Updated: May 26, 2020
What is this "Self-Love" we hear so much about? Isn't that a bit narcissistic? Shouldn't we be working on loving each other if our intention is to get along? Let's take a look at what self acceptance really means. It has to do with being honest about what we really think and feel, and owning up to how we truly behave, speaking equally of what we judge to be our shortcomings as well as our strengths. Our failures and disappointments are vulnerabilities that we have a hard time bringing into the light to see ourselves, much less to share with others. Healthy self-love is not about always putting your own needs first, but about accepting who you are, including your imperfections, enough to present yourself clearly to others.
As children, we all learn about "good" and "bad" behavior, and we all quickly realize that the best way to avoid punishment and pain is either to always have "good" behavior or to do our best to hide our "bad" behavior. This sets us up to be a bit duplicitous, hiding our failures and missteps while broadcasting our positive attributes and successes. We avoid failure at all costs, and when we do make mistakes, we devote much energy to masking them as successes, blaming someone else, or denying that they happened altogether. The truth is that we all screw things up sometimes. Everybody says exactly the wrong thing in an awkward situation, doesn't listen with enough attention during an important conversation, forgets an anniversary, or oversalts the soup. Admitting the mistake is often harder than it seems, but it is the only way to move forward with love. Honestly, when called out by your partner for looking at your iphone while he's talking, do you get defensive? "I was listening! I know what you said! Why do you always criticize me?" or "You never listen to me, so why should I pay attention to you?" Is it hard to admit that you were distracted, that you didn't show up in that moment as your ideal self?
We can be disappointed in ourselves, and ashamed of our own behavior. We sometimes have regrets, wishing we had said or done something differently. Disappointment is a feeling that many of us avoid, especially when it comes along with feelings of failure, thinking that we have let ourselves and everyone else down. It might be easier to bypass this sinking feeling and skip to anger or blame directed elsewhere, rather than sit with the raw sadness of disappointment. It happens when you expect the boss to give you a raise, and she doesn't; you thought a friend or lover would lend a hand, but they don't show up, or you had an expectation of yourself to be generous, but instead you behaved selfishly. Life is hard in ways we often don't predict, and we are frequently let down. We have loss and grief; we don't come out on top or win or feel loved in the moment. Life can be so disappointing, but for many of us, admitting disappointment, or even recognizing the feeling, is much more difficult than expressing anger toward a friend, lover, employer or parent. In the wise words of psychotherapist Mary C. Lamia, "Disappointment forces you to admit that you didn't get what you wished to have, and it's actually easier for you to protest with anger than it is to encounter your sadness about the course of events. In an obstinate way, anger will allow you to continue idealizing what could have been, while consciously denigrating it, and you will hang onto it only because it's what you needed at the time. Disappointment accepts reality."
When you can honestly claim your own missteps, and admit your disappointments, it becomes more forgivable when others let you down and when they share their disappointment in something you failed to do. In accepting our own failures, we have compassion for others who make mistakes, and in admitting our sadness about things not turning out as we had hoped, we have less need to blame someone else. When we accept these shadowy parts of ourselves, we have less compulsion to hide the truth or punish each other. We can come out into the light and show our true colors, seeing what is real. We can begin to understand why we might behave in the ways we do, and relax enough to laugh with our partner about their foibles. With honesty, self-acceptance and equanimity, we can look clearly at ourselves, making conscious choices about how to be in the world, and with each other.