The Love Equation
Here is an exercise for you to do. Go stand in front of a mirror. It’s best if you’re alone. If you don’t have a mirror, then the ‘selfie’ function on your phone will do – but a mirror is better because you don’t get proper eye contact through a phone (and take any filters off too). Eye contact is important, because in this exercise you are really going to look at yourself. I don’t mean the way you look to check you look hot in an outfit, or clean and tidy for work, or putting on mascara, or checking you’ve shaved properly. I mean, really looking at yourself, especially your face, and most especially into your eyes. It’s better if you’re looking natural, not too much make up – maybe first thing in the morning. Really look, take yourself in, hold your own stare. Smile at yourself. And out loud, not in your head, say
I love you
Did you find it difficult? What kind of things came up for you? The first time I did this, I found it hard to hold my own gaze, to look into my own eyes. I almost couldn’t get the words out; my mouth couldn’t seem to form them. I felt embarrassed, weird. It felt all wrong.
It felt all wrong to tell myself I loved me? When you think about it, there is something a bit wrong with not being able to tell yourself you love you. Loving yourself is pretty much THE key to everything. And yet we all struggle with it. In this article I’m going to talk about why loving yourself is essential, and how you can work on building on that love.
Time for some math(s)
What on earth has math(s) got to do with love? Love is all feelings and emotions and ‘un-pin-downable’ stuff like that, right? It’s not numbers and symbols and black and white?
Our lives work better when they are in balance. In fact, that is what nature in all its forms, including the human body, mind and spirit, has been designed to do: come back into equilibrium. We can see it with how we fuel ourselves, where if the calories we consume outweigh the calories we expend, we will see an imbalance in our bodies in terms of carrying too much weight. This is also the same with how we love.
To put it simply, the amount of love we have for ourselves, and how we show that love, is the amount of love we will be able to give others. It is also the amount of love we will be able to receive. If you don’t love yourself enough, you will struggle to really love someone else more than that. You will also struggle to attract more love that you have already. It looks like this:
Love for yourself = love you give out = love you receive
It might sound simple – but it is not easy.
What is love anyway?
We all long for love, we long to be known. As humans, we are on a quest to alleviate the separateness we feel inside through a union with another. It is a spiritual quest about the longing to become whole. Love allows us to feel whole by knowing ourselves, knowing others and ultimately knowing God (or the Universe, or life force, or whatever it is that is inside of you).
Union with yourself, with God, with others, requires action. Love is not a feeling. Love is a verb, a ‘doing word’. You ‘do’ love: to yourself, to others, and you receive those actions from others. Every time there is an action, there is a transfer of energy, of power, either to you, or to another person, or many people all at once. Love is also a choice. You choose to love yourself or others every moment of everyday, through your actions. No matter how you might feel at that time, angry with them, annoyed at yourself, you can always choose to do love.
Those feelings we have, particularly at the start of a relationship, the ‘spark’, the chemistry? These are all essential components of attraction, of desire. From personal experience, I would suggest not trying to force these feelings or pretend they don’t matter. They do. But they are not love. More often, it is a surge of dopamine in your brain, caused by your neurological wiring being stimulated. And, as has been found in research, that wiring can often be faulty, as the neuron pathways that were laid during our childhoods and teenage years are a product of how we learned to make attachments in our families. Relying on these feelings as evidence of love, can prove a false start; once the dopamine dies away, what are we left with? Unless real work has been done during that time to build a heart centred connection, based on doing love, then the relationship often fizzles out. The problem we are all trying to solve is to meet someone with whom we have this neurological excitement, attraction, desire – but with whom we can also do love – and who will also do love back to us.
Erich Fromm, one of the early American psychotherapists in the 1950s defines love in his seminal work “The Art of Loving” as an act of giving, which “implies certain basic elements, common to all forms of love. These are care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.” Caring for yourself or for another is fairly self-evident. Responsibility is a voluntary act, it is my response to the needs, expressed or unexpressed, of another – or myself. Respect is required to stop responsibility becoming domineering and overpowering; respect is the ability to see a person as they are, to see yourself as you are, that both you and the other should grow and unfold as they are, not as you want yourself or them to be. Respect for yourself or another is not possible without knowing yourself or them. I have written before about how we often sub consciously avoid intimacy, through our choice of partners or serial dating or beliefs about The One, but it is this intimacy, this knowing, that is absolutely essential to love. By making yourself open and vulnerable, you allow others in, and this is vital for connection to happen. You love by being vulnerable.
