Wednesday, January 18, 2017

why it's important to bask in love


[note: this is not some new-age epiphany destined for rebranding as a meme on a black background with fireworks. so don't do it.]

recently, my therapist proposed the idea of basking in love; love felt for myself as well as love received from others. at first, the mere mention of those words gave me the same nauseated feeling as you probably got when you read the headline. then something clicked, and i began to visualise the activity of simple reflection on the presence of love in my life, something i'd only recently begun to allow myself to feel.

rewind to my childhood. sure, my parents were decent when it came to being fed and clothed, but growing up catholic in a shitty american suburb (that has recently been called 'the most unhappy place in america') with typical american values that place self-love on the same shelf as conceit, there weren't a whole lot of opportunities to value the things that made me different. add to that colourful mix of things i had to suppress the fact that i am gay, and you're left with a kid whose upbeat attitude attracted friends, but which existed solely to keep them at a safe distance while he figured out just what about himself they actually liked.

on the rare occasion i'd extol my satisfaction at having finished a project or personal creative pursuit, my mother's response was always the same--"i love me, who do you love?"--as though i'd crossed a line by giving myself the praise and acclaim that would normally come from another person. unconditional encouragement was never a strong tenet of my parents' parenting methods. what they didn't understand they resisted; what they couldn't explain, they avoided; so when my interests began to fulfil both categories, branding me something of an outcast in their eyes, the only response they could offer came in the form of a robotic arm pushing me to do the things the other boys did, go the places the other boys went, and essentially putting a lead-lined cap on the quirks and unusual requests i found myself naturally embodying. 

i soon became a 'closet creative'--locking myself in my bedroom behind a double-fortified door, where i'd spend hours writing, drawing, painting, making jewellery, experimenting with colour--giving this raw, creative force inside of me free reign to manifest itself in every form and medium possible. well before i knew writing was an actual vocation (after a sequence of affirmations that certainly didn't come from either of my parents) i would often imagine my future self as this omni-creative being, simultaneously playing erik in 'the phantom of the opera' while having a painting and writing career on the side. a therapist would look at this scenario and see it for exactly what it is: typical textbook case of a kid screaming to be noticed, pining for love and approval through any avenue he or she could get it.

unless you grew up in some progressive hippie commune in a state led by a democratic majority or a culturally and intellectually superior country like the netherlands, you probably know exactly what i mean to some degree because you've been there too. and, like me, you probably took this behaviour with you all your life. through university, through your first job, your relationships with others and--perhaps most importantly--your relationship with yourself. the voice inside may not outright say, "love me! love me!" but it says something damn close, which causes you to double down with frustration as you answer, "how? how?" or maybe it's just a general presence of unhappiness, constantly agitated by anxiety which is really just the logical part of you shouting, "hey, you know you can fix this!" but the attempts to fix yourself are futile. we drink to quiet the voice, but that only works until you pass a karaoke bar or find yourself at home in front of a computer. then the voices don the costumes of your deepest, darkest demons, causing you to emote in some not-so-helpful ways. we read every self-help book on the shelf, thinking, with each new discovery, that "this one will do the trick." then we seek therapy. we open up, we spill our life stories, we pay lots of money for someone with a specially-trained mind to help us make sense of our feelings, and this is where we ultimately go wrong. 

i think therapy is brilliant. therapy works. it's scientific, it's constantly being innovated, it's proven. but we often mess it up by taking the wrong approach. because we spend a great deal of money to receive it, we assume--like in any other medical profession--that the one administering the treatment will fix the problem for us. if you fall down and fuck up your patella, you go to an orthopaedic surgeon, lie on his table, and he fixes it for you. got a cough? you go to your GP, tell her your symptoms, she gives you a syrup, you take it, problem solved. with a therapist, you give him your feelings, your problems, your challenges, but he can't give you the surgery or the syrup. he can only give you objective information about yourself, gleaned from the facts you've given him, evaluated through his medically-trained mind. and it's what you do with that information that will, effectively, help you. 

