The Gratitude Challenge’s eighteenth topic is “Self-Love”.
In my previous post about food, I said that I’m grateful for bringing up more kindness towards myself and being less strict. In that case I meant strict and restrictive towards food, but it goes beyond that: Accepting that I’m not perfect, that I cannot and should not please everybody. Self-love to me also involves finding ourselves and accepting this person. Becoming aware of all our weaknesses and darker sides, too, and acknowledging them to be part of us. We can try of course to work on them, but we should not try to deny their existence. Many people – myself included – keep themselves busy and distracted just to not see such sides. We can only love ourselves if we do not look closely enough. We can only love the polished version that we present on Instagram – and only if we get enough Likes for it.
I was never an overly active social media user, but a while ago I started to post on Instagram. Quickly I realized how posting and receiving likes makes the whole thing way more addictive than just browsing and watching other people’s posts. I started with some videos of me jamming with friends, then gradually moved to videos of me drumming alone, then to photos of me, all the way to selfies. Climbing up the ladder of narcissism was pretty smooth and fast.
I tried to disable my Instagram account, but it was really difficult to do so and accidentally I logged in again, which automatically reenables your account and you cannot immediately revert this, because disabling is only allowed once per week. Meta, the company behind Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, really seems to have a very strong interest in keeping their users nicely addicted to their platforms and make it unnecessarily complicated to find the “disable” option and keep the account in that state.
As an alternative solution I deleted the Instagram app from my phone. I want to enjoy making music for the sake of playing, not for receiving likes on social media. I want to enjoy a moment in that moment, not afterwards when posting about it (some people of course solved this “problem” by simply posting in the very moment and tracking the online reactions live…). I think Instagram is inherently useful to stay in contact with people and stay up to date, but with a bit of distance I also feel somewhat pitiful for everyone, constantly creating new content, constantly trying to make a good impression, constantly asking for validation.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” – it becomes so apparent when you are bombarded with videos of people who are objectively so much better at something you also do. I will never be such a good drummer or musician as the thousands of people I see on Instagram, nor will I be such a surfer who rides the biggest waves. But is it necessary? Isn’t it enough if I can simply enjoy myself doing it? Is it healthy to get used to daily pictures of half-naked models in bikini, creating completely unrealistic expectations towards our partners? In turn, do we want to have a partner who holds such unrealistic expectations towards us? Looking at social media with a bit of distance, it looks like a very exhausting rat race that never ends.
I do not want to sound enlightened here in any way. Many times, I still wonder if it would not be nice to reinstall Instagram – it has its positives sides, too. But for self-love I really do not think that engaging in social media does us any favour. We are conditioned on pleasing others and receiving validation from friends and strangers, alike. But should we not rather be able to live a life that serves our own needs and desires, that makes us happy simply for living it, not because we are doing something that will meet others’ expectations and receive likes?
Self-love is not limited to the relationship to ourselves. Also in partnerships we need to be able to love ourselves, or otherwise we will most likely not treat ourselves, nor our partner very well. I find myself repeatedly in relationships where I feel it’s “justified” to be scolded by my partner, because of course I’m not good enough. I believe I deserve to be mistreated and let it happen.
There is a narrow line between understanding for what someone did to you and letting yourself treat like a doormat. With a lack of self-love, it’s easy to rationalize and understand the other person’s behaviour – at the expense of your own worth. I have a tendency to enable relationship dynamics where at times that my partner crosses my boundaries, I get upset and call her out, but instead of trying to understand my pain and apologize she instead gets angry and accuses me how I could think so negatively of her – and somehow, I’m then pushed into a role where I feel the need to apologize. Someone with a lack of self-love seems to easily attract people who habitually slip into the victim role, because it is so easy to make the less secure person believe that it’s indeed their fault.
So, how do we develop self-love?
It probably is not about narcissistically diving into spa treatments, shopping sprees and whatever consumerism and capitalism tell us would make everyone happy. I think I’ve experienced both extremes: Denying myself everything because I think I was not worth it – and “spoiling” myself by buying tons of stuff, “because I deserve it” – and of course just leaving me with just a lot of useless stuff, less money and definitely not any more happiness. In don’t say that buying things cannot bring happiness, but it’s most likely not an act of self-love and at least in my case it’s really not the expensive items that bring me joy. 15 years ago, my former flatmate got me a fast-drying travel towel for my many trips around the world and a year ago I got a beautifully knitted flower-shaped bookmark. Both pretty affordable items, but they bring me joy whenever I see and use them.
After a quick internet search, my hunch seems to be confirmed by other people’s understanding: Being present, appreciating what you have and who you are, accepting your weaknesses. I notice that all activities that bring me into the very moment are things that make me happy: Meditation, connecting with others through music, paying attention to catch the wave when surfing. In the moment you cannot ponder about any fruitless “what if only I had” or “what if only I would” questions, but just focus on the very moment, on something simply like the breath, on something beautiful like the magic connection between jamming musicians, on something thrilling like riding a strong wave that makes you almost fly away.
I think it’s a good idea to gain clarity about who we want to be, both as an individual and as a partner. Would we want to be in a relationship with ourselves? Are we committed; do we hold us to the same standards as we do others? Are we “interesting” and willing to support the other person in such a way that they can be and turn into the best version of themselves, or do we secretly welcome someone else’s misery to feel less pathetic ourselves (in friendships the term “frenemies” was created to express such toxic dynamic)?
Self-love also means letting go, of habits and people that are not good for us. The difficulty is of course to be aware about their impact on us and the courage to take action. For both, mediation and being present is again a great start. Being more aware about how different situations and dynamics make us feel. Making ourselves aware that no matter how “helpless” or “alone” we would feel without something or someone, we will most likely never be completely alone, never be completely helpless.
I myself tend to think “but this person brings this and that aspect into my life and I won’t have it anymore if that person is gone”. But should I not rather be able to create such experiences myself if I appreciate them so much?
In the last session with my therapist, I said: If I think what would need to happen for me to break up, how much someone would need to cross my boundaries… I think there would be no limit. As long as the other person tries to convince me that it will not happen ever again, I would just go on forever, out of fear to do the wrong thing, out of fear to be alone, out of fear to lose all the positive aspects, out of fear to not find someone so “unique” anymore”. It sounds I still have a long journey towards self-love.
Nevertheless, I’m grateful for each little step I’m making into that direction: More or less regular meditation, facing my fear of the water and getting into surfing, starting to make music again and learning new instruments, that make me feel very able, that make me feel as if life has a purpose and give me a sense of achievement. I’m grateful for becoming clearer about my boundaries and the growing ability to hold them up even when I’m afraid of the consequences. I’m grateful that I came back to journaling and that I can write about how I feel instead of just distracting myself. I am grateful for being brave enough to listen a bit less to podcasts and study a bit less in my free time despite the feeling that I should be more “productive”: I’m allowing myself to not be “productive” 100% of my free time, but instead being aware of all those many different feelings that go beyond “happiness”.
I’m grateful for being brave enough and bringing up the loving compassion to deal with all those “less happy” feelings in a healthier way than just distracting myself and pretend they were not there. Doing so pushed me to the edge, switching from “I’m always happy” to “was I ever truly happy”, but I’m learning and growing, and that’s probably also an act of self-love.