Many of us confuse love with need. “I need you” is a common refrain, as is “you complete me” or “you make me whole”. As we all long for love, for our separateness to be healed, it is perfectly understandable that we look to another to end that longing, and to make us feel whole. But this has inherent problems, in that this requires a transfer of power from you to the other, and to the relationship. All relationships require us to give up some power; the issue is when we derive too much power from the relationship or from the other person – and not enough from ourselves. Fromm says “respect is only possible if I have achieved independence; if I can stand and walk without crutches and without the need to exploit anyone else”. This giving up of power, and of not taking responsibility for yourself, is a major factor in feeling ‘stuck’ in relationships.
We don’t need another person to love us or to make us whole. We are already complete – we just don’t realise it yet. In spiritual traditions, you work on loving yourself first, on knowing yourself, on being connected with yourself and others via your consciousness - and as part of this you understand that actually you already have all the love you will ever need. In “The Power of Now” Eckhart Tolle says that this love we have inside us is not exclusive, it does not make one person special. However, the intensity of love can vary. Is there someone who reflects back your love to you the most? It is this reflecting back that is crucial in determining the state of a love relationship. Someone else can only ever reflect back the amount of love you have to give.
The “I’m Not Worthy” Cycle
The “I’m Not Worthy” Cycle is an example of what happens when we don’t love ourselves enough, and when we seek union with another in order to make ourselves feel whole. When we don’t love ourselves enough, we often feel that we are not worthy of love. This is a desperate but very common place to be. Who reading this really, deep down, feels worthy of love? If you do feel worthy, are you demonstrating that by loving yourself every day?
When we feel unworthy, we often look outside ourselves for the answer, for someone else to make us whole. It is back to front math(s): when someone loves me, then I will be worthy of love. No – when you feel you are worthy of love, then someone will love you the way you deserve.
It works like this. I feel unworthy of love and yet I look outside of myself for a relationship to feel better. But because I believe I am unworthy, I subconsciously attract, and am attracted to, others who cannot love me the way I deserve. I give up too much of myself, my power, to this relationship. It defines me. I give too much; although I am caring and trying to respond to their needs, because I have no respect for myself, there are no boundaries. I am open to being used and abused. Subconsciously, I may even be caring for them and giving to them because I need them to stay. I am actually using these loving actions as a form of control because I am scared they will leave. My partner also has their own issues, there will be intimacy avoidance all over the place, they may even be controlling, or emotionally or physically abusive. The result is that I see that I am unworthy of love because this person didn’t love me enough – it is what I believe I deserve. The relationship ends. I feel wretched. And start looking again, outside of myself, for happiness. How do I break this cycle?
How to love yourself
The answer to all these questions is love.
Love for yourself first.
Like most things worth doing, it’s not easy, and it is a lifetime’s work. Not that it will take a life time and you’ll be on your death bed when you finally get it. It’s more that it is an on-going series of actions and behaviours that you need to work on every moment of everyday.
Practically speaking, you can love yourself through the food you eat. Do you show your body care and respect by eating healthily most of the time? It is an act of love to cook for someone else, or for your family and friends – but how often do show love to you by cooking for yourself? Do you listen to your body and respond to its needs? Do you exercise regularly? I don’t mean having to do Cross Fit or the marathon - walking, doing a fun exercise class or yoga, being outside, cycling to work or appointments are all good options. Do you nurture yourself by taking time for yourself to sit quietly, reading, taking a bath? Do you love your mind and spirit by reading up on important issues and forming an opinion? Invest in yourself with a therapist or coach? Too many of us, especially if you have children, have such busy lives that we struggle to practise these important acts of self-care, even if these things are essential for self-love. Loving yourself is your responsibility.
If you have a family and partner dependent on you, then you will struggle to truly care for them, if you do not care for yourself. Putting your love for yourself first, and then attending to their needs, will make your acts of love for them more potent, stronger and they will come more from your heart, as acts of giving, rather than a sense of duty.
