And a few ways to spot and stop gaslighting yourself.
One of my favorite quotes by Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, is, “Never in the history of calm down has anyone ever calmed by being told to calm down.”
Telling someone to calm themselves down is like telling them to love themselves. And even more frustrating than hearing it is realizing how often it’s repeated in the self-help and spiritual communities.
For the first ten years of my healing journey, I knew I didn’t love myself. But hearing some rando yoga teacher - or even worse a trained therapist - tell me to “just love myself more” was enough to make me see red.
P.S. I’m also a recovery perfectionist and overachiever, so I can 100% guarantee you that if it were so easy, I would have figured it out a lot earlier than I did.
What Is Love
Long considered the exclusive dominion of poets and artists, you can rest assured I’m not going to try and define love to you. I encourage you to shift your concept of love from something generated solely by the heart and focus more on how love interacts with the body.
As early as 450 BC, Hippocrates, the first physician of the Western world, proposed that emotions are more the product of the brain than they are of the heart. Science only took a couple of thousands more years to catch up.
In their book, The General Theory of Love, authors Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon posit that love is not just in the mind or the heart; love is actually a product of the body, and more specifically, neurotransmitters - the three most important of which are serotonin, oxytocin, and opiates.
The authors add to their theory of love by discussing concepts of attractors and attachments. Finally, they help us understand the basis of every rom-com plotline ever made by teasing apart the difference between “being in love” (aka the honeymoon phase) and actually loving someone.
Being in love fades in time. Loving someone requires work.
When the intense feelings of falling head over heels for someone eventually fade, we often feel like something’s gone wrong. This can cause feelings of sadness, disappointment, or even depression and can be an unfortunate shock to an otherwise healthy and blossoming relationship.
“Being in love” are the powerful feelings we experience at the beginning of a relationship and are more a function of the body. “Loving someone” is an emotional connection that develops over time. One significant difference is this. Someone can be “in love” with another person who may not return the feeling. Loving, on the other hand, must always be mutual.
So What Is Self-Love
Now that we have a better understanding that love may be more scientific than we initially thought, how can begin translating that into the concepts of self-love?
At this point, it’s worthwhile to rewind to early childhood and look at the relationships with our early caregivers - specifically, the emotional bonding we had with these caregivers in the first six months of our life.
Our brains shape the relationships we experience during childhood and strongly influences our relationships as an adult (with ourselves and others).
So if the people we relied upon as a child were themselves emotionally underdeveloped and unable to make us feel loved, there’s a good chance we will inherit their emotional problems. Enter not knowing how to love oneself.
To get to the point, if we did not feel loved as a child, it would be challenging to love ourselves as adults. When this emotional programming is passed down from generation to generation, it’s not your fault, it’s complicated to rewire, and it will take time and patience to re-learn.
Sometimes I like to think of self-love like an app on my phone. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t the best app developers in their late teens and early twenties. In fact, for quite a while, I was pretty confident they forgot to include the self-love feature. I later realized the feature was there; it was just a little buggy.
Being told to “love yourself more” is a lot like asking an app to fix itself - something it quite literally cannot do without the help of a developer. And one who already has experience writing self-love code.
At a very practical level, self-love is simply the process of accepting yourself fully, treating yourself with kindness and respect, and taking time to nurture your own growth and well-being.
But if love is partially created in the body, it’s essential to realize it’s not just about changing our behavior. We must combine the behavior with how it makes our body and nervous system feel.
Learning to Write Self-Love Code
Not unlike any new skill, to be good, you first need to be bad. Learning to write self-love code is probably not the easiest thing you’ll ever do, but it is possible. I am a living, breathing example.
If we go back to the idea that love is a function of the body, one of the fastest ways to learn to love yourself is to work with others who already know what this sensation feels like and are willing to help you experience it within yourself.
To be very intentional in using this method, you will need someone who understands the neurological applications of somatic psychotherapy and who is capable of helping re-train your nervous system. Like meditation, once your body senses these feelings, you can create them more easily within yourself.
Before that, it is like the blind leading the blind.
You can also begin your self-love practice from the outside in. One of my early mentors used to remind me, “To build self-esteem, we must do esteemable acts.” This also goes for self-love.
