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There’s nothing fluffy about love

Monday, February 14, 2011 by Marianne Elliott

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Today is Valentine’s Day. But I’m not here to tell you the socio-political history of the day, although I highly recommend that you check out the V-Day campaign, and you might like to read this Ms article on how to have a feminist Valentine’s Day.

Instead, I’m sticking to the topic I’ve been on for months, maybe even years, now. The inextricable link between love and compassion for ourselves and our ability to love others.

Recently I’ve been having wee pangs of concern about writing on this topic because some days it seems every where I turn there is someone talking about the importance of self-care, or how loving ourselves is essential to being able to love anyone else and vice versa.

Is there a risk, I wonder, that popular repetition will dilute this radical idea? If we hear it too often, in increasingly familiar language, is there a chance that we’ll be inured to its challenging and downright revolutionary potential?

Because – despite the emphasis on fluffy toys at this time of year – there is nothing fluffy about love.

In fact, one of my favorite researchers and writers on this subject, Brené Brown, admits that her own findings on the connection between self-love and our ability to love others sometimes freak her out.

“One reason that it takes me so long to develop these concepts is that I often don’t want them to be true. … Sometimes, as I turned to the data … I would cry. I didn’t want my level of self-love to limit how much I can love my children or my husband. Why? Because loving them and accepting their imperfections is much easier than turning that light of loving kindness on myself.” Brené Brown, Ph.D., The Gifts of Imperfection

Let’s be clear. Self-love is not the soft option.

Most of the time, for me anyway, the easy option would be to blend in: to hide aspects of myself, my vulnerability, and my power so that I’ll be liked by as many people as possible. The soft option would be to alter myself, subtly or otherwise, to fit in. But as long as I keep asking myself to fit in, as long as I reject the parts of myself that I find undesirable, I’m almost certainly going to be doing the same to other people.

Brené’s research supports this, as does my personal experience. I may think that I save my meanest, most critical words for myself but the truth is that when I’m feeling threatened, angry or afraid I can be equally critical of the people I claim to love. I may not always express that criticism explicitly or out loud, but I can rest assured that they read it in my silence or my subtle efforts to place the blame for my discomfort on their shoulders.

And a lack of self-love shows up in other ways as well – ways that I know only too well. One of the key lessons of my time in Afghanistan, and a theme in my book, is the realisation that:

Our private doubts and fears about our own worth will, inevitably, hamper our ability to act with true compassion towards others.

Another teacher on this subject whose words ring bells of truth for me is Jack Kornfield: Buddhist teacher, psychologist and author.

“When our sense of self-worth is still low, we cannot set limits, make boundaries or respect our own needs. Our seemingly compassionate assistance becomes mixed with dependence, fear and insecurity. Mature love and healthy compassion are not dependent but interdependent, born out of a deep respect for ourselves as well as for others.” – Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart

In his book, Kornfield retells a story from the Buddha which is an interesting counterpoint to my post about the oxygen mask analogy for self-care. The Buddha told a story about a family of traveling acrobats. A grandfather and granddaughter performed balancing acts together. They approached the Buddha to ask the best way to care for and protect each other in their act.

The grandfather suggested that each of them should focus on caring for the other, thus they would protect each other. His granddaughter, on the other hand, asked the Buddha:

“Would it not be better for each of us to care for ourselves, and in that way safeguard the other?”

The Buddha agreed with the child saying, “Although she is young, she is wise. If you as a grandfather guard yourself with care and pay attention to what you do, you will also guard the safety of your grandchild; and if you as a child guard yourself with awareness, with care, with respect, then you guard both yourself and those around you.”

What I love about this story is that it also removes the false dichotomy of sequential priority. The Buddha does not appear, to me anyway, to be saying “You should take care of yourself first, then you will be able to care for others.” Rather the message is “Taking care of yourself is the same as taking care of others. In doing the one, you are doing the other.”

As Jack Kornfield says, “Compassionate generosity is the foundation of true spiritual life because it is the practice of letting go. … Yet our capacity for manifesting true generosity will often be limited by an incomplete development of the healthy self.”

What stands in the way of our ability to love? This is another area where Brené’s research and writing is beautifully concise and clear.

“If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear and vulnerability.” – Brené Brown, Ph.D., The Gifts of Imperfection

See what I mean by the whole “nothing fluffy about love” line? This is not easy, comfortable, light or breezy. But if my yoga practice has taught me anything it is this – there is no shortcut around the shadows. The practice of yoga is the practice, among other things, of shining the light of kindness into our hidden places. It is the practice of meeting ourselves where we really are, not where we think we should be, with kindness – over and over again.

So, this Valentine’s Day, what decidedly unfluffy, perhaps even slightly intimidating, act of self-love can you take?

How can you shine the light of kindness on your own hidden places? How can you meet your fears and shame with love and find the courage to talk about the things we so often leave unsaid for fear, as Brene so insightfully put it, that it is only us who feels this way?

Here are some of the ways I’m practicing this kind of radically unfluffy self-love this Valentine’s Day:

  • Admitting, in writing, that I can be mean to the people I love, trusting that I’m not the only one who does this and that you are not all going to judge me (and even if you do, trusting that I’ll be okay).
  • Allowing myself to eat chocolate, but noticing when my chocolate cravings are actually an attempt to distract me from the discomfort of taking a risk in my work.
  • Meeting my own commitments to myself to continue a consistent practice of meditation and pranayama this month. When I keep my commitments to myself I build trust in myself and that, as far as I can tell, is one of the foundations of both self-care and self-esteem.

How about you?


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21 Responses to "There’s nothing fluffy about love"

  1. Emily Perry says:

    I think that is one the hardest but most beautiful things about a metta practice~ loving ourselves, warts and all… while also celebrating our radiance! Lovely post!

