all of the pain has healed. I am working to forgive myself for adopting those judgements as well.
Writing grievance/forgiveness letters is a powerful way to give voice to the hurt parts of your self. Once your ego feels heard and understood you will find it easier to let go of those hurts and forgive those who hurt you. You don’t have to write the person a letter, you can journal out your thoughts and feelings privately.
Sometimes if we communicate these hurts to those who hurt us they may become defensive, they may not respond with empathy and the confrontation that results may end up setting us back emotionally. I have found that it is more effective to self source our validation and empathy when we can. When we look outside of ourselves for validation it is often a source of disappointment, but that decision is really a personal one. There may be times that confrontation is necessary for closure.
If you feel that you need to confront someone, do it without expectations. If they don’t respond in a way that promotes healing it is your responsibility to NOT take their response personally, otherwise you risk adding insult to injury. Expressing yourself without attachment to the outcome is difficult especially when you are already in a wounded state so do so with clear intention and caution.
Remember your divinity.
Loving your self isn't easy. It is a life long process of releasing judgements that society at large, individuals we interact with and even we ourselves project on to our selves. As we let go of these false and limiting beliefs our authentic selves start to shine through. My wife’s favorite quote by Rumi is “Keep breaking your heart until it opens.” Another is “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I like to think of it inverted, the healed wound is the place where your light shines through. We have to face our heartbreak and feel through it so it heals and falls away leaving room for our divine selves to shine through.
Recently I was asked on a podcast “if I could put up a billboard that billions of people would see what would I put on the billboard?”
“Love yourself first.”