Here are a few acts that can begin moving you in the direction of self-love:
- Prioritize your healing and well-being
- Consistently meeting your own needs
- Starting working with a therapist or coach
- Asking for help
- Setting healthy boundaries
- Trusting and forgiving yourself
- Using psychedelics with a trained facilitator
- Reminding yourself you’re doing the best you can
- Appreciating your strengths and your feelings
- Start a loving-kindness (metta) meditation practice
- Working with a spiritual teacher
- Spend time with friends who make you feel safe and seen
- Noticing and celebrating your progress
Beware of Spiritual Gas Lighting
Gaslighting is a very complex behavior quickly summarized as “manipulating someone using psychological methods into questioning their own sanity or powers of reasoning.”
Spiritual gaslighting uses spirituality, in all its various forms, to perpetrate the manipulation. These are usually highly esoteric and ungrounded concepts, practices, or philosophies prioritizing spiritual development over human development.
Spiritual gaslighting is often packaged in phrases like, “If you would like to do this confusing thing, you can skip over all that step-by-step stuff and do this special thing that only I know how to do. Then you will start feeling better instantaneously.” #bullsh!t
Very little in the world of self-love and healing will come that easily.
Gaslighting In Action
Let’s say you read a book or blog post that offers a step-by-step method of entering a deep meditation state. Day after day, you perform the steps but have yet to “stop all the thoughts and enter the void.”
You try again and again but never achieve the stated outcome, and worse yet, you beat yourself up, believing you’re somehow broken or doing it wrong. You have officially begun spiritually gaslighting yourself.
Not only are we doing this to ourselves by constantly consuming one self-help book, blog, or podcast after another, but it’s rampant in woke and new-age spiritual communities, Instagram gurus, and neo-enlightened spiritual teachers and healers.
An easy way to spot a spiritual gaslighter is someone who gives you the destination but can’t show the turn-by-turn directions to get there.
For example, let’s say you decided to run a marathon, and after months of training, you want to increase your speed. Like any good student, you hire a coach. Upon hearing your request, your new coach says, “Improving your speed is easy; just move your legs faster.”
Answers like this are much like hearing, “All you need to feel better is to love yourself more.”
[Sidebar #1: There is no single right way to get to the destination of self-love, and one person’s turn-by-turn directions may or may not work for you]
[Sidebar #2: Forgiveness, surrender, and acceptance are also outputs - not inputs - of the healing process and are frequent targets of spiritual gaslighters]
How It Happened For Me
Learning to love myself has been a long and complicated journey. I didn’t even know I didn’t love myself till I felt what loving myself felt like.
We’ve often heard, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” It works in reverse too. “You don’t know the feelings you’re not feeling till you’ve felt them.”
After eight years in therapy, yoga, meditation, and psychedelics, I found myself at a Vipassana retreat, a 10-day experience in silent meditation. No reading, writing, or talking for ten days. Only 12 hours of meditation a day on a quiet little ranch near Lava Hot Springs, Idaho.
On day eight of the retreat, I was practicing the scanning technique we were taught, and I had an experience of what felt like a swarm of ants eating away at the right side of my jaw.
It was excruciating, but I did as instructed and watched the experience with equanimity. A few minutes later, the sensation disappeared.
What I didn’t know then (and only realized months later) was, in that moment, the thought that “I was broken” had been released from my body.
It had been there for so long - maybe even since before I was born - and that until it was gone, I couldn’t have even told you it had been there to start with. What had replaced it was a felt sense that I was a whole, complete, and lovable being.
That was when my true self-love journey began. Before that, I had spent years working in therapy on feeling my feelings, learning to express my anger in healthy ways, and practicing all the self-love techniques I mentioned above, all required and beneficial. But meditation finally got me to the place I wanted to go.
Today I know with 100% certainty that healing is a subtractive process. I don’t need anything more to be happy. Instead, I need to continue letting go of all the crap that no longer serves me.
What that crap is and how to let it go is different for every body.
For me, safe spaces, loving friends, meditation, psychedelics, and somatic psychotherapy have been most helpful.