This quote from the late acting teacher Uta Hagen (1919-2004) from her book Respect for Acting has always reminded me of the complexity of self-love even though Hagen meant it as advice to actors:
“If I compare myself to a large, meaty, round apple, I discover that my inner and outer cliché of myself is only a wedge of it—possibly the wedge with the rosy cheek on the skin. But I have to become aware of myself as the total apple—the firm inner flesh as well as the brown rotten spot, the stem, the seeds, the core. All of the apple is me.”
A critical truth about self-love that I’ve learned in my own years of personal development as well as in my work with clients is that loving oneself is not only about being compassionate or kind-hearted towards oneself. Don’t get me wrong—treating oneself with a loving, compassionate, and warm-hearted attitude is hugely important and it’s something I take seriously in my work with people.
However, in my experience, it’s not enough. It’s not enough if you are interested in expressing yourself in your totality (i.e. expressing a wider range of emotions, identities, and interests). It’s not enough if you wish to get to the root of troublesome patterns or acute or chronic difficulties in your relationship life, in your inner world, in your body, and anywhere else in your life where you are struggling.
Loving ourselves must also include befriending those parts of us that are less known to us including the parts of us that we don’t like or think are wrong or that we’re ashamed of. In other words, loving ourselves mustn’t be limited to being compassionate towards those aspects of ourselves with which we already comfortably identify or the qualities of ourselves that we particularly like or value or the ways we believe we should think or behave or express ourselves. Additionally, loving ourselves doesn’t only mean to be kind to ourselves when we’re suffering. It also means getting to know what’s behind the suffering and learning how that disturbing experience is trying to come through us, be seen, be known, and be expressed more consciously and holistically.
With the right guidance, we can begin to get to know aspects of our personalities and experiences that we find disturbing, upsetting, or shameful and, over time, discover their deeper benefits for our lives while also hopefully relieving some of the burden on how these difficulties are currently expressing themselves. For example, we might learn how to harness the particular energy of a headache or of back pain and use that energetic quality in how we relate to our spouse or our employees or in how we relate to our inner critic. This quality wants to be known and expressed and it will find the quickest and easiest route to getting there, just as water will find the least effortful way to flow. Thus if we can “pick up” that energy/quality that is disturbing us in our body, we can make it useful to us in the areas of our lives where it is truly needed.
As an artist, it could mean befriending the part of you that is ambitious when you don’t think that’s an admirable way to be. Or for another creative person, it could mean befriending the eclectic nature of your expression when you think you should have one particular style and stick to it. As a romantic partner, it could mean befriending the part of you that doesn't want to listen to your significant other as much as you think you should, because you actually need more support for your own direction in life. Or for another, it could mean befriending your jealousy in relationship as a reflection of how you need to know your unique specialness or your passionate nature. These are merely examples. Your ambition or jealousy or not wanting to listen may indicate different directions than those mentioned here.
The point remains the same: Whatever the thing is that bugs you, causes you suffering, or that you dislike has gold in it. Like the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” we wouldn't want to throw out the essentially good/valuable/beneficial thing in your suffering by simply banishing or ignoring it altogether. Like Uta Hagen said, loving ourselves means loving our pretty, rosy cheeks and our firm inner flesh as well as our brown rotten spots, our uneven stems, our hard seeds, our complex cores.