If you are someone who has done any personal development work, has ever had at least one therapy session, or sat for a yoga class, you must also be familiar with the phrase “self-love.”
I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends over the years about this phrase, about this idea of loving ourselves: is it right? Is it necessary? And if so, how do we achieve it?
The conversations have evolved over time as I have evolved, as I’ve explored different modalities or systems, or as I have listened to or read works by various experts.
When I was deep into the 5 Love Languages, I remember asking a friend of mine how I could truly love myself in the context of my primary love languages: acts of service and quality time.
I could sort of distort my thinking enough into coming up with a visual of how providing self-care or quiet time to myself was loving myself. But how could people whose primary love language was touch truly manage to provide themselves with the love they craved? (Kris Gage suggests it’s actually the easiest love language to give to oneself. But I argue it may be the toughest.)
A few years after that I was reading an Osho book called Love, Freedom, Aloneness. While Osho promotes and encourages self-love by emphasizing the prioritizing of oneself — and I felt myself nodding along to some of his more radical views on “the virtues of selfishness” — I still found myself struggling with the doing of it. I tried looking at myself in the mirror, saying “I love you” to her. I tried writing love letters to myself in my journals.
At the time, I also was deeply attached to (by which I mean, minorly obsessed with) the topic of narcissism in relationships, and I couldn’t quite get a handle on what would be the happy, balanced medium between toxic self-absorption and therapeutic self-love.
Next came the attachment theory phase of research. This introduced me to my anxious-avoidant ways of being and for the first time ever, I think, I was able to start feeling empathy for myself. My own in-real-life therapist at the time, Adele, as well as my “virtual adopted therapist” Alan Robarge, both encouraged and promoted the act of talking to or comforting my inner child.
I could see how that would be a gateway to a kind of self-love. Start by loving my innocent child self; make my way up to loving my adult self.
I tried. I really tried. I would meditate or listen to guided visualizations. Sometimes it would work a little. I could almost picture her, little Jen, plopped down in my lap.
I would stroke her hair, and tell her she was pretty or that she was safe. Sometimes I would even tell her how loved she was. But it didn’t feel real. She never felt real, little Jen. It felt fake. It felt inauthentic.
Yet I knew, still, that there was something to this idea of learning to love myself, as a verb, as the most actiony of actions. How, though? How would I get there?
Almost as much as I have researched and written about Love, I’ve researched and written about Time. All my life, I’ve been fascinated by time, and how we live and love inside and outside of it.
It was only recently that I started to truly examine the deep connections between the two concepts, in large part thanks to conversations with and writings by my friend Julia Mossbridge, a neuroscientist who has founded an institute that openly and intentionally explores the deep connections between love and time.
In her book, The Premonition Code, Julia illustrates how it’s possible to connect with ourselves across time. She shares multiple stories, but one in particular is that of the computer scientist Bruce Damer whose life’s work was propelled forward by a vision the young teenage Bruce had of his older scientist self. A causal temporal loop is how Julia phrases it.
It’s not as if I hadn’t thought about causal loops before reading The Premonition Code. As I mentioned, understanding the concept of mental time travel has been a passion project of mine since before I knew what passion was.
But it was something about the timing; namely, the confluence between my research of love and healing, and my research of my experience of time both in waking life and in dreams that had me finally stumble upon a clue to feeling self-love.
The last few years have been the most tumultuous ones of my life, the ones most filled with despair and doubt, the ones most filled with self-loathing. And yet, they’ve also been the years most filled with awe, most filled with poignant interactions with other humans, most filled with loving touch, most filled with giving and receiving in return.
The last few years could be termed my Dark Night of the Soul, but simultaneously could be categorized as the period in my life when I started to experience and embody that Light that so many religions and mystical traditions speak of. Maybe you call that God, or angels. Maybe you call that Unconditional or Divine Love. I don’t yet know what I call it since I’ve only just started now to feel it, to believe in it, to soften into its embrace, to ask for its help from time to time.
