Love is huge topic that spans every other issue that we have discussed so far, and ones we have not touched yet. But for our purposes — to talk about our next steps in healing from traumatic relationships — we have to narrow it down.
This article will discuss the most basic and important element of love — how we love ourselves. We will look at how we our relationships with ourselves are changing. And how that is affecting what other people mean to us
What we think of ourselves
Years ago, when I was involved with a New Age bookstore, I ran into lots of programs that taught positive affirmations. That is, repeating phrases about how lovable we are, how successful we are, how loved we are by the universe, as a form of self-hypnosis. The idea was that we would eventually believe it. And believing it would change our lives.
Unfortunately, many of us only succeeded in making ourselves feel guilty about not believing it. So, as the next best thing, we tried to pretend that we really believed it. And we basically became like those silly pseudo-Buddhists of the earlier hippie days whose languid pronouncements of “it’s all cool, man” was a paper-thin veneer on their angry or fearful rejection of everything that made them the tiniest bit uncomfortable.
For me, the concept of “loving yourself” had a psychobabble flavor. Another fad for people who were looking for short-cuts to higher consciousness. Or maybe this concept was too large, too grand for me.
And why? Because there was too much not to love about myself. Occasionally, somewhere between a second and third glass of wine, I was comfortable with myself. But in the sober light of day, evaluating both the interior of my mind and the evidence of my life, I could write long lists of where I fell short. I didn’t even know what loving myself would feel like But as a start, it would help if I weren’t so anxious all the time. If the anxiety didn’t make me so disorganized. If I could actually plan something and follow without getting distracted with worrying about whether I was going to get distracted and follow through. Sigh.
So you can imagine how I reacted when the occasional character showed up who 1) told me how wonderful I was, 2) told me how he knew how to sort out my messes, 3) talked about his vision of a better life (that he already knew how to do), and 4) raved about his luck at finding someone (me) who fit so perfectly into his perfect plans for this perfect life. I’d think that maybe I was wrong about being such a mess. Maybe the people I’d met before hadn’t been perceptive enough to see this wonderfulness in me. Maybe I wasn’t perceptive enough either, and he was so much smarter. Maybe God had finally decided to send me the long-deferred trophy for trying hard.
And then, because I wasn’t impressed with myself or my life, I would start throwing things away. He didn’t like the way I dressed? No problem. He didn’t like the way I worked? No problem. He thought I should worry more about him than myself? No problem. And then finally, when I realized that nothing I could ever do would be enough, and that the whole relationship was new evidence of my failure to choose well, I would leave behind whatever I had with him, and re-enter the increasingly familiar grind of starting over.
Depressing, isn’t it? A particularly dark view of my history of serial monogamy, and one that explains my periodic descents into depression as I struggled to forgive myself for yet another disaster. But there is a nugget of illuminating truth here that I didn’t grasp until my last relationship with the sociopath.
Here it is. I didn’t believe that my life was my “real” life. Or that I was who I “really” was. Who I was and the way I lived were just interim conditions, until I got to the real thing. The life where I accomplished what I was really capable of. The “me” that was always emotionally balanced, lucid, focused, able to handle all of life’s details. All this imaginary stuff was the waiting reality. And in the meantime, I was living in a kind of purgatory. (For those of you who weren’t brought up Catholic, that is a temporary hell where we burn off minor sins before finally being allowed into heaven.).
in healing, I realized that the sociopath and I had this thing in common. He was never living the life he deserved. All this relentless focus of his was about his drive to put the puzzle pieces together — fame, wealth, universal admiration, all the “merit badges” of his travel and his expensive hobbies to present a smooth and plausible front — so he could airdrop into the “real” life that was waiting for him. The humiliations he had to endure now — including stooping to deal with my unsatisfactory self — were just necessary evils to be discarded and forgotten, except for an amusing story or two of his life on the street, once the lost prince found his way back to the palace.
I used to find his pretensions and ambitions childish. Until I realized that we were alike in this. I wasn’t trying to work my way back to the throne room. But otherwise we were the same. I looked down at who I was and what I did. I was prepared to give up almost anything to become who I was supposed to be. With the sociopath, that turned out to include my business, my family, my friends, my homes, my money, my mental health.
