Self-Love is not a choice; it’s a million choices
True confession: I haven’t always been a self-love person. Up until my late 20s, neither the term nor the experience had registered much on my radar. An achievement-oriented, highly functioning type, my eye was on the prize of success — at just about any price. Even though I’ve always loved the great outdoors, I moved to New York City right out of college. There I jumped headfirst into a career in books, hustling my way through multiple positions to make it to Senior Editor by the age of 28.
And yet, I was pathologically unhappy. Not that I knew it; I had successfully hidden my discontent from almost everyone, including myself. Achievement being a sort of anesthetic, my career success numbed me. I could continue moving forward because I wasn’t feeling the ache of my own heart.
Lucky for me, success became a less-effective opiate as the years went on. At a certain point I started looking around my life wondering why things felt so off. I had a great apartment in a sought-after neighborhood. A great job, with a window office, working with authors I admired. My social calendar was overflowing all the time. All the boxes on my “life resume” were checked—and isn’t one’s resume the most important thing?
I thought so, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
And when something isn’t right in a woman’s life in 21st century America, there’s only one place she turns: the self-help bookshelf.
I started devouring every personal growth book I could get my hands on. Eastern spirituality, tarot reading, creativity, abundance. It didn’t take long for me to see that they were all saying roughly the same thing, and that I didn’t like the thing they were saying.
They were telling me that I would have to choose self-love.
While it came in multiple packages—worthiness, self-esteem, self-acceptance—it boiled down to loving myself first and foremost and letting life handle the rest. Sounds easy enough, right?
Yeah—not for me. Self-love and I were not, at that point, acquaintances, much less friends. Self-aggression? Yes! I knew that one intimately. Self-discipline? I could hold my own with the best of them. Self-control? In all areas except ice cream. (One must have one’s exceptions.)
But self-love? I wouldn’t have recognized it if it had jumped up and bitten me.
Considering the concept for the first time in my life, I quickly assessed that it was too vague—not to mention a bit trite and even smarmy—to be taken seriously. Genuine self-love, after all, is not something one can put on one’s to-do list. And at this juncture in my life, it did not exist if it wasn’t on my to-do list.
Via the endless parade of books I was reading, there was one new item on my to-do list: meditation. I was a stress case—overwhelmed and freaked out most of the time—and this nice bald woman named Pema Chödrön was telling me Buddhist meditation could help with stress reduction. I decided to investigate.
The more I read about Buddhism, the more impressed I was. After my unfriendly parting with the Christian beliefs of my childhood, I was pleased to discover Buddhism boasted no dubious Gods to believe in, no rules or authority figures I had to obey. Buddhism was just me and the meditation cushion—my direct experience was the centerpiece. If I didn’t experience it myself, I didn’t have to believe it. And so I began to meditate. I didn’t see it as a spiritual path and I certainly didn’t see it as an act of self-love; I saw it as a matter of survival. And with the anesthetic properties of success wearing off, I needed to find another solution.
Little did I know that meditation is a Trojan horse of sorts. It sneaks in self-love through the back door.
As I continued meditating, I began to notice how often my thoughts ran to cruelty. Cruelty toward myself for my imperfect choices, for my imperfect body, for my imperfect life. Excoriation, shame and blame were on the menu of my monkey mind, 24/7.
Noticing my self-criticism did not, unfortunately, end its reign. (That would take several more years and a lifetime of upkeep.) But the willingness to feel the sadness it brought up did something interesting: it created a hairline fracture in the habit I had of kicking the crap out of myself.
It also started to soften up the hardness that had taken hold of my heart in my “adult” years. With the help of some really good personal growth books about creativity, I returned to some of the loves of my childhood. I dusted off my old guitar and began to play again. I went to art stores and bought colored markers and went for sketch crawls around my Brooklyn neighborhood.
On the cushion my self-chastisement gave way, more and more often, to dreaming.
I thought about what I wanted for my future, and rather quickly discovered it didn’t include my great apartment, or my great job, or my great friends. I wanted something else entirely.
Mysteriously, I was soon thereafter offered a job in the mountain town of Boulder, Colorado. The work I would be doing? Publishing self-help, spirituality and personal growth books.
My heart leapt up and said Yes! Yes! Yes! right away. “I want to live in the mountains!” she said. “I want to work on books I care about!” My head had a lot of other ideas. “You’re going to leave your high-status job at a New York publisher to go work at a dinky company in the middle of nowhere?” it asked. “What will people think?”
