“love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.” – bell hooks
have you ever been in a relationship where you felt neglected or mistreated and when you expressed these feelings your partner responded with “but i love you”? and have you ever thrown up your hands in desperation and exclaimed that love is not just feeling, it’s action?
have you ever demanded that your partner go read some bell hooks and meditate on what love really means? i have. i have gone through this exact situation more than once. and these relationships ended for various reasons and now i am by myself.
being by myself is exactly where i need to be. because as much as what i was saying in those arguments with past partners was true (love is action not just feelings and they should go read some bell hooks) i too wasn’t ready to love them fully and properly because, fundamentally, i was not loving myself fully and properly.
a lot of girls and women write to me asking me advice on how to love themselves. i have tried my best to offer advice and to share my own work on self love. but i have often been left feeling like i don’t really know the answer. how exactly do we go about loving ourselves? is self love about looking in the mirror and liking what we see? is self love about caring for our emotional well being? is self love a decision to value oneself? i think it is partially all of these things but none of them answer the question completely.
at the age of eighteen i thought i had finally discovered self love. i had never been happy with the way i looked. i had never considered myself beautiful. i had depended primarily on my sexuality to provide me with the validation of male attention, something that acts as a substitute for self love for a lot of women (this is the equivalent of substituting coffee for sleep – it doesn’t work). but at eighteen, thinking i was quite the genius, i thought i’d finally figured it out. i learned how to love myself, hairy armpits, drunken outbursts and all. male validation was still a heavy ingredient in this version of self love i had created, but as my hairy armpits demonstrated, it was not the only ingredient. i could handle male rejection and still love myself and that was definitely an improvement. but it was not enough.
i developed psoriasis all over my body and i realized that the self love i had developed only applied to a certain self, the self i was with clear skin. my new scaly, itchy, flaky self did not know how to love herself. i realized that self love was a lot more complicated than i had thought. it’s about more than being okay with who you are and what you look like at this exact moment because we are not static, we change. self love has to extend into the selves we are becoming and those selves are aging and changing. those selves may develop disabilities. they will get older. they may gain or lose weight. they may undergo surgery. they may get pregnant. they may gain scars. and on and on. can we love those selves too? can our self love be as flexible and changing as our realities are?
i had to learn to love my psoriasis and i did. i learned to love and appreciate my always changing body as my very own physical manifestation on this plane of existence. not simply as a thing to be desired or fucked by men, but as my own self, my way of moving in and experiencing this world. i thought, once again, that i had arrived at self love. but i see now that my journey was only just beginning.
i have consistently turned to romantic relationships, to sex and to alcohol to fill a vast, gaping void in myself. and i have come to realize that the void exists because i don’t know how to love myself and i have not taken the time and care to learn. i am now actively meditating on the question. what is self love? well, it’s love for the self. so, what is love?
and this brings me back to my insistence to my ex partners that love is action, not simply feeling and my demand that they go read bell hooks. now, it’s my turn to go read bell hooks and to really listen to what she is saying. she says that love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust. have i been caring for myself, committing to myself, learning about myself, taking responsibility for myself, respecting myself and trusting myself? or have i been hoping that a simple feeling of self acceptance and a little dash of liking myself would be enough?
i am now on the journey that will lead me to self love. and for me, this journey involves getting sober, being a part of aa, being in counseling, writing, making art, setting boundaries, taking a break from sex and relationships, working on my integrity and accountability, praying and being spiritually connected, asking for help, eating well and regularly, exercising and being active, getting enough sleep, paying attention to my dreams, developing new habits, noticing and responding to my feelings and getting to know my own sense of ethics. this journey will definitely involve many other things, many of which i probably am not aware of yet.
i have come to understand that simply saying ‘i love myself’ is not enough. as i have said to many of my ex partners, actions speak louder than words. to truly love myself is a commitment. it takes work. it takes care. it takes changes. it takes learning. it takes time.
i am finally ready to admit to myself that no relationship, lover or bottle can fill this gaping void inside of me. the only thing that will is self love – bell hooks style.