In fact the reason I got involved with him at all, as well as my other significant relationships, is that I saw them as chances to transform my life. To make it something else entirely. The good news is that I’ve lived an interesting life. The bad news is that, though all of this, I never was able to finish anything, hold onto anything. I had lots of funny-tragic stories. That was my life equity. Otherwise, I was the poster child for unfulfilled potential.
Which — surprise! — accurately reflected what I thought of myself.
Taped on the wall next to my bathroom mirror is a page from the 2005 Zen daily calendar. The quote on it from Chogyam Trungpa reads, “No one can turn you completely upside down and inside out. You must accept yourself as you are, instead of you as would like to be, which means giving up self-deception and wishful thinking.”
The paper is yellowed and wavy from shower fog, marked with stains from flying drops of coffee, makeup and toothpaste. I took it down today to copy it for this article and then put it back where it was. It might look a little trashy to a visitor, but to me it’s a jewel placed in the perfect setting, right next to where I look at myself in the mirror every day of my life.
That little quote commemorates my belated recognition. This is me. This is my life.
I don’t have to value it all highly. I can look at any part of it and decide that it’s not useful anymore, or that I love it dearly. But everything that I own, everything I have accomplished (and that’s a lot, even though it wasn’t exactly what I hoped), all my experience, the relationships and memories, the responsibilities, the plans, all the things I think about, is me and my life. What is real right now is what is real.
It wasn’t just about what was objectively real, but it was also about how I saw it. The mental lenses which caused me to see things in a particular way. Like the lens that is fearful about throwing things away, in case all the stores are closed or I run out of money or I need that thing to trade with terrorists for my life. Or the lens that remembers when I was wrong about people, and never gets quite enough information to feel safe. These are me too. If I think I’m stupid or disorganized or have bad judgment, these thoughts are me too. All of these things are who I am.
There are a lot of pivotal moments in our healing, but for me, this idea shifted the ground under my feet. I had spent my entire life rejecting the very reality I lived with, as well as living with the self-questioning insecurity of feeling like an unfinished, inadequate person. This insight told me that I was finished, as far as I went. I didn’t need to be perfect to be real. What I was and what I had done had meaning. I was here, alive, having lived through so much, having struggled so hard to find my way. And the big trophy didn’t need to be coming from anywhere outside myself. I was the trophy. This life, imperfect as it was, was the trophy.
There wasn’t a speck of unrealistic thinking in this. It wasn’t grandiose. It didn’t change the fact that I was still in the middle of healing. My life was messy, and I was still trying to figure out how to be the person I wanted to be. But the big change was that it did not diminish me. I wasn’t beating myself up. I could stop being vulnerable to other people beating me up, because I secretly agreed with them. It opened a new view of my life. Instead of an arid moonscape of failure-craters, it was a rich green story of learning and survival. Some of my worst chapters — the big tragedies and huge failures — began to look different when I thought about how they brought me to here and now. It began to look okay.
Who do we love?
I can see by the word count of this article that we will need at least one more before we talk about loving other people. Something about what taking care of our well-loved selves really means. We need to get clear about that before we even think about another intimate relationship. But maybe we can conclude this one by talking a little bit about what we love in ourselves. And how that relates to unresolved trauma.
One of the most difficult and painful experiences that I can imagine is what happened to Jewish people in Europe during World War II. Survivors of the Holocaust lost family members and endured inhuman treatment in concentration camps. The challenges these people faced individually and as a community to heal, extract some positive meaning from these experiences and to move forward toward confident and creative lives are beyond anything I can imagine.
Just knowing about this — as well as the challenges of other people who face long-term cruelty and desperate living conditions — has sometimes helped me keep my personal challenges in perspective. As well as helping me understand things I might not otherwise understand about international politics, as well as the emotional states and concerns of people I meet. Sometimes there is not enough time in a lifetime, or even several generations, to work through complete healing.
And this is something we may have to accept in ourselves. As long as we are still living with the consequences of trauma that has not been fully transformed into learning that that increases our emotional freedom, compassion and conscious power to act, our values are going to be shaped by the progress we have made, as far as it has gone. And those values are going to have an impact on how we see ourselves and others. That is especially true if we still perceive ourselves as victims.