It took me a month to make my decision. Toward the end of the month I went on a six-day meditation retreat. That week I endured an excruciating death battle in my own being. In one corner we had the reigning champion, Self-Aggression. In the other, the underdog—Self-Love. Every moment on that cushion was spent refereeing the opposing forces of my judgmental mind and my longing heart.
The throw-down continued until I got on the bus for the long ride back to the city. Watching the green countryside fly by the window, I let my heart speak one more time. “I want to live where there is green,” she said. “I want to live in the mountains.” The minute I got home I picked up the phone and accepted the job.
Self-Love for the win.
It’s been ten years since I left New York, and the roots of self-love have grown only deeper. Like an investment that compounds over time, self-love grows exponentially every time we take a stand for what the heart desires. As a teacher of mine once said, self-love is “a million tiny good decisions.”
My only definition of “good” these days is “feels good in my heart.”
This is why I say self-love is not a choice. It’s a million choices, a million seeds planted, a million moments of returning to the heart when our attention has drifted away. But there are choices we can make to get there. For me, meditation has been, and continues to be, the training ground. It opened a door in my once-frozen heart, so self-love could walk right in.
* * *
How do we know if self-love is knocking on our door? We can pay attention to the signs. Here are four clues I’ve noticed in my own investigative journey—perhaps they sound familiar?
1) You no longer do things that don’t bring you joy.
My whole life had been spent bowing to an externally imposed idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. (A standard I held for both myself and others—my apologies to former colleagues and partners.) There were a lot of to-dos on my list that were generated from outside of myself. You must stay in New York City even though you aren’t happy and want to live in nature, because it looks better on your resume. That was a big one for me.
But there are an infinite number of everyday examples: You must go to that party even though you feel like staying home, because they’re expecting you. You must work with this client even though you sense red flags about him, because so-and-so recommended him. You must wear make-up when you leave the house, because you need to look ‘good’.
The more that self-love rewires me, the more what I want to do has begun to automatically supersede what I think I ‘should’ do. Joy trumps obligation. It’s not that I don’t still feel social pressures—I still have a paper-thin skin, and probably always will—it’s just that in the natural hierarchy, my own needs get priority.
2) You no longer say mean things to yourself.
This is super noticeable when, like me, your mind has previously been your worst oppressor. It didn’t matter what perceived wrong I’d committed—the internal self-ridicule was swift and fierce. You’re an idiot. You’re going to get in trouble for that one. You should have done better. You need to be perfect all the time and you failed.
After a dozen years of meditating, today I actually notice when I’m yelling at myself. And a sort of natural compassion has started coming to my rescue. “You’re doing the best you can,” it says when I experience disappointment or shame. “You’re doing a great job.” My own mind has gone from being a slave driver to a loving kindergarten teacher. I’m not complaining.
3) You start practicing self-care without thinking about it as ‘self-care’.
God bless Oprah and her favorite things—fuzzy pajamas, peppermint tea, and cozy naps on Sunday afternoon—but I think self-love is too often mistaken for drowning ourselves in little luxuries. It’s so much more fundamental, and so much simpler, than ‘self-care’.
And, caring for ourselves is one of its telltale signs. Recently a friend watched me make myself breakfast. “You take such good care of yourself,” she said. In that moment I realized that my dawning self-love was translating itself into external behaviors. I really do take good care of myself. I prioritize sleep, my meditation practice, and doing things I love. A switch has flipped, and now I care more about what I need than about what ‘they’ will think. I didn’t set out to take better care of myself—it’s a natural outcome of loving myself more.
4) You can say “I love myself,” and it resonates as true.
I’ve never been a big fan of affirmations. I tend to side with the late, great Debbie Ford who once referred to affirmations as “putting ice cream on poop and calling it a cake.” Repeating “I love myself, I love myself, I love myself” never seemed to make me feel loved or loveable—it felt prickly and dishonest and maybe a little bit painful.
Yet not too long ago, I picked up Louise Hay’s classic guide, You Can Heal Your Life, which ironically, in all my journeys through self-help literature, I had somehow never read.
Very quickly, I recognized why. The book is built on the practice of affirmations. The past version of myself would have scoffed at repeating those mantras—they just wouldn’t have felt true.
But this time, something was different. For one of the exercises, I decided to try I love myself as my mantra—and to my total surprise, the phrase felt right.
I do love myself. Every time I sit on the meditation cushion; every time I make space in my day for tea with a friend; every time I am in bed early and make nourishing food choices and go for a walk in the rain — and every time I soothe myself when facing a life hiccup or challenge — I am loving myself in real time.
>Learn more about Kelly at knliterary.com