Valentine’s Day is typically a time to celebrate and appreciate romantic love. Maybe you make a conscious effort to acknowledge your partner for the little things they do to make your life better, or maybe you’re single and spend the time appreciating your friends, your family, or yourself.
The common thread for most people, no matter what it is they’re spending their loving attention on, is that they will focus on the easy-to-love parts. We focus on the nice things our partner does that make us feel good, rather than the incredibly irritating stuff they do that forces us to look inward at why TF it makes us so mad/sad/annoyed.
In short, we have a tendency to focus our approval on the stuff that’s easy to approve of, and focus our appreciation on the stuff that’s easy to appreciate.
This is nice, but will get you exactly nowhere if your goal is to become a more loving, accepting, open-hearted, compassionate, or peaceful person. The really difficult, but really important work comes in when you spend your energy learning to love, appreciate, and celebrate the shit that seems completely UNlovable.
This applies to your partner, your friends and family, your body, and yourself. In fact, when it comes to self-love, this lesson is even more apt. It’s relatively easy to appreciate how pretty you look with fake eyelashes and a blowout, right? But how about when you wake up first thing in the morning with puffy eyes and bedhead?
We all have stuff we deem “easy to accept and love.” As awesome as it is to notice and celebrate these parts of ourselves, they don’t offer many opportunities to heal or become more loving, because there is nothing to overcome.
We also all have stuff we deem “difficult or impossible to accept and love.” These parts of ourselves are the ones that feel like fucking hurdles standing in the way of our ability to love ourselves. As unpopular as they are, these challenging, painful parts offer the best possible opportunities to heal, grow, and become capable of loving and accepting yourself on a deeper level.
Loving your body; loving your self
Learning to love and accept your body is important. In our culture, women are often so preoccupied by what’s wrong with our bodies that we live in a perpetual state of distraction and disembodiment, thus never getting to do the important work we were put here on earth to do.
As a body image coach, it’s my job to help women learn how to love and accept their bodies. The thing is though, it’s never just about your body. Body image issues are always about something deeper, and until you deal with the deeper stuff, you’ll never be able to make peace with your physical body. (Watch my recent TEDx talk Body Image: Not Just About Your Body to learn more about this.)
Hating your body is always a representation of something about you that feels inherently unlovable. So for the rest of this article, I’ll be discussing the inner stuff instead of the outer stuff. That having been said, if you struggle with a negative body image, this stuff all still undoubtedly applies.
How we fracture
As children, we learn that some traits and behaviors earn us praise and approval, while other traits and behaviors get us in trouble. Since all humans fundamentally crave love and approval, we naturally start to present ourselves in a way that has the highest chance of earning us that love and approval, while we hide the parts of us that seem to threaten our love and approval.
Eventually (after years of practice and experience), we build an identity around the parts of ourselves that consistently earn us love, and we reject the parts of ourselves that seem shameful, bad, or difficult to love. In this way, as we grow up, most of us fracture ourselves into two categories: good and bad; lovable and unlovable; included and excluded.
While there are many common themes, the exact parts that a person chooses to present or hide will depend on the unique reactions and values of their core family and formative experiences. If your parents h1ushed or shamed you for crying for example, you might have learned to hide your sadness and your tears. If your first boyfriend made you feel stupid and crazy for feeling jealous, you may have learned to suppress or ignore your intuition or jealousy.
The important thing to remember is that learning to hide or reject parts of yourself is not the same thing as actually getting rid of those parts of yourself.
We all have the desire to cry sometimes, no matter what you learned. We all experience jealousy. While these traits and experiences might seem “bad” or “unlovable” in your experience, they are actually just a part of the human experience. The same goes for all the other stuff our culture has a tendency to reject, like pain, suffering, shame, depression, and loneliness.
Most of us go around carrying secret dark parts of ourselves that we have rejected. I call this our “dark material,” or our “excluded selves,” and everyone has it. You have probably been hoping that if you ignore or suppress your dark material for long enough, it will eventually go away.
But that’s not how it works. In fact, the harder you work to reject it, the more powerful it becomes. This is why it’s so important to integrate your excluded or dark material back into your self-identity.
The importance of reintegrating
No matter how you look at it, rejecting a part of who you are is an act of self-violence. Even if the part of yourself that you’re rejecting seems really terrible, the simple act of rejecting it creates an inherent sense of being fractured and broken. Plus you can never fully relax and be at peace, because you’ve basically declared war. You must always stay on vigilant guard against this unlovable part of you, lest it try to show up and cost you all the effort you’ve put into being lovable.
The painful result of this fractured self-identity is that we carry around the burden of fear that someone will find out about the existence of our dark material, and see how unlovable we really are. Have you ever felt like an imposter in your life, sure that if anyone saw you for who you really are, they wouldn’t like or love you anymore?
The only solution to this imposter syndrome, and to the shame of feeling false or broken, is to reintegrate your dark material into your sense of self. You need to welcome your unlovable parts home, and promise to love them anyway.
Reintegrating as a practice for deep self-love
I have no doubt that some parts of you are really easy to love. You’re probably really smart, and loving