I just came from a group my therapist, Susan Lipshutz runs called Thirteen Moons. It’s a personal growth group she hosts on a monthly basis. My husband jokingly calls it my “witches group” because we do all sorts of weird stuff like trance dancing, shamanic journeys, creating altars…you know, hippy, witch stuff. I love it. I highly recommend it.
This month’s theme was “becoming a daughter.” I decided this one was really important for me to attend given the loss of my mom at the end of 2014. Additionally, I’ve declared 2016 for me to be the Year of Self-Love. I’m determined to crack the code on what it means to really, truly, actually love myself in an unconditional way. (I imagine my determination in and of itself is one of the barriers that keeps this elusive self-love just out of reach…but I digress.)
During our group, we discussed the idea of how well we let ourselves be nurtured. We connected our ability to be nurtured to our relationships with our mothers and how they influence our relationships with ourselves. There were probably more than 40 women in the room, and we all agreed we struggled to let ourselves be cared for. Many of the women also reported believing their mothers did not love themselves, and that influenced their own ability to self-love.
My experience in the group made me remember reading Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher when I had just finished grad school. One message I took away from the book was how children don’t learn by listening to — but by watching — their parents. That is, if a daughter is raised by a mother who doesn’t love herself, it’s hard for the daughter to learn that skill no matter how hard the mother tries to teach it through words, if it’s not seen through actions.
In my own experience, I know my mother tried SO HARD to help me love myself. She told me often about how much she disliked herself and that she didn’t want the same fate for me. She told me how my grandmother would often compare the two of them, and how my mother always “lost” when making those comparisons between her mother and herself.
My mother also frequently compared herself to me…and again, she always “lost.” It set me up in a weird way with an inflated sense of self, but also a deep sense of guilt that I was hurting my mother just by my very existence.
My mother could tell me how wonderful I was, and how much she loved me, but I never saw an example through her of what self-love looked like, so I learned to attain love externally. Through my mother, I did, however, see extensive examples of self-sacrifice. But self-sacrifice didn’t feel good to me either. So, I developed a belief system that when I wasn’t sacrificing myself, I was being selfish. Selfish = bad. Therefore, I’m not good enough. …in other words, shame.
When I saw Brené Brown speak for the first time, I had such a strong reaction to her work: I was all like “TELL ME HOW TO NOT FEEL SHAME! I WANNA FEEL GOOD ENOUGH!” Clearly I’m still working on it, but I do credit Brené with jump-starting my journey towards self-actualization.
One of the concepts Brené discusses is self-compassion. <Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read any Brené yet> empathy is the antidote to shame and self-empathy is self-compassion. Kristin Neff is a professor in Austin, TX who studies self-compassion. She breaks self-compassion into three parts:
Kristin determines self-kindness by how we talk to ourselves. I often use this concept leading groups: “Do you talk to yourself like someone you love? Or do you talk to yourself like an asshole?”
Unfortunately, most people I work with report they talk to themselves like an asshole. Whether it’s because they feel they deserve that sort of treatment, or because they’re trying to motivate themselves, they put themselves down when they really need to give themselves a break. (I say “they,” but c’mon…it’s “we,” right?) Even WikiHow agrees that negative self-talk is a barrier to self-love.
Common humanity is the concept that we are not alone in our struggles. In the 12-step world, there’s a phrase “terminal uniqueness,” which is the exact opposite of common humanity. I love to drop into terminal uniqueness when I’m in pain. I like to think my pain is the worst out of anyone else’s pain and no one can understand me…which is really unhelpful in the realm of self-love and healing.
I like to compare feelings and the interconnectedness with others’ struggles to the way music is structured. There are just 12 notes in the chromatic Western scale, but there are infinite songs. I doubt all the songs will ever be written. Just as 12 notes = all the music, similarly, there’s a finite amount of human emotions, but there are infinite ways human beings can experience and express them. In this way, we are our own unique snowflake…just like everyone else is their own unique snowflake.
On mindfulness, I almost think mindfulness should come first on this list. Because if we don’t employ mindfulness, we won’t know how we’re talking to ourselves, and we certainly aren’t tapping into our common humanity. Mindfulness, simply put, is paying attention to the present moment without judgment. In the context of self-compassion, I also think mindfulness includes the recognition that all feelings are ephemeral and will pass with time. Even the most painful of feelings. The night is darkest before the dawn.
Back to my witches group…one question Susan asked of the group was to remember at different points in our lives where we found nurturing: as an infant, as a child, adolescent, and adult. Many of the women shared that as teenagers, music was what nurtured them. This BLEW MY MIND! I never thought of that, but it’s so true! As I’ve discussed in this blog before, music is empathy, among other things. (If you want to read a cool article on the connection to music and spirituality – check this out: http://www.wonderingsound.com/feature/music-as-religion-neuroscientists/)
Maybe, on this journey of self-love, we can all tap into the power of music and other forces outside ourselves to remember that we’re not alone. We really are all connected in the same struggles and if we can open to being nurtured and loved by other forces, maybe we’ll be able to start loving ourselves? I say maybe and use a question mark because I certainly haven’t figured it all out yet. I promise that when I do, I’ll tell you all the secret!
Speaking of promises, as I was searching for a song to link to this blog post I came across the most touching song I think I’ve ever heard. It’s a duet by Tori Amos and her teenage daughter, Natashya. When I listened to the song the first time, I felt a pang of grief for this close mother/daughter relationship I’ll never have. But as I listened to it again (and again, on loop the entire time I wrote this, in fact) I started to tap into the common humanity of their love and realize that my husband loves me in this unconditional way as do so many other wonderful people in my life. This promise to nurture and be nurtured doesn’t always happen between parents and children. And though there’s some grieving to experience around that, we have opportunities to call that kind of love into our lives. We just have to be willing to ask for it.