Self-Love & Self-Care: thinking on the words of bell hooks

Using a working definition of love that tells us it is the action we take on behalf of our own or another’s spiritual growth provides us with a beginning blueprint for working on the issue of self-love. –bell hooks, All About Love

People talk a lot about self-love and self-care. From a practical standpoint, though, what does that really mean? As bell hooks astutely observes in All About Love, it’s not like we are born understanding how to love ourselves. Framing self-love as an action, rather than a feeling, helps me hold myself accountable for self-love and its often-elusive companion, self-care. 

As a girl coming up during the 1980s in a conservative, evangelical, Southern-rooted household, the idea of self-care simply didn’t exist. I don’t remember ever seeing my mother do something specifically to nurture her own self (apropos of absolutely nothing, she did make a lot of salads that had no salad in them. The 1980s were weird; it’s a marvel any of us made it out alive). The (incredibly patriarchal) church we attended preached a woman’s existence as defined by being a wife and a mother. How stifling that narrow definition of womanhood must have been. It makes me feel trapped just to write it. I can’t imagine living it left a lot of room for joy. Or self-discovery. 

My mother didn’t have any hobbies that I recall. I never saw her sit down and read for pleasure. She didn’t take walks, go to movies by herself, or take long baths. Hell, the woman could barely take a shower by herself without me or my sister interrupting her for some profound crisis–like a misplaced Strawberry Shortcake doll or a fight over whatever it is siblings fight over all the time. I got the subtle message that she thought self-care was lazy, indulgent. Maybe she did. Or maybe she just wished she could get a damn minute to herself. Envy can look an awful lot like derision. 

And then this whole idea of self-love, which seemed blasphemous–or at the very least presumptuous for someone born into “original sin.” As a kid, I lived in a world where Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” was appalling; the greatest love in our lives was supposed to be our love for a God that was awesome and to be feared. And how are you going to love yourself, if you started off bad at the core?

I made my way into adulthood with some very broken ideas about myself. I found my own company and my own thoughts so terrifying that I filled the space with one girlfriend after another, copious amounts of alcohol, and then a long string of one-night stands that even 20 years later I find cringeworthy. But I had so much shame. Yes, around my destructive drunken antics & my generally selfish behavior but also from the deeply held belief that I might not be redeemable. My childhood evangelical upbringing had offered Jesus as my redemption, but when I turned up gay and had to choose between Jesus and actual, physical love here and now … well, I chose the girl. 

Not until I made my way to AA when I was 33 years old did I understand that learning to love myself wasn’t an optional feel-good exercise. It was crucial to my survival. In fact, out of all the pithy phrases that AA offers up, “we will love you until you can love yourself” has stuck with me all these years. They clearly expected me to figure out this loving-myself thing. And I do like to meet or exceed expectations. Fortunately, AA gives folks some pretty specific steps to move toward self-love. 

Honesty was key. Which sucked. 

After a lifetime of deflecting blame and lying to myself, being honest was truly painful. It hurt to look at the havoc I’d caused. And equally difficult was looking at the pain other folks had caused me and owning my part in it–where had I held on to hurt, where had I lashed out, where was I causing my own suffering instead of working toward freedom. 

And I had to let go of the idea that I was born unworthy. 

AA also told me I could re-frame my Higher Power to be anything I needed or wanted it to be. And I took them up on that. My Higher Power didn’t think I was bad or shameful. Or that I needed redemption. My Higher Power was Love. It was that break with the teachings of my childhood that cracked my inability to love and care for myself. 

Self-love didn’t magically happen. It’s an on-going, self-directed course of study. It happens every time I find a limiting belief that I’m willing to let go. Or when I find a sore spot of shame, and instead of picking at it and letting it fester, I examine the ideas feeding that shame, acknowledge and release them. It happens every time I can freely admit I made a mistake without sliding into a cycle of shame and unworthiness. 

bell hooks identifies living an examined life as a hallmark of both self-esteem and self-love: “living consciously means we think critically about ourselves and the world we live in.” Being willing to critically examine myself has meant positive movement forward, learning, and making choices that are better for me, better for the folks I love, better for the world around me. It is for sure a work in progress. Sometimes I’m good at it. Sometimes there is backsliding of biblical proportions. Being willing to critically examine my life requires a lot of truth-telling. That’s a hard one. I still sometimes default to passive-agressive blame shifting if I’m not careful. But learning about myself (even when it’s painful) has given me the gift of a remarkably shame-free life, which makes the whole world feel wide open. 

Recently, I’ve been tripping all over the idea of self-care because I keep trying to implement other folks’ definitions of self-care into my life. But here’s what I keep coming back to: self-care is anything that recharges me. I feel invigorated after a 5 mile run. I feel like all kinds of holy hell after I try to take a nap. That’s not a judgment on the nappers. I’m married to one. He’s lovely. But I don’t’ feel good after I try to “rest” like that. My rest is plopping down and reading (or listening to) a good book. It’s being outside. It’s stopping long enough to sit and cuddle with the dog. Rest is a latte in the middle of the afternoon. Flipping through reels on Instagram with my kid. Hiking through the woods. It’s that 15 minute walk back from school in the mornings, where the time is just mine. No pressures or demands. 

I find myself most able to love and be loved, to care for myself and give myself what I need, when I stay in this moment. Not worried about what’s coming down the line. Not fretting over what is long gone. Just here and now. And, because self-love is an action item, I’m incorporating honesty into my repertoire. 

Present. Honest. Kind. Sincere. Joyous: my current aspirational list for self-love & self-care. 

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