Yeah, Yeah, but How Do I Love Authentically?
When I first started seeing adult patients many years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a 45 year old Brazilian woman named Isabelle, who had given her life to her family. Her brother had trouble with the law. She fed and counseled him. Her mother was a reluctant supporter, and clinically depressed for most of her life. When she was diagnosed with glaucoma, Isabelle committed to reading to her for an hour every night. She was a chef at a local restaurant. During the day, she cooked and fed other families.
For 45 years, she told herself that she did not want a family. However, after being laid off from work with some time to think, she realized she had been lying to herself all these years to keep the time open for her mother and brother.
Before she came to see me, she had read a book on love. It was all that she could do to stop feeling depressed without any work, stuck at home, now spending her whole day waiting on her family. She must have held on to it pretty tightly during the intake because at the very end of these questions she said with noticeable exasperation, “Yeah, yeah, but how do I love truly? How do I love fully? How do I love authentically?”
It is my understanding that the book made a big point of saying that true love exists only for those willing to love authentically. Isabelle had never heard this phrase before, so it stuck with her. She imagined that this must have been what she had been missing all of these years. No matter what we discussed in the next handful of sessions, she would always come back to this question, “But, how do I love authentically?”
The word “authentic” is a tough one, because it holds the power of judgment. Authentic means genuine. It is indicative of something valuable, something real, and in this case something that makes you and your life feel viable. Thus, not having authenticity means that you have something fake. In relationship terms, it conjures up nightmares of cheating, abandonment, and rejection.
Loss is painful enough when it comes quickly and involves short-lived, unimportant things, but to lose a relationship we have long thought was real is excruciating. This pain seems to be timeless. Sometimes, hurting us as much in current relationships as discovering that old relationships were based on inauthenticity. They both seem to confirm something that we all fear: we are not worthy of being loved.
To love authentically and be loved authentically, we must first accept ourselves. Most people imagine that authentic love is like a gene. You either have it or you do not, but it is a lot more like a muscle. The more effort you put into pursuing and accepting your authentic self, the greater ability you will have to love yourself with sincerity.
We learn to love ourselves authentically by honestly engaging with our moment-to-moment experience. How do I feel right now? Am I happy? Am I sad? Am I stressed? The more we are able to accept, make room for, and watch these feelings as they manifest in bodily sensations and pass out of our attention, the more confidence our mind will have to share the more delicate truths it has kept hidden.
When I explained this to Isabelle, she said, “Let me get this straight. My mind is hiding things from me?” “Protecting,” I said as I explained that the mind wants you to get love. If the mind believes that you must meet certain parameters to get love, and those are defined by being socially acceptable and getting the approval of others, it will do its best to show you information about yourself that is relevant to that task. It will also do its best to hide the qualities or experiences that conflict with that goal.
To authentically love yourself, you must let go of pursuing what is socially acceptable, and begin the journey towards discovering what your mind and body need to be content. Social acceptance is, at best, unsturdy anyways. The people who decide whether or not you are worthy of social acceptance have spent little of their life thinking of you, and much of their life thinking of themselves, which makes them poor arbiters of love.
This is why many people find success in gaining social acceptance and validation, but still feel unfulfilled. This may not be apparent to them during the day, but at night after setting their alarm and laying their heads on their pillows, they find their minds are still very much awake and some part of their body far beneath the surface feels hollow and sad.
Pump The Brakes
Once you let go of what is socially acceptable, and open yourself up to your own experience, you are going to have to pump the brakes every so often. There is a strong chance that your mind and body have been holding on to these secret wishes for a long time, so there may be a mass exodus once they are finally set free.
When Isabelle let go of social acceptance and began to pursue her own acceptance, she became flooded with ideas and desires. We had to break out some emergency mindfulness to keep her from drowning.
In Mindfulness practice, there are two types of effort, one to establish well-being by following your breath, and allowing your mind time to purge its thoughts and feelings. The second practice involves looking deeply into thoughts or emotions that appear repeatedly to discern a deeper truth. There must be balance between the two to not be overwhelmed by the second practice. There is an old saying that the newly wise dead man is still dead, so it is in our best interest to practice in a way that prioritizes our health.
The same is true of Self-Compassion Psychology. We look at what we wish for ourselves, when we have the resources. When it becomes overwhelming to do so, we return to the traditional practice that simply acknowledges that feeling or thought, makes room for it, allows it to pass, and brings kindness to this experience.
Slowly, this process yields self-wisdom that once accepted transforms into informed and authentic self-love. The more we know about ourselves and the more we accept, the more authentic our love can become. Over time, this process yields a level of authenticity that demands one to live accordingly, and to only accept potential partners who validate and nurture this authenticity. Simply put, we realize that requiring less of potential love partners would never allow us to truly love them or ourselves.
Love At Last
After about a year (closer to 10 months) of working on this self-compassion practice, Isabelle accidentally met her future husband by insulting him. He was a server in an Italian coffee shop, and he brought her a cappuccino when she had ordered an espresso. When she asked him if he was blind, he confessed that he was, and that he had been having a tough week after losing his father to cancer.
She was overcome by the moment, and let down her guard. She told him about how her father had died young, and missed out on so much of life. She told him how she always wanted to go to Paris, but feared she never would. He also wished that he could travel, but felt he had to be at the coffee shop to keep his parents’ business running. That day, she stayed for lunch, then dinner, and finally walked him home. Eventually, she quit her job, and came to work with him. They were married a year later, and went to Paris for their honeymoon.
Finding Your Own Authentic Love
The heart is a funny thing. We are born with it, and we die with it, but if you never get to know it and accept it completely, it will never lead you to true love. Make the time to witness, and accept your experience as it comes up. Be kind to yourself because that is what you wish from others. Allow yourself to process, and let go of what comes up to make room for what is hidden beneath.
Take your time with true desires of love when they emerge. Pump the breaks when you need to, and let your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations simply pass away. The more time you spend developing an authentic self, the stronger it will be. When it is strong enough for a happy relationship, you will know by its unwillingness to accept any partner who does not support it. Wishing you a safe journey to your heart and to love.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 91. In The Books.