As a kid, I used to think that love is a feeling. I love you if I feel something in my body when I see you or spend time with you or think of you. As I grow older, I see that this is merely attraction or mystical response between human beings, which we can define as "love" as a feeling but not "love" as a verb. If love is just a feeling, it confuses a lot of people on how they can possibly love themselves as an action. From all the literature that I have read, the best framework for understanding how to love a person - whether it is yourself or someone else - is the 5As by David Richo from his book "How To Be An Adult in Relationships": Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection and Allowing.
We can love ourselves and others by paying attention to our needs. We allocate time to listen to our loved one's thoughts and feelings, how their day went, their hopes and dreams. We can do the same for ourselves by prioritising and allocating time just for ourselves to focus on our needs and sitting with our thoughts and feelings. When we or our loved ones make a mistake or reveal a flaw, we accept us and them for who we are. We don't shame or beat ourselves up or harbour contempt or disgust for our behaviour. The idea is to make a safe space to express ourselves without judgment or rejection, lovingly known as unconditional love. We also show appreciation to ourselves and others when we love by voicing what we like about ourselves, what we admire, what we are impressed with, what we thank ourselves for, and talking kindly and gently to ourselves. We show affection by physical touch, hugs and kisses, calling ourselves with endearing nicknames. Lastly, we allow you and me to be you and me. We hold space for others to be themselves, without trying to convince them to do or be someone else or control their thoughts or feelings.
This framework is so easy to follow on a day to day basis but what happens when people fight and disagree? How do we love when we are in conflict? I like using the EFT (emotionally-focused therapy) method of having a corrective emotional experience in conversation to stop the pattern of spiralling downwards. It is healing and bonding to be able to share our underlying feelings in the conflict. The key is to listen and validate each other's experiences.
The above tactics are great for facilitating conflict resolutions in safe space where both parties can express their hurts and disagreements in a calm and respectful manner. However, there are instances when there is a true conflict - a conflict where it is not merely an emotional issue, but a real practical disagreement. The best example is where a partner wants to leave the relationship for whatever reason that you don't agree with. Their desire to leave may be extremely stupid and may cause a whole lot of practical and emotional chaos to your life with very little to gain on their end. Whatever the reason, whether logical or not, we love them by letting them leave. Wish them well, too.
By letting people leave, we communicate that we respect their decision even if we don't agree with it, even if it hurts us to the core. It's true love when we don't act selfish. At the end of the day, we cannot control another person. They have their reasons to leave which makes sense to them. They could be making the biggest mistake of their life - we love by letting them be. People are entitled to mistakes. This is part of 'Allowing' - flaws and all, we can feel angry, we can disagree, but ultimately we allow the space for them to have that self-autonomy, to decide what they think is best for them. This is the spirit from Katherine Thomas's philosophy of Conscious Uncoupling. Pain is unavoidable - it's already a losing situation but you can have more self-respect and compassion for yourself and others by not playing victim and not forcing a reality that was never going to happen anyway. We love when we want the best for everyone, including ourselves.
On things and events that do not go our way, the serenity prayer can bring more peace to our hearts:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference
There is no rule that says you must heal your trauma or improve yourself. Everyone is entitled to their misery. There are lots of things that we do that are not the best for us and that's okay. For example, smoking is detrimental to our health but you are free to smoke. Being sedentary is not good for us but we don't exercise anyway. Thus, there is no shame in indulging in your vice.
But if the goal in life is not self-improvement, then what are we all doing here? ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) provides a nice blueprint for those who are lost about where to set their north star. Below is the diagram of the "Choice Point". In any given situation, thought and feeling, we can move towards what matters to us or away from what matters to us.
The underlying philosophy in this exercise is that ultimately, we are here to be more us. You are not trying to be a perfect human being. You are trying to be more you. For example, the foodies of this world really enjoys eating good food and would spend time, energy and money on Michelin star restaurants. Such activities would be "towards moves" for them because food matters to them and it generates joy for them. For people like myself who sees food as fuel and does not find pleasure in eating expensive food, we shouldn't force ourselves to eat at Michelin star restaurants because it's "good" - we look within and realise ah I'd rather spend money on other things that matter to me more. We should only go to Michelin star restaurants for other reasons, maybe because our other values is to be sociable or adventurous so we might do it in order to spend time with friends who are foodies or experience a new cuisine. The goal is to lean into your values and form a solid sense of self that's very you.
However, there are many people who don't know what they want to be or what they like. Some of us are frozen when given too many choices in life. In that scenario, the attitude can be let's find out. This is our continuous exploration of ourselves. What makes us tick. What resonates with us. Who is our tribe. What feels natural and good to us. There is no rush in finding answers right away. We are allowed to take our time, explore, make mistakes and try again. Sometimes we make promises that we cannot keep because over time we realise those decisions are not for us. It happens all day, every day. If one of our values is trustworthiness and reliability, does that mean we have to stick to the decision we made in the past (although it no longer serves us) and betray our souls? No, you have to be willing to disappoint others and do what is best for you and preferably do it in a way that is respectful to the ones you are disappointing. Apologise and empathise with the pain that your actions have put them through and to the extent reasonable, alleviate the negative outcome on the disappointed party but stay firm and true to yourself.
That guilt of disappointing other people can really eat at you, especially for people who have vulnerable or fluctuating self-esteem. When you don't see yourself, or your thoughts and feelings as important, it can be hard to assert your will onto others. It might feel easier to sacrifice your needs and wants to please another. Once again, you are entitled to your misery. There is no right or wrong. Sometimes that guilt is too overwhelming to bear and we choose to sacrifice what we want, convincing ourselves that it didn't matter to us that much anyway. If that is what you believe to be best for you given the circumstances, then by all means. The last thing you want to do is to beat yourself up for appeasing other people's needs. At the end of the day, we appease others and betray ourselves all the time, happens all day, everyday. While being more us is the north star, it doesn't mean every decision we make has to be pointed towards it. We are allowed to steer off. There is no rule to this thing.
Most of us have lived through traumatic episodes that have left scars and coloured the way we see the world. Shouldn't the north star be set to heal that pain? This is a very good question because many people seek therapy to get rid of pain. The idea of self-improvement seems to suggest that an improved version of you should have less pain. That's not necessarily true. I personally love DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy) and its parallel philosophy; the emotional regulation part of DBT has suggestions on how to get out of 'fight or flight' mode when you are triggered, and then the distress tolerance part of DBT teaches you how to accept the pain and sit with it. DBT invites us to both accept and change who we are and to use our wise mind for guidance.
Once again, you are entitled to your misery, mistakes and vice. There is no rule that you must heal from your pain. If you are finding that you are making decisions that are perpetuating your pain or out of whack of who you want to be, that's okay. You are free to do everything and nothing, or waste your time and life away. So what if you are flawed just like the rest of us.
The most famous poem about mindfulness by Jalaluddin Rumi.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Journal of my Reflections
Here are some snippets of my inner voice reflecting on my interest in psychology and my personal experiences.