Why is it so hard to love ourself?

I’ve been teaching the Loving Kindness practice in the mornings on YouTube and chatting with the people coming to the session has revealed how many people find it hard to feel this love for themselves. It feels much easier for them to send this love to a friend, but hard to then bring it back to themselves. So if you are someone who finds it hard to do the Loving Kindness practice, it may help to know you are not alone!

Over this last week I’ve focused first on feeling this good will for a friend, and then bringing the feeling back to oneself, and people have found that helpful. But why is it we find it so hard to love ourselves?

In ‘The Happiness Trap’ Russ Harris talks of “the struggle switch”. He talks about how certain emotions were allowed to us as children, whilst others would be denied. Our families live in their own ‘world’, which is made from the inheritance we receive from our ancestors which moulded each person in that family line, and which we now inherit. We then live within that ”world’ and take it to be an objective reality. Our challenge as adults is to lean to see this world and recognise what is healthy and beneficial to us, and what we need to challenge and see through.

Each family will have created a ‘world’ in which certain emotions were allowed, and others denied. This then leads to us internalising a judgment of ourselves based on the values of this ‘world’. If my family collective denies anger, then I will grow up feeling that my expression of anger is wrong, and risks me loosing the love of the people I depend on to survive. As an adult I will have cut off from this part of myself. If I am angry I will feel I have failed.

That does not mean anger is not there! Just that I deny it’s presence. This is why meditation can be so hard, because as we meditate we start to feel more fully. And the things we denied start to make themselves known. But if I don’t accept what is there I add another layer to the discomfort of noticing the denied emotion by telling myself I am wrong to be feeling it and I judge myself as being bad. We tell ourself “I shouldn’t be feeling like this”, or feel pity for ourself and ask “what have I done to deserve this?” – which again leads to self-blame, feeling that it is some flaw in my personality the that led to the struggle. And so we reach place of despair where we think “I wish I didn’t feel like this”.

If we keep acting according to the values of our family ‘world’ we will keep struggling. We will fight the unwanted emotions and use any method we can find to try and eradicate the emotion. It might be self-help, therapy and gurus, or sex, alcohol and drugs. But either way if we use these things to escape rather than face the difficulty it will just return.

The challenge we have in this life is to lean to step into a new relationship with the things we learnt as a child were wrong. To learn, for example, that it is alright to feel anger. That anger is a natural part of life. We learn to see that our freedom comes not in managing to eradicate the unwanted emotion, but in being able to feel it without being taken over by it.

When we can be at peace with the fact that we are imperfect according the the dictates of our family’s ‘world values’ then loving ourselves becomes possible. Because I’m no longer trying to be perfect, but instead can love myself as the mess in progress that I am.

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