  2. claire says:

    Lots to consider here. And no, you aren’t the only one who can be mean to people she loves. When I see the reaction, I often wonder, “Why did I just say that?! Why didn’t I let it go?” Sometimes I do stop myself though, so that’s progress.

    The whole worthiness thing trips me up. Just the other day someone made an innocuous comment about what I do and *I* went out of my way to devalue it. WTF? sigh. That makes some of this post depressing because I really get it. But understanding it is in its way progress too. One step at a time.

    Happy Valentine’s Day! (V-Day rocks!)

  3. iamronen says:

    Reading this brought to mind a recurring thought I’ve had over recent months about the word “careful” and how it has drifted into a reflection of fear and worry when actually it is about being “full of care”.

    It makes me wonder if in some twisted way “self love” and “self hate” are both superficial perspectives of a deeper more substantial presence. as if they are both some kind of “fashion” that comes and goes.

    … as if at the heart of it all is a “self” which is trying to bubble to the surface – some bubbles are pink and fluffy, others brown and muddy – but all bubbles of something arising!!??

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nicole Bergstedt and Stacey, Marianne Elliott. Marianne Elliott said: What do they say about great minds? @KellyDiels "love is ugly" & my "nothing fluffy about love" […]

  5. Heidi says:

    I’m writing a love letter today – full of kindness, compassion and all the great things I tell everybody else, only today I’m telling myself. Wow, that’s stepping outside my comfort zone…thanks for the nudge…

  6. cath says:

    i love this post marianne… i’m reading brene’s book right now and so have been thinking lots about this stuff and digging deep.

  7. Roxanne says:

    Marianne, there may be, as you say, a million people writing about this, but you are my favorite one among them. Thank you for issuing the reminder of self-love and self-care today and for leading by your own example. I will be thinking about your questions as I go through the day.

  8. […] There’s nothing fluffy about love – On how loving ourselves is not the easy choice. […]

  9. Swirly says:

    Even if other people are writing about this, no one will express it exactly as you do. Your journey, process, and insights mean so much to me, and I am always deeply appreciative of your sharing these experiences.

    My most significant act lately has been an even deeper awareness of my role in my family, which absolutely had to start with loving and accepting myself. More on that later…

  10. Sara says:

    Hello Marianne, I am grateful to you for writing this post. You are right about the proliferation of posts about self care, and I often avoid them as I feel uncomfortable about the subject much of the time.

    I read Brene’s wonderful book, and found the part that you have quoted difficult to read because, as she says, I didn’t want it to be true. It is something that I am still thinking about and I suspect will be working with for a long time(!) but what I am acknowledging and what motivates me now is how my feelings and behaviour around this subject impact upon my little girl.

  11. […] Elliott writes brilliantly about the importance of loving ourselves.  Not so much that we should love ourselves first, as that, in loving ourselves, we are able to […]

  12. Marianne,

    This is such an interesting exploration. You have written about it well.

    As always, I have mixed feelings about it. Sure, I agree we need to love ourselves to be able to share our love with others. Most people in the East (until now at least) don’t even have to ask this question. There’s no dichotomy. Of course you take care of yourself. It’s a given. It’s no big deal.

    In the West, so many are so psychologically wounded this has indeed become a question. There’s a lot of suffering. But when does the self care become too overly focused and too self-centered and thus detrimental to our true well being. This is also an important question to consider. What is the “self” anyway?

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Thanks Sandra – I agree that the dichotomy itself is what trips most of us up and that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say in my recent posts on this topic. It’s not about taking care of ourselves so that we can then care for others, it’s that there is no difference between the two. And the Buddha’s story might suggest that people in the east have been asking precisely this question for thousands of years, no? 😉

      I also totally agree that there are many “close enemies” of self-care, including excessive self-examination and indulgence of harmful but comforting practices (what Brene Brown and Jen Louden recently called ‘shadow comforts’). A sudden craving to eat chocolate every time I sit down to write is probably a pattern worth examining rather than simply indulging, right? What am I trying to distract myself from with that chocolate?

      Great stuff! I’ll be writing more on my experiences with the ‘close enemies’ of self care in coming posts.

  13. *Thank you* for putting this into words so well. And it doesn’t hurt at all to have Kornfield sprinkled through (one of my very favorite teachers). 😉

  14. shana says:

    marianne – a most thought provoking post indeed. thank you. the quote by Jack Kornfield, “When our sense of self-worth is still low, we cannot set limits, make boundaries or respect our own needs”, hit me hard today. i’ve been tripping over my existential soundtrack of, do i matter? losing site of caring for self IS caring for other & vice versa is dangerous to one’s (my) health. i feel much love & gratitude for you.
    happy love day…

  15. kristy lemmon says:

    Hi Marianne! I just found your blog:). I really liked this post and it reminded me of one of my favourite TED talks by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability:
    You may have already heard it. Your observation about how our private fears and doubts inhibit our ability to have compassion for others is very similar to what she has to say. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject of self-love.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Hi Kristy! Yes, Brene is one of my favorite writers and speakers on this topic. I have both her books in case you’d ever like to borrow them.

  16. […] Elliott asks in her Love Sparks post, There is Nothing Fluffy About Love, what radical acts of unfluffy self-love we are practicing this Valentine’s Day. My act of […]

  17. […] So powerful: There’s nothing fluffy about love! [SEO: "Let’s be clear. Self-love is not the soft option. Most of the time, for me anyway, the […]

  18. kristy lemmon says:

    Yes, I would love to borrow them. It’s an aspect of my life I am currently exploring.

  19. […] learned that there’s nothing fluffy about self-love – it can be challenging, terrifying, and hard as […]

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