I was talking to a friend of mine the other day when this question came up, and his answer was no, but he’s working his tail off to be a better person.
The resulting conversation reminded me of my own objections to being told to love and accept myself first. “Isn’t acceptance tantamount to complacency? Won’t I just be stagnant if I start with loving myself before I’ve actually done anything?”
I think those objections are pretty common. (Tell me where I’m wrong?) But… I’d also never seen them addressed to my satisfaction, either. Maybe I’ve been blind/deaf, or maybe I just never encountered someone who explained it in a way I could understand, but when I finally stumbled, bit by bit, onto the explanation for WHY loving yourself is so important, I was breathless.
Once upon a time, I worked as a lifeguard at my local YMCA. Between the general challenges of running a non-profit exercise facility and some personnel challenges specific to this location, the only changes the pool area had seen in years were basic maintenance and repairs. And it showed: The paint was dull, stained, and peeling in places. We were constantly having to mop up puddles from the low areas of the deck so people wouldn’t slip. There was no good place to store equipment, and certain supplies were old and falling apart. Most of my shifts were during lap swimming hours, so I had plenty of time to observe how the place was slowly disintegrating around me. The thought that crystalized and stuck with me was, “If you’re not going forward, you’re going backward.” The pool at the Y gave me a visceral lesson in the importance of choosing growth… because if you’re not growing, you’re just fixing things as they break, working hard just to stay in one place.
The world keeps changing around us, and even the activities and emotions of daily life will slowly break us down over time unless we’ve chosen to orient our change toward growth. Decay is a sign of neglect, and neglect is born of complacency. Complacency is a feeling of being satisfied with how things are and not wanting to try to make them better (thank you, Merriam-Webster). In other words, to be complacent is to deny the reality of change.
Acceptance is the ability to look at yourself, others, and the world around you and say, “This is the way it is.” True acceptance isn’t an emotion; there’s no resignation, satisfaction, or complacency involved. On the other hand, to be unaccepting, to say that this thing that is should not be, is to create resistance. Resistance and friction inhibit growth. Acceptance never proclaimed change impossible or undesirable, because the inevitability of change is something to be accepted as well as the reality of the present situation. Acceptance precedes growth because it removes mental and emotional obstacles to growth.
Have you ever watched someone who really loves their work? Your grandma in her garden or kitchen, perhaps. Your neighbor who babies his classic car. The mom or dad you know who was just born to be a parent. Anyone in any profession who just seems more alive than the people around them. What do these people have in common? They’re proactive. The classic car guy isn’t going to wait until something breaks to tune up his ride. Grandma isn’t going to wait until her garden is bone dry and choked with weeds to cultivate it. A loving parent tries to anticipate their child’s needs and seeks to care for and understand their child day in an day out. And if you ask anyone like this why they do what they do, their response will boil down to one word: love.
Love makes things grow. Love gives you joy, inspiration, energy, creativity, motivation, persistence, and so much more.
I just realized that whenever I’ve been in love in this way, whether it was taking care of a sick child, comforting a friend, writing something powerful, coaching, singing, hiking, or some other experience, I feel it in my hands. It’s like love takes over my hands and makes them gentle and strong at the same time, able to do whatever needs to be done.
There are 2 kinds of motivation in the world: forced and what I’m going to call “organic” motivation. Forced motivation could be having a proverbial (or actual) gun to your head, but more often it looks like what we fondly call willpower. “I should eat salads, but delicious cheesy Mexican is off the table.” “I should work out.” “I should go back to school.” And then you go out and use some combination of carrots (bribes/rewards) and sticks (self-punishments) to try to force yourself to comply. People who are used to living this way often think that forced motivation is the only kind, and that they won’t have any motivation at all if they stop using their willpower.
Organic motivation, on the other hand, flows naturally into your life when you love. When you love someone or something, you act to take care of it. This looks like taking care of a sick child, walking your dog, my boyfriend tinkering with his computer, not minding in the slightest when your friend needs a place to crash for a week and then gets sick while he’s staying with you. It’s simple, straightforward, and powerful. When you love, loving action is the path of least resistance. When you love, it would be difficult to stop yourself from doing what your loved one needs when it’s a need you can honestly fill. When you learn to love yourself this way, you won’t need carrots and sticks anymore.
Do you love yourself?
Loving yourself might mean developing a new relationship with yourself, a new habit for interacting with and taking care of yourself. It’s simple but not easy, and I’d love to explore this with you if you’re longing to love yourself but aren’t sure where to start.