This article is the compilation of our learnings from 15 global dinners held in 2019.
This month we hosted dinners on the topic of Self Love in 15 cities around the world. From Mumbai to Dubai, to Portland and Chicago, women (ages 18–80) who demonstrate an outpouring of love for their families and friends came together to share the oftentimes hidden challenges of showing the same degree of love and compassion toward themselves.
And now our key takeaways…
Our culture is not designed for self love
We do not have a blue-print for what it means to actually love ourselves. In fact, if we were asked to identify a self-love “role model,” many of us would be left scratching our heads. Moreover, culture repeatedly tells us, from every possible angle, that self-love is wrong and inherently selfish. For some, that message came through the media — a childhood bombarded with images of airbrushed models is often translated to — “you must look like this to be worthy of love.” For those of us who grew up in hyper traditional, patriarchal, religious societies — guilt and shame formed the very backbone of our sense of self. Then there are those of us who grew up in unsafe or unloving households, and lacking in a foundational sense of safety, self-love feels entirely out of the picture.
Wherever and whoever we are, it can feel extremely challenging to embody self-love when all we perceive is a lack of it.
Across our tables, we talked to women who are at different stages in their self-love journey. Yet, this journey is not linear as self-love is not a destination, but an ongoing process…
Scenario One… “I am not worthy of love”
Self-love can feel like climbing a mountain with no path. This is especially true for those of us with a history of abuse and neglect. If our parents, caregivers or life partners , the very people in our lives who we trusted to love and protect us, failed to do so, it’s no wonder we grow skeptical of our worth. Instead, we fall prey to a rather wicked inner critic — that voice inside our heads endlessly reminding us of our worthlessness. For many of us, this means living with a running mental narrative marked by fear, shame and guilt.
First step: Becoming self-aware of our thoughts and patterns. Then forgiving ourselves, and accepting ourselves for who we are
Watch out: Destructive behaviors and unhealthy relationships that “affirm” the negative self-narrative
Scenario Two… “I am only worthy of love if other people think so”
This is when feeling good about ourselves is contingent upon external validation. That core lack of self-worth from Scenario 1 remains, but we fervently attempt to bypass this internal discomfort through directing our energy outside of ourselves. For the martyrs amongst us, we do this through constant over-giving. We’re always putting other people’s needs before our own, and crave the love we receive when we please others. For others, the quest for excellence and “success” (Ambition 1.0!!) provides us that feedback we so crave. People tell us we’re doing great, so we must be feeling great, right?
Another interesting manifestation of this scenario is through self-care for the appearance of self-care. We call this “self-care 1.0” — that frantic filling up of our schedule with spinning classes and manicures so we feel “good”, but we’re still left feeling depleted and sometimes a little lost well after the post-yoga glow has faded. We’re not caring for ourselves at a deep level, we are just covering the surface so it looks good to others.
First step: Look inside and uncover what is truly important to YOU and practice boundary-setting
Watch out: Attention seeking, “spiritual bypassing”, burn-out and inauthentic self-care
Scenario Three… “I am beginning my true self love journey”
There’s that moment when you realize it’s time to shift the way you talk to yourself and treat yourself from the inside out. The “a-ha” realization that something really needs to change. From leaving an abusive relationship to finally putting an end to unconscious people pleasing, these are the women who are looking deep inside and re-claiming their power with self-compassion. This oftentimes comes to life through an honest and authentic commitment to self-care — and defining and defending boundaries around those practices. When we truly know our needs and vocalize them (eg. forgoing a night out when depleted in favor of a bath and early bedtime), self-love becomes an action through self-care practices. This profile marks the entry point into an entirely new territory, where our approach to ourselves and others is no longer based in fear, but rather, in love.
Scenario 4… “I practice embodying love for myself and others”
When we become deeply forgiving and kind to ourselves, even when we make a mistake or something doesn’t go our way, we’re met by a solid foundation of compassion that permeates from the inside-out. These women certainly still have the negative inner critic chattering away, but what’s different here is a profound level of awareness that that voice is not them, and the choice to shift the narrative in that very moment. For instance, if the inner critic is saying “I move from job to job, I can’t commit,” then upon greeting that message with presence and compassion, this woman changes the script to “I am adaptable, agile and creative.”
For some, this is akin to treating yourself as if you were your own best friend — loving, supporting and nurturing yourself. For others, this has been a deep and conscious “re-parenting” process, learning to father and mother ourselves in a way that perhaps we didn’t actually experience as children, but so deeply need. Whatever the approach, the answer comes from deep inside.
The embodiment of self-love is a state of being and comes from a deep, moment-to-moment connection with the needs and desires of the body. When we are truly present with ourselves, we can love others and give back to our community not from a place of wanting to please or achieve validation, but rather, from a place of authentic compassion and generosity.
Post Script/Cultural Nuance
Motherhood adds an extra layer of complexity when it comes to self-care and self-love. Many mothers feel constant sense of guilt for not being “giving enough”, “courageous enough” or “present enough” for their children. This manifests in a myriad of ways, from women staying in an abusive relationship “for the sake of the kids” all the way to overprotecting or depriving themselves of alone time or fun activities in order to give everything they have to their children.
Traditionally, women in India have spent all their time looking after others (spouse, children, household members, etc.) so the idea of “self-love” is a completely unfamiliar concept, so unfamiliar that there’s not even a word for it in Hindi! The idea of boundary-setting or “saying no” appear to fall in direct contradiction to concepts such as “duty” and “humility,” both long-esteemed values embedded in the culture. Younger generations are challenging this frame of mind and inspiring mothers and grandmothers to start looking within.
What is one small thing you can do for yourself today to show love to yourself?
Ask 3 people in your life how they practice self-love. What can you learn from these practices? What can you experiment with?
Written Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our hosts Neeti Savla in Mumbai, Leah Caseley in Dubai, Francesca Varda in Lima, Meaghan Kelly in Montreal, Vania Lourenco in Sao Paulo, Esther Mateo in Caracas, Amy Subach & Danya Rose-Merkle in Portland, Rosalind Franklin in San Francisco, Rebecca Roebber in Seattle, Dee de Lara in Toronto, Claudia Espinel in Chicago, Silvi Demirasi in Washington DC, Cecilia Sibony & Ariela Wenger in LA.