We may see other people around us who seem happier, more peaceful, able to do things that are beyond us right now, and we may be tempted to be envious or bitter about our lot or afraid that we are less than them. But this is not the truth. The truth is that we’re midstream in a great learning process. And wherever we are speaks of personal triumph to survive and learn more how to navigate this world.
Meanwhile, we are entitled to appreciation and gratitude for the great work of our bodies, minds, emotional systems and spiritual depths that brought us to where we are today. We can feel pride — not grandiosity, but the dignity of self-respect — in what we have accomplished. By the evidence of our lives, we are not nothing. Far from it. Each of us can look in the mirror and see someone of substance and value.
In learning to accept ourselves, we sometimes have to make peace with things about ourselves that are not perfect. And in doing this, we walk a fine line. We don’t want to deny where we fall short of what we’d like to be, things we’re still working on. But we can also see in our shortcomings the recognition of our true potential. Here are some suggestions for doing that.
If we are grieving, it is because of our blessed capacity to embrace life and take risks. If we are confused, it is because we value meaning and order. If we are angry, it is because we have a backbone of will and belief. If we are lonely, it is because we feel our deep connection with the world, but are still seeking where and how. If we feel despair, it is because we have a deep capacity for faith and hope. If we are depressed, we are in the midst of a great transition of belief. We may not see though it all yet. But the more it pains us, the more we know we are in the active process of learning.
All of this honorable. All of this is reason to respect ourselves.
Where self-love leads us
And if we can’t find any other reason to love ourselves, or if we are unsure that we can love ourselves and still be good people, the ultimate reason is that it is better for the world if we do. If we are patient and understanding with ourselves, if we believe in our potential, if we allow ourselves the dignity of self-respect even though we’re not perfect, it alters the most important lens by which we see the world. If we respect ourselves, we acknowledge that living through our growing-up and the dramas of life’s challenges is the universal story of life. It enables us to see that everything and everyone else is living through their own stories, and, for that reason, may deserve respect as well.
For trauma survivors, this is a touchy concept. If we have endured trauma at the hands of people whose life dramas create hurt and loss for other people, respect might sound like a ridiculous idea. Especially when our survival depends on clearly separating our interests from the interests of people who would harm us. However, if I were in the jungle with hungry lions around, I believe I would have better chance of survival if I respected what they are, than writing them off as evil.
Respect is a form of seeing, an even higher level of observation than the trusting of patterns that we discussed in the last article. It is a way of seeing that often provides us with more information than emotional reactions or judgments. Respect is not admiration or involvement. It is recognition that another being exists in his or her own world, facing private challenges, working with personal resources or lack of them. It helps us face reality more squarely, while maintaining the distance that respect implies. That is, observing from behind our own boundaries and seeing other people as separate from us. Respect helps us see larger patterns of life, making us more aware how we might be affected, whether or not we are actively involved.
Some people have a natural understanding of respect. But for others — especially if we grew up in Drama Triangle environments of victims and rescuers — it is something we have to learn. My Buddhist friend, when I begged him to help me warn off my ex’s latest girlfriend, told me an old saying “Nothing is more dangerous than interfering with other people’s dreams.” He was telling me to respect other people’s paths, to detach myself from what is none of my business and can not change.
Respect acknowledges our differences, while bringing us closer to actually understanding. It helps us recognize the emotional foundations of other people’s behavior or the type of energy they spread, without having to judge it any further than whether it is good for us. So that we can make easier and better choices about where we invest our energy. Respecting the different realities of other lives can even refine our feelings, enabling us to react more accurately. Like appreciating a flower growing in a landfill. Or being touched by the fleeting generosity of someone we know is virtually incapable of sharing. To experience love, awe, gratitude in smaller increments, and also disgust, frustration and grief in ways that we feel sharply but keep in perspective.
All of this makes us more solid with ourselves. Able to choose what is best for us, what matches who we are. This is how self-acceptance, self-love and self-respect are connected to personal power. Not accumulating power over other people, but being more aware and focused on how our actions affect our lives and the world around us.
In this work, we are moving farther from the struggles of early healing, deeper into the realm of accepting reality as “what is,” a relatively neutral position, that only works if we feel fully empowered to act on our own behalf. In the next article, to prepare a little more for love, we will talk more about power and emotional freedom.
Namaste. The deeply respectful spirit in me salutes with awe the flowering spirit in you.