I was talking with a friend of mine the other day. We were discussing a disease he has been dealing with. He told me that he took “full responsibility” for the illness. Those words poked me in the heart with a little twinge of sadness. I knew why my friend was saying this. After all, it’s the holy thing to say, right? “I’m not a victim. I take responsibility. It’s on me.” I knew my friend was in real pain. I knew he was doing all the things the experts said he should do. I knew he wanted to move beyond the illness and experience health. I also knew he wanted me to know that he “gets it.”
And so I told him simply, “I love you.”
That’s what I want to discuss today: the relationship between self-help and self-love, and the reality that so much of what we are being taught about helping ourselves misses the truth that the only real self-help is learning to love ourselves. It’s an important subject that too often gets swept under the proverbial rug of the personal responsibility movement, the way my grandma used to sweep her cigarette butts under the porch mat when she didn’t want us to know she was smoking.
“I take responsibility” is one of the many popular phrases in the never-ending quest to improve ourselves. It sounds really good, but what good does it really do? So much of self-improvement asks us to dance in the mirror of illusion under the guise of “helping ourselves” when in reality we are just rationalizing one illusion over another — I trade my version of “I’m good if …” for the “I’m good if …” of some expert. And the result is that deep down nothing has changed other than the words I use to describe my pain and the bar by which I judge myself.
I believe that our personal improvement, our taking responsibility for ourselves, and our efforts toward health and wellness are only truly helpful if those efforts bring about a change in the way we actually treat ourselves. “I take responsibility” must be tied to “I love myself,” which then must be immediately followed by an act of kindness toward ourselves. Without that act of kindness, “I take responsibility” are just empty words … or maybe even worse, damaging words that are designed to heap more guilt, more shame, and more negativity on our collective hearts. Don’t we already have enough dis-ease, pain, and negativity without adding more in the name of self-help?
I know so many people, really good-hearted, well-meaning men and women, who are doing amazing things in this world — business leaders, healers, teachers, moms and dads — who underneath it all are in such pain. Their bodies are hurting, their hearts are broken, and their dreams are shattered. These people — you and me and all of us — don’t need a lecture on personal responsibility: we need a hug, first from our community and then from ourselves. That is the only help that matters. The helping hand our friends give us to get ourselves up off the mat of life when we’ve taken a fall and then the hug of love we give ourselves as we learn to love ourselves.
I remember when I was divorcing for the second time, my mom was dying of cancer, and I was in the middle of business planning for the upcoming year at my job. In short, I was a wreck. But I knew what I had to do. I took responsibility for my situation and boldly pushed ahead. Except that wasn’t what I needed. My heart was broken, my mom was dying, and what I really needed was a hug and a break. I didn’t have the trust then to ask for it and I lacked the awareness to recognize my own need for love, so I pushed forward until I just couldn’t do it any longer. Years later I would talk to my former boss and dear friend, Michael Rapino, who told me, “If only I had known.”
This week, whether you are in physical pain, emotional distress, or have simply lost your balance in life, I invite you to join me in applying the teachings of my friend and teacher, Sharon Salzberg. While most meditation teachers tell us to clear our minds, kill our egos, and sit perfectly still, Sharon has a different take, one that advances our practice while caring for our hearts. She taught me that the most important part of meditation is that moment when we realize we have lost our way, when we catch our mind spinning out on an adventure of the ego … in that moment, Sharon says we have the opportunity to begin a new inner relationship by treating ourselves with loving kindness and simply saying, “Welcome back. I love you.”
This isn’t limited to meditation. We can apply this teaching to all areas of our lives and all the “work” we are doing on ourselves. On a diet, when we lose self-control and eat a piece of cake, we have an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back, say “I love you,” and continue on our quest for healthy eating habits. When we lose our temper and say something holier-than-thou but not holy, we find the chance to give ourselves a hug and the understanding that we are perfectly imperfect. At work, when we miss a deadline or sales goal, instead of beating the crap our of ourselves, we create the opportunity to practice self-love and the art of personal inspiration. And perhaps most importantly, as we experience disease and illness, instead of “taking responsibility” and heaping guilt and shame on the wounds we are nursing, we can nurture our bodies with deep breaths and frequent messages of tenderness to the organs that are in pain.
Each and every moment of each and every day is a new chance to say “I love you” to you by the way you treat yourself.
This is the new self-help: the sharing of love with ourselves and, when we are whole, the overflow of that love to our neighbors. In this way we truly heal ourselves and each other. Each and every moment of each and every day is a new chance to say “I love you” to you by the way you treat yourself. No matter how many times you fall down, no matter how many times you find yourself on the mat, there is always hope … the hope that comes on the wings of loving kindness toward yourself.
Big hugs of love,