this is where shit gets radical. once you've learned why you feel a certain way, once you've traced the roots to a rotten parent or traumatic experience in your childhood, you've received all the knowledge and tools you need to make the necessary adjustments. so make the fucking adjustments. this involves many decisions and reminders--sometimes hundreds of them daily--to train yourself to realise that this particular anomaly doesn't have to affect you anymore. it's not suppression--you're not telling yourself not to feel a certain way--rather you're kindly demonstrating that this particularly bad moment is no longer occurring, has not occurred in some time, and essentially, you're free of it, so act accordingly.

this sure ain't easy. you'll need help. lots of support. so reach out. talk to your therapist about your frustrations. keep a journal. talk to a friend. but in the grand tradition of 'be the change you want to see' it's up to you to make these tiny changes. it gets easier. you can definitely expect an "a-ha!" moment when you realise you haven't felt that dreadful pang of tension or anxiety that usually accompanies you everywhere. the thing you know you're better off without. 

when i mentioned that this objective information is the only thing a therapist can actually provide, i wasn't overlooking psychiatric treatment. while certain types of therapists can prescribe pharmaceuticals, many of which can drastically help a person improve his or her life, they will tell you the exact same thing: drugs won't solve the problem on their own. it's you that must do the work. and we don't like that, do we?

i hated this fact when i first realised it. i got angry at every therapist i'd previously seen, feeling they had denied me this vital piece of wisdom. then i got angry with myself for seemingly overlooking the simplicity of it all--that i could have done this ages ago on my own and saved myself thousands on therapist bills. but i know that isn't true. everybody's therapy journey is different. it's a labyrinth in there, and many of us are lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) to have our own jareth the goblin king further mucking things up when we decide to do something about it. i needed the 10+ years of off and on therapy to reach the point at which i realised how it works, and what i needed to do to make it work for me. the changes we all must make to learn to live better vary far and wide. for me, one of the main things came down to basking.

the source of my unhappiness was not feeling loved. coming upon and eventually accepting this reality was beyond difficult, as i am happily married to an awesome guy with two cats and blah blah blah--you don't want to hear this part. i mention it because ostensibly, i have all the love a person could want. i could even confidently say i love myself. what went crazyballs with me was that the love i was employing toward myself was conditional, weak, and dependent on the validation and approval of others. inside, i was still that little boy hiding his dreams and talents and aspirations from the world, as i once had from my parents. i pursued my dreams and succeeded in many ways, but never once did i take a moment to break the habit of hiding my satisfaction and happiness with myself; never once did i say something to the effect of, "i did well because i did what i wanted to do, and that makes me great." i would anticipate this kind of reaction from others, depending on it for vital validation. when i didn't get it, i'd want it even more. i'd pity a poor fool who lived his life like that, ergo that ain't loving yourself.

this posed a new question: how do i love myself the right way? my first answer--find a new way to love yourself!--was far too complex, and perhaps a sign that my mind had grown a bit too analytical for its own good. the second answer was much better and more feasible: bask in the love you have.

so i bask. this means taking a few moments to simply feel my personal connection to love in all its forms: love i receive from my husband, realising it comes as a result of me just being me; love i have for my misbehaving cat; love i receive from a friend who picks up a personalised bottle of coca cola with my name on it; love i have for singing; love for my improv comedy talents; even love i have for sriracha sauce. every moment of love that comes my way, i allow myself to experience, and i notice how damn good it feels. i notice how i can take compliments from myself and know they are true without having someone else validate them. hearing such things as "you are so weird" come up when listening to a holiday song in june translates to "you are so unique" and that feels good. anxiety i once had while doing the activities i claim to love has basically diminished, as i now remind myself to bask in the love i have for the activity. i don't have to be ashamed of what i like, what appeals to me, what turns me on, what i find interesting. 

that's how you love yourself--you simply decide to, and you make many, many decisions every day to maintain that love. for me, it's basking in love. like any exercise, the more you do it, the better it works. in the same way that learning a new language creates new neural pathways, this new way of thinking does the same, expanding your capacity to regard yourself in the process. think of it retraining your brain to function more effectively, sending the anxiety, frustration, heaviness, sadness, whatever plagues you to the back seat so you can be in charge of your own happiness.

and at the end of the day, what's the point of life if not happiness?

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