The journey of self-love is a long and tedious one but one truly worth embarking on...
It is a process and not an end and so, here's to celebrating all of us who have decided to begin the journey! To those who have already taken the first few steps... I wish for you the motivation to keep going.
It won't be easy, but that's when you'll learn not to be hard on yourself. You'll learn that it's ok to let go and just take things as they come... Never beat yourself about not being able to feel a certain way and definitely appreciate how far you have come from whenever you started.
And for those who have not begun the journey yet, please tell yourselves that it is ok and that it is never too late!
Loving myself has, by far, been the most difficult and yet the most rewarding experience in life. It's not easy, because I've been conditioned to think for others before myself, to think of studies, career and other forms of productivity rather than my mental, physical and spiritual well-being and to prioritise ‘doing’ over just ‘being’.
When external engagements pick up pace and you have a lot on your plate, it's easy to lose touch with the self… the distance grows. Eventually turning back and giving space again begins to feel like a burden because there's a load of things piled up to deal with. And then it gets too late and you realise that running away from yourself has done you no good either.
I've never run away from myself intentionally .. at least mostly not… but every time I've thought of how burdensome my emotions are and that I didn't feel like dealing with them, I guess I've run away from myself a little already. Every time I've prioritised my work or my friend's needs over my own, I've run away from myself… It's a scary feeling when I think of what life will be like when I prioritise my own needs at all times… will I be left all alone? This thought makes me feel sad and like laughing at the same time too… this world I've built around myself, the people who claim to love me, are they there only as long as I'm neglecting myself and being there for them? I'm pretty sure it can't be so fickle? I'm sure the bonds run deeper… and if they don't, then are they even worth it?
Am I not supposed to be my first priority? And why is it so difficult to consistently feel this way? To free myself of guilt whenever I acknowledge it?
I am writing this blog from the midst of an episode of depression and anxiety in which feeling love for the self feels so difficult time and again but it is also the one thing that has been helping me recover steadily. And so, I have chosen to go back in time and trace my journey along the paths of self-love .
In life when you don’t like someone or have some problems with them, it’s easy to turn your back on them and move away. But what do you do when you begin to feel that way about yourself? Do you ever stop to consider why you must be feeling that way in the first place? And do you really have a choice? Besides, what could the possibilities be like were you to feel differently about yourself?!
These were the questions that put me on the road for the journey towards self recognition and love.
It began with a lot of self loathing, criticism and trying to find answers from the external world about how to live a peaceful and happy life. I’d be happy with myself and probably to some extent in sync with myself too for the moments in life where I did well at something, but the moments would pass and I’d go back down the spiral. The curious thing I realised was that I never actually believed that I could do well. So the minute I noticed I wasn’t doing well anymore I’d begin to find escapes from myself rather than actually reflecting on what went wrong and what I could have learnt.
I used to spend hours on end watching others live their lives back in school, not picking up insights, as much as longing for the happiness they seemed to have in their lives. Little did I know at that time though, that the answers I was seeking were essentially inside me and all I had to do was start listening.
So what changed?
When I began living away from my family for higher studies, I began to notice how far societal norms influenced the way I behaved or the choices I made, when in fact what truly made me happy was often in conflict with the norms. In spite of this realisation, I’d follow the norms out of fear that I would lose support from “society” in times of need if I rubbed them the wrong way. It took me my first heartbreak to see that no one was really going to come to rescue me and I was all that I had.
It was strangely empowering though.
I began to realise that the external world could only influence me to the extent I would allow it to. This helped me see that I was an innately happy person, that happiness was something that came very naturally from within me and so it also meant that I could have it whenever I wanted it and it couldn’t be taken away by any external force if I chose for it to be so.
This was not the miraculous turning of events for me though… It was just the beginning of a possibly lifelong journey of discovering what self-love and acceptance truly are and practising them each day in my life.
Spirals in the path
Towards the end of my B.A. I began to have romantic feelings towards a newly made friend and was in denial for a long time as there was no reciprocation and I barely knew him at the time. In spite of the denial though, the feelings had been real and so resulted in heartbreak when I discovered that there was someone else in his life . It was then that I realised that I didn't really know what love meant and the acceptance of this fact helped spark off a new phase to my journey inwards. I felt strongly driven to spend long hours with myself walking or cycling around the city roads of Baroda, taking in the bounty of nature's mesmerising winter beauty and realising that most of the love songs describing how precious the beloved is seemed to be apt for my own 'self'. I had been the only constant in my life and everything seemed beautiful when I was in harmony with myself.
I began cooking new and yummy things just for myself and spending some time just experiencing the movement of my body to soft music. This was also when I got in touch with my inner child for the very first time and chose to name her ‘Guncha’, (Urdu for rose bud), from the lines ‘Guncha koi mere naam kar diya, Saki ne firse mera jaam bhar diya’ by Mohit Chauhan, as I resonated with the idea that my inner child was like a blooming rose bud who needed love and nourishment to grow, flourish and experience herself in her entirety. I was also able to observe the wisdom that came from within to guide those who I cared for, for the first time, and started to listen more closely for that voice.
I had developed warmth and awe for myself from these experiences and had a better sense of self when I had to make choices between conventional fun and self care. It also helped me choose honesty in situations where conversations got difficult. However, when it came to making choices in life regarding career and education, I would begin to doubt my inner voice directing me towards something unknown and unconventional and choose the most conventional of the options I had shortlisted for myself. In doing so, I began pushing myself into situations which were beyond my capacity to deal with but expecting that I should be able to manage them all the same. I chose to do my M.A. Social Work form Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai followed by the Gandhi Fellowship by Piramal Foundation, both of which are highly aspirational for newcomers in the development sector.
When things got difficult, previous patterns began shrouding the inner wisdom and I would feel lost for what to fall back on. I would often feel at odds with myself and seek means to disconnect unknowingly. As a result, I was not able to feel the love and warmth I had begun to experience for myself or appreciate myself even when I was doing well. I would experience long periods of burnout culminating in episodes of anxiety and depression.
During my Fellowship, I was working with Social Emotional and Ethical Learning where we began to have recurring conversations about self awareness and the importance of self compassion in addition to compassion for others. These conversations helped me realise that my understanding of love and compassion had been very superficial so far. That there was a lot more depth to the practice of compassion and understanding, which would probably help me sustain this state of being.
Seeking therapy and being part of the Wellbeing Movement have also helped me gain further understanding that self-love can also be accepting every single aspect of the self – the emotions, thoughts, actions, circumstances, appearance, fears, shortcomings, aspirations, perspectives, strengths… everything… the good, the bad and the ugly and to then allow myself to just be. Every time I experience judgement or anger or sadness or any other emotion that feels lacking of love can be an opportunity to see what more needs to be accepted… The freedom that comes with the ever increasing acceptance of the self is mind-blowing in the liberation it provides and the endless opportunities it opens up for the self to experience, express and grow to the fullest.
The journey has not been linear and I now know that I cannot expect it to be very linear in the future either, but, I am sure that every spiral I have ever experienced has only added deeper layers of understanding to the concept of love for me and the more committed I am to practising self-love , the deeper I will go in this journey in the future too.