In our first article on human relationships we briefly approached the three basic “ingredients” of a loving relationship. We then highlighted the – not so decisive after all – importance of our first emotional bond in shaping the emotional, cognitive and behavioural patterns that we exhibit in our subsequent relationships with people who are important to us. But it is our relationship with the most important person in our lives, ourselves, that we will be referring to in this article.
Our very first self-image, the one that stays with us for about one and a half to two years, is intertwined with the image of our mother – or any other adult who has taken over her role in our lives. Infants do indeed begin to perceive themselves as a being separate from their mother in the fourth semester of their life, when they begin to construct their sense of self. Our self-image, then, is the natural extension of the image our mother has offered us – of us, of herself, of the world around us.
However this image of ourselves that is gradually built in our cognitive system, although now “detached” from the one we had built for our mother, continues to be significantly influenced by the messages and feedback we receive from our environment. After all, it is not until preschool years, when we begin to develop the ability to represent our experiences symbolically as well as our first fragments of critical thinking (sequences, causal relationships, etc.), that we actually have the ability to mentally process something that is not in our immediate physical environment.
This image, as we grow older, is altered by our experiences and by the cognitive abilities we develop along the way. It remains, however, an image directly linked to our first bond, through which we learned to relate to others. The relationship we develop with ourselves is profoundly crucial to our relationships with all other people in our lives.
A loving relationship with ourselves, considering our observations in the first article of the human relationships theme, could not involve attachment or desire. So what we mean by self-love is essentially a synonym to self-care; and tt is in the broader sense of self-care that self-acceptance and self-compassion grow.
Conceptually, a person who accepts himself at a fundamental level (and not contingently) experiences himself as worthy of love regardless of his performance or other ephemeral criteria; he is a person who does not feel comparatively “less” when he fails, nor “better” when he achieves something. He is the person who in the former case can feel compassion for himself and in any case can take care of himself – precisely because his self-image is founded on values and beliefs that are continuous, consistent and enduring.
Just as love between two people is an emotional exchange, self-love needs a similar emotional response in order to be constructed – which is why I place self-acceptance and self-compassion within self-care, rather than the latter as an outgrowth of the two.
Self-care, however, like any other loving relationship, is tested by experiences of frustration and failure. Under such circumstances it is self-compassion that “takes the reins” in preserving our love for us. Self-compassion manifests itself on four levels – emotional, physical, social and spiritual – and has two dimensions:
- It is internalized self-compassion that transforms and heals us. It is characterized by actions we take to relieve, soothe and validate our feelings. It is also characterized by the radical acceptance of our human experience, of which pain is an integral aspect. The latter also leads to the radical acceptance of pain at every moment of its experience, preventing damaging long-term attitudes such as avoidance and denial.
- Externalized self-compassion is perceived as the expression of an inner force. It is characterized by actions we take for self-protection, for meeting our needs and for self-motivation. Defending ourselves, when necessary, extends to others who experience similar difficulties to us, and it is from this broader perspective that we can approach the objective truth behind our subjective experience and manage it with clarity.
A person with a well-developed capacity for self-care, therefore, when receiving a verbal assault from a loved one for example, will take actions that will help him/ her feel better (internalized self-compassion) and repair any injustice or damage (s)he has suffered from this unpleasant experience (externalized self-compassion). It is worth noting that we need acts of self-compassion of both dimensions on an emotional, physical, social and spiritual level in order to maintain a healthy loving relationship with ourselves.
Ultimately we can define self-love as both a series of constant and repeated acts of self-compassion, through which we consciously improve our physical and emotional state, and unconditional self-acceptance. In other words, it is the respective instance of the same skills that we demonstrate when we are called upon to care for the people we love. It is therefore the relationship we develop with ourselves as we grow older, much more than the quality of our first bonds, that “colours” – happily or darkly – our relationships with the Significant Others in our lives.