Acts of self-love can be external, and also internal. External acts of love have TV shows made about them: “What not to wear” for example. Feeling good on the outside by wearing clothes that suit us physically and personality wise is an important part of understanding who we are, accepting that and then expressing it. For too long, I tried to dress like all the other senior women in banking. I felt like a total fraud, because I am much, much happier in jeans, shorts, tee shirt and flip flops. Understanding how much I disliked the corporate dress code, was a key step in learning about myself and starting to reflect who I really am, rather than the person I thought I was.
As part of learning to love yourself, you also need to distinguish between Likes and Wants. I’m going to write a much longer article on Likes and Wants shortly, but I want to introduce the concept here. We all have our likes and preferences: skinny jeans vs flared, Thai food v Indian, football v rugby v baseball, blondes v brunettes. These things please us, cheer us up, we find them attractive and entertaining. Then we have our wants. At the heart of these wants is this longing for love, for connection. But there are other wants too. Mine consist of intimacy, vulnerability, safety, independence. The problem lies in that we often spend too much time focusing on our likes rather than our wants. Likes glitter and sparkle and catch our eye, whilst wants hide deep down inside us. Focusing on our likes leaves us feeling empty, after the initial dopamine rush wears off. It is a real yet difficult act of self-love to start to identify, articulate and act on your wants, not your likes.
In ‘Anatomy of the Spirit’, Carolyn Myss talks about a Native American rite where people who are broken, diseased / dis-eased, suffering or stuck are instructed to call back their spirit. They believe that these problems are caused by our spirits leaving us, due to whatever challenges or problems we have experienced in our lives. No one can live without their spirit; your spirit is your power. When we experience life events and situations that drain us of our power, it is important that we work to call it back. Calling back our power, or our spirit, is a profound act of self-love, of belief in our self-worth, of our right to exist. In your work on loving yourself, identifying where you have given up your power, or spirit, and asking it to come back to you – and working to allow it to come back to you in practical terms, whatever that is – is learning to love yourself. Calling back my spirit from where I had been separated from it, from bereavement, from back pain, from family trauma, from pretending to be someone I wasn’t, from not feeling like I ever fit in anywhere, was when my depression lifted and I finally started to love myself.
Accepting yourself as you are is crucial in learning to love yourself. Too often we place too many demands on ourselves, or we try to live up to our and society’s expectations of being perfect. Brene Brown says we live in scarcity culture, where we all fear not being ‘enough’: pretty enough, thin enough, rich enough, mother enough etc etc the list goes on. Understanding your limitations and your strengths is key to accepting that you are enough. Acceptance is loving, because it means you are learning to love yourself unconditionally as you are. I thoroughly recommend watching her two TED talk videos on Vulnerability and Shame.
The ultimate action in self-love is of course, the most difficult: forgiveness. As Carolyn Myss says “as appealing as forgiveness might be in theory, it is an extremely unattractive personal action to most people”. Forgiving yourself for whatever transgressions you may have done to yourself and to others is the biggest act of self-love you can make, followed by forgiving others for their transgressions to you. Forgiveness is not telling yourself, or the other person, that ‘it’s OK’. It is an act which releases the person being forgiven – which includes you – from any blame, and then frees you from any notion of being a victim. This is important when we realise than many problems we experience are self-created. It is easy to blame ourselves and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Forgiving yourself is loving because it releases you from both the states of blame and victimhood, and enhances your personal power. It is the largest step in liberating yourself from being stuck.
I can now say I love you to me in the mirror. It took a long time for me to learn to love me, and I have to work at it every moment of every day. I didn’t think I was worthy of love until I started to do love to myself. I started to feed myself nutritious food and dress the way that expresses who I am. I started to put in boundaries around relationships, even with family and friends, to ensure that I did not give up too much power. I walked away from at least one romantic relationship when I realised the men involved could not love me as I deserved – no matter how much I liked them. I re-discovered my spirit buried inside me, and in finding it and mending it, alleviated my depression. I realised that I am whole, as I am, even though I long for love. I’m now looking for someone who reflects my love as brightly as I shine it.
The Answer is Love
Erich Fromm – The Art of Loving
Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now
Carolyn Myss, PhD – The Anatomy of the Spirit