Accepting that the dismantling of self-hatred is always an inside job and then devoting our selves to a daily practice of compassionately, unconditionally and fiercely re-mothering our selves.
Loving Your Self Unconditionally
Loving your self unconditionally is a revolutionary act!
There are times that my heart fills with sadness for the me that I was for much of the first half of my life. Often I feel that same heart-hurting sadness while witnessing the struggles of many of the dear people with whom I've worked during the more than 48 years that I've been a therapist.
The level of self-loathing and self-criticism with which I and so many of us have lived (or still live) is staggering in both its overt and its more obscured versions. The depth and breadth of what we suffer in our anguished yearning to be seen – and to see our selves – as worthy, lovable beings is astounding.
I was such an odd little creature, quite different from my peers, an outsider from my earliest years. Yet, my own company sustained and nourished me. I could delight in my own imaginings and creative play. In relations with others, however, I usually felt quite at a loss: confused and of no value. I never seemed to fit in; never seemed to get-it-right.
This experience echoed my daily experience with my cold, critical and dismissive mother. With her, too, I never seemed to get anything right. Nothing I did brought any warmth or approval from her. This filled me with despair. Early on, my little heart began believing that, if I could figure out how to be better, different, a good-er girl, less needy, more something-other-than-I-was, then my mother would magically be transformed. She would be warm and loving with me. Others, too, would see me as a worthy being.
This belief led to more than thirty years of laboring at the Herculean task of trying to be exceptional and perfect at everything I did. I felt compelled to bend, twist and re-form my self to fit the images of what I imagined she and others would hold as valuable. It was a desperate search for recognition, for the outside acknowledgement that I thought would help me to love and value my self. None of this ever worked. My mother was never transformed. No amount of recognition for my specialness made me feel more worthy or lovable.
Then, not long after my 32nd birthday, some deep wordless knowing within me began urging me to let go of this way of being me in the world. (See Pirouettes for more about this.) I felt pushed from within to give up the futile attempts to achieve the perfection, the outside recognition that I had believed would transform my crippling self-criticism and self-loathing. I felt moved to leave behind all the trappings of my compulsively super-achieving lifestyle, the geography in which I'd lived that lifestyle and, with just a few exceptions, the relationships that had been part of that lifestyle.
In the ongoing (if sporadic) journal I kept during that first year of travel and transitioning, my belief that doings lead to feelings of worthiness fell away. In its place, a yearning emerged, revealed in a poem that speaks of the longing for someone who might love me into loving my self. In that poem, I Want a Momma, there is a poignant call for someone to "love me to pieces, just how I am…till I have no choice but…to revel in the joys of being me."
And there were, indeed, many people that I met in the early years of my new life who responded with lavish appreciation for the person I was at the time. None of them knew anything about who I'd been in my super-achieving, pirouetting former life. Their valuing of me had only to do with the just-me-ness of me, without any credentials-of-value earned by doings. Yet, none of this lessened the intensity of my recurrent self-loathing. It did little to transform my self-criticism or to nurture me into loving my self.
I discovered an awful irony in that season: When someone actually does show delight or appreciation for this self that we hate, that person is instantly devalued in our eyes. We see them as deranged, lacking in judgment or, at the very least, quite misguided. We are convinced that only a very poor judge of character/value could love and accept someone like us just the way we are – inadequate, flawed creatures that we see our selves to be.
When, for some reason, we're unable to discredit the judgment of the person who holds positive visions of our loathed selves, their good opinion of us is likely to further exaggerate the intensity of our self-hatred. Their good opinion contributes to our feeling that we are imposters. We're likely to rip into our selves for pulling the wool over their eyes. We're certain that, if we would stop inadvertently bamboozling them, they would see who we really are behind our subterfuge. Then, they would surely agree with our terrible opinion of our selves.
The child, the young woman and the thirty- early forty-something woman of me were all dreadfully tangled in this terrible catch-22. Starved for loving reflections, I longed for acceptance from other(s). Yet, the more I was surrounded by such reflections, the more antsy and loathing of my self I would become.