A few nights ago, it was a full moon. I almost forgot to set up the ritual space I organize for myself at the new and full moon cycles. Ritual is a word that lived outside my vocabulary for most of my life. It was a word and an experience with negative associations I only now realize as false.
Like the word “ritual,” I also used to have associations with the word “altar” and the word “prayer.” Now, both are fundamental. Now, both serve as a portal between the time of not feeling the Light and feeling the Light.
They aren’t the only portals. There are others: music, dreams, crystals, acts of service, acupuncture, listening to old recordings of my children’s voices, listening to old mixed tapes, listening to my mother laugh at a joke I made.
In this world we live in, especially in this modern world of input overload, we need portals.
Once the altar was set up, I sat in front of it, preparing to draw a card from the oracle card deck I use these days (Jamie Sams’ Sacred Path deck). But I couldn’t quite settle in to the moment. It had been a hard day emotionally, filled with unexpected, unsettling communications. This is why I had almost forgotten the ritual. This is also why ritual is so important.
I reached for my noise cancelling headphones and pressed play on a playlist I created for the full moon. I’ve created playlists for almost every moon cycle since the November 2020 new moon; although a better word than created would probably be “channeled,” for the playlists have come from a place inside of me I’ve never knowingly accessed before now. I think it’s probably the same place where the Light lives. Or, at least, in the same neighborhood.
I pressed play on the first song on the playlist, “One of These Things First” by Nick Drake. It didn’t take long for the tears to come.
I knew that in order to settle in to the ritual, I needed to talk to someone. Someone dear to me. Someone, I now know, who counts on me.
Not me, Now; although me Now, in any now, would certainly welcome words of comfort or adoration from me.
But the person who needed to hear from me, was me Then. A me of before now. A me of a different moon cycle. A me of a different time.
Listening to the song, and tuning in to the feelings of the day — abandonment, fear of having done wrong, fear of having been drastically misunderstood — I was actually able to access her. Past Me. Multiple past Me’s. Past Me’s who felt misunderstood. Past Me’s who felt wronged.
There was one Past Me weeping on the floor next to the bed. I could sense another Past Me weeping while raking leaves in the front lawn. I made my way back to visit a Past Me weeping in the driver’s seat circling a lake I once picnicked at as a teenager. I spent a moment with a Past Me weeping as she stepped onto a plane, leaving somewhere that felt like home.
And I loved her, those Past Me’s. Loved her like a verb. Like I loved each of my children when they were small, at those times when they fell down and got hurt. I imagined stroking Past Me’s hair and I held her face in my palms, kissed her gently on the forehead. I told her it was okay, that this would pass.
I know for certain, I told her. This will pass. I love you. You will be okay.
There have been many times over the last few years when I have felt so lost, so misunderstood, so frustrated I have actually called out to the ether for help.
It wasn’t a practice that came as easily to me as it does to some. I needed to start off by figuring out who exactly I could call out to.
At first, it was a nameless blob of imagined spirits I hoped were watching over me. Then the blob started to coagulate a bit into my Bubbi. Then, like an amoeba, the blob divided into two: my Bubbi and my other grandmother, whom I called Nini.
Over time, the blob became a group of women, most of whom never knew me, or only knew me as a child. My great-grandmother Rae. My great-aunt Edna. Her sister, my great-grandmother, Eva. Zelda, whom I’m named after. Hannah, whose engraved ring I now own. Adelaide, who was a twin and who once wrote an inscription in a book she gifted to the girl, Eva, her grand-daughter, a book that now stands on my mantle. Sophie, a female ancestor who actually shares my birthday, but who probably couldn’t even fathom me, a woman, her descendant, living life in the 2020s.
Women who came before me. Women whose form I carry in my body as genetic material, and whose trauma I likely carry as body memory. Women whose stories I am trying hard to uncover and to know. Women whose lives I want to understand.
I wonder if those women ever learned how to love themselves.
And I wonder if my leaning into loving myself is healing for them retroactively. Or, depending on what we end up learning about time, perhaps my leaning into loving myself heals me and them in an instant.
Poof! We are all loved: me now, me then, them then, them now.
All of us, now. All of us.