Planet Waves by Eric Francios | Loving Ourselves Together



Loving Ourselves Together

Planet Waves | by Eric Francis

Illustration: Rebis by Carlos Solórzano Smith

February 2002


I think this is one of the more interesting words in our language. I'm pretty sure I heard it first from my Grandma Mary, who bleated it at me authoritatively: Don't be selfish! Personally, I could never get the fish out of selfish, and would conjure an image of buying flounder with her at Sheepshead Bay. Or maybe it was clams. Shellfish are pretty selfish.

Grandma Mary could have used a three-week intensive on selfishness. She was married for about four decades to a truly selfish person who saw fit to kill himself when she was sick with cancer. This was a gift to her. She immediately went into remission for a while, and over the next six months had some of the best times of her life. In my grandfather's own twisted and conceited way, he loved himself, only it was selfish selflove.

Selfish selflove is very similar to hating oneself, and maybe the same thing. To love oneself selfishly is to withhold love from oneself, and as a result, from everyone else.

We've all met the selfish selflover, and many of us are stricken with a touch of this ailment. Life is lived in an emotional hall of distorted mirrors. We to look to our reflections with good intentions, but cannot get a clear picture. One mirror depicts us as victim, and another as powerless or paralyzed. One gives a picture of self-recrimination, one shows us as laden with guilt, and another with shame. That we're having a bad trip in a fun-house, that we are basically dreaming, might be made apparent by your self-concept alternating between victim and the guilty one. But unfortunately in this kind of emotional space, there is little available in the way of logic. Even compassion feels totally alien, as if kindness were somehow an attack.

I have a theory about why many relationships fail, based on my own experiences and many that have been related to me. I think, for the most part, it's because we refuse to love ourselves, rather than failing to love the person we're with, or a partner failing to love us. This is worth considering for everything from your average messy breakup to an abusive or violent situation.

It's impossible to sustain love with a person who does not love herself. I have observed that there's a direct relationship between loving oneself and the ability to receive the love of another person. To me, this is such a bellwether that I view a person's ability to receive love as the most important indicator of the quality of his selflove. To love oneself, it is necessary to give and to receive freely. Withholding selflove messes with both.

I would take this further. I have observed that what most people deeply need in relationships is a partner, or partners, with whom it is possible to truly love ourselves. When relationships work, it seems that people involved are able to love themselves together.

It's easy to see that people often get into relationships from deeply insecure places, and use the love of others substitutes for their missing selflove, or to shore up their doubts about who they are. When such a relationship fails, the partners are usually left with a sense of self-reproach, which is the same self-reproach they were using the relationship to conceal or compensate to begin with.

But the opposite is not so easy to see: that what we need to do is love ourselves together. To me, this is true love.

Much of what we do in relationships is withhold our true feelings from ourselves, whether they are negative feelings or positive ones. We might love something about ourselves that a partner dislikes, or which makes them insecure. We might need to repress doubts about ourselves to keep a relationship stable. We might have an issue with ourselves that we hide at all costs, such as a fear or a past experience. Any time we lie, to ourselves or to another person, my impression is that we are withholding selflove. Where we feel we must lie, that is probably an environment in which we don't feel safe loving ourselves. Loving ourselves requires deep vulnerability.

I would say that loving ourselves starts with telling the truth to ourselves, particularly on the emotional level, and then sharing it. Does loving ourselves take enormous strength? Stated in these terms, it would seem so.

The concept of selflove is a strange abstraction to a lot of people. For many of us, a razor-wire fence was put around the territory of selflove when we were kids, complete with a sign that said, Don't Be Selfish! If you say that to a truly generous or loving child, the result can be a person who feels guilty for having anything of their own, including (or especially) feelings. While everyone else may be tromping around entitled to everything, a caring person made to feel selfish may feel deserving of nothing.

But let's say that by that some miracle, or as a result of fence-cutting vandals, we smuggle ourselves into the territory of selflove. It's a wild and unknown country. With each step, we may feel tempted to feel guilt. After all, we are loving ourselves despite being conditioned to feel that it was stealing. Next, there is nobody else here, or there seems to be nobody else; nobody to take care of, or take care of us, and it becomes clear that so many people hate themselves. We can't hide the struggle to take care of ourselves by interacting in relationship. So at first, selflove can be a lonely place. But not for long.

If I may, I will illustrate my theory with a few parables of selflove. The first involves cooking. Let's say we have a difficult time cooking for ourselves, or can only cook for someone else. That is potentially an image of withholding self-nourishment. If we nourish everyone else and neglect ourselves, that will eventually lead to pretty serious problems. After a while, even when others offer us nourishment, it will seem difficult or impossible to receive.

Alternately, let's say we cook for ourselves and have an abundance of food, which we can then share. That would be loving ourselves and inviting others to benefit from it. The extra food, and the love that created it, is an abundance of selflove. There is no shame in nourishing oneself, and if we feel shameful about doing so, we could take that as a clue that we're lacking selflove. Learning how to nourish ourselves -- and working through the guilt of doing so -- is a tangible, practical way of getting into the experience of selflove. Learning how to share that self-nourishment is the same as learning how to really love another. In most forms of what is called love, we lose. In sharing selflove, everyone benefits.

Next example. Trust and love are comparable ideas. I think, for whatever reason, the idea of self-trust is more accessible than the idea of selflove. We can understand that to trust another person, we must first trust ourselves. If I trust you but don't trust myself, I might doubt my choice to trust you, and that is not trust; doubt would be the trump card. So, to trust you I have to trust me, at least to some degree. It works the same way with selflove. When we love but that love is ridden with self-doubt and self-judgment, then we're not loving ourselves enough to really love.

The third example I offer is erotic selflove, or masturbation. Some would ask, what does masturbation have to do with selflove? To which I would answer, Right! What we call love, especially in February, has erotic overtones. That little cupid appearing all over the place is Eros, the Greek god of love, whose name has come to mean sex.

Parallel to my theory that love = loving ourselves together, I observe that all values about sex come back to how we feel about masturbation. This may seem like a strange idea to some, but I offer it for your consideration. The short version of this idea is that sexual feelings, in almost all people, begin with masturbation. This is usually our first experience of erotic emotion, and our early experiences form our beliefs about life -- until we change them. So our early reference points for erotic pleasure, including how other people feel about our masturbation, or how we think they feel about it, get carried with us into our partnersex experiences.

One implication of this is rethinking masturbation as a primarily solitary experience, and instead, considering that, prior to our having memories, masturbation was something that existed as part of our relationships with our caregivers, who were no doubt aware of our activities. And anyone who has kids knows that masturbation starts young -- and that adults can have some strong responses to what is completely natural for young ones. It is in this space that shame is incultrated into our minds and bodies. And it neither leaves easily, nor does its development stop there, as we grow up in our sexually repressive, violent and deceitful culture.

I have observed that many partnersex experiences serve as cover-ups for a feeling of shame around self-given pleasure. In our culture, masturbation is one of the most powerful secret bastions of sexual shame that exists. That we may temporarily forget about this when we have a sexual partner does not heal the problem, it merely conceals deep inner feelings. I would suggest that for sexual partners who want a more clear relationship, masturbating together is one of the most fun and healing expressions of erotic love that there is.

It's a game in which you can experience the reality that it's not selfish to love yourself. ++

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Space graphic above from the Rosette Nebula in Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Sulfur.
Credit: T. A. Rector, B. Wolpa, M. Hanna.