Despite this baffling experience with loving reflection, I was dedicated to being as sensitive, compassionate and unconditionally accepting as I could be to the broken, self-critical, self-loathing selves of others. Relentlessly, I committed my self to giving to others just what I felt most desperate to find for my self; exactly what I continued (despite the mounting experiential evidence to the contrary) to believe would heal my own similar brokenness, were it given to me.
Through all this effort and confusion, I gradually began to understand that no amount of others' loving could actually dismantle our self-loathing. Until and unless we develop at least a kernel of self-acceptance, their good energy has no opening through which to enter into us. There is no question that being surrounded by a loving environment is more supportive to our growing into self-love than being surrounded by a demoralizing, critical one. (Even as the loving environment brings some real challenges with it.) Yet, the job of actually transforming the self-hatred into self-love is something only we, our selves, can do – from the inside out.
The transformation from self-loathing into unconditionally embracing my self began with my discovering the Little One inside of me. (See The Little Ones Story for more about this part of the journey.) When I met this little creature in a guided fantasy, I couldn't help but feel beguiled by her. She was captivating: exuberant, vulnerable and outspoken. I fell instantly in love with her. She inspired fierce protectiveness in me.
I was working with a creative arts therapist at the time. She had been able to give me just what I needed at that moment: the permission and encouragement for me to give to that little one all the love and acceptance I had till then felt allowed only to give away to others. (Never mind how ultimately useless it was to the others to whom I gave it.)
Over the more than 29 years since that remarkable day when I was 43 years old, I have opened my arms and my heart to various little selves inside of me, devoting my self to hearing and tending to their separate voices, their stories, their sorrows, their needs, their frustrations, their fears, their joys and their silliness. My life has been a daily practice of re-mothering all these little one parts of me.
Though I'd intentionally chosen never to birth or mother a physical child, I certainly had an extensive, well-honed repertoire of mothering skills to bring to my practice. These were the skills that I had used responding to the broken little ones I saw in other grown-ups. Now I was directing those skills to the task of re-mothering my self. In this journey I have become the Momma I was yearning for in that long ago journal poem.
(Note: In me, as in most of us, these inner little ones are not fully developed multiple personalities. They are merely the usually unattended internal parts of a complex self. Were these parts true child-multiples, though, I would be doing the very same practice with them.)
The care I keep giving to all the parts of my self has and has had an amazing effect on my life. The whole emotional vocabulary with which I talk to my self has changed. Though it has taken time and dedicated practice, I no longer have to contend with the heinous self-derogating of the Hatchet Lady (my formerly ferocious inner critic).
These days, no one (inside or outside of me) has permission to verbally beat me up or to tell me that there's something wrong with how I am. I can hear that someone (outside or inside of me) doesn't like how I am being. I'm equally willing to hear how they find me problematic. Or, how they wish that I were able to be different. I can listen sympathetically to these kinds of feedback. Yet, as soon as someone is suggesting that how I am is categorically not okay (rather than not-okay-for-them) the Mommy interferes so that I do not have to listen to such harmful messages.
Her unconditional acceptance helps me to no longer be subject to other people's ideas of how I should be or act or feel or think. I understand that their ideas about and for me reveal much more about them than about me. Rarely, these days, am I available to be seduced by their good opinions or devastated by their bad opinions of me.
I don't necessarily like every way that I am. But, I can and do embrace all the ways that I am. I know, in a cell-deep way, that accepting where and how I am is the only way I have a prayer of ever moving beyond that place. (This, the opposite of conventional wisdom that would have us abhor and repudiate whatever in our selves we wish to change.) The Mommy Inside is calmly patient with me when I am stuck in such places, no matter how long the stuckness lasts. This gives me a gentle spaciousness in which to grow my self.
As we each work to develop and expand the practice of becoming unconditionally loving mothers to our selves, we are part of a revolution in consciousness. We are freeing our selves from the countless undermining torments that our pasts and our culture can visit upon our impressionable selves. We are becoming more solidly grounded in our precious evolving selves. We are becoming consistently more gentle, more kind and more tender with our vulnerable and empowered selves.
The more we practice unconditionally and compassionately embracing our selves, the more fully we can bring compassion and unconditional acceptance to others in our lives. We grow our capacity to be spacious witnesses rather than impatient interferers in the processes of others. We give up the misguided notion that we can fix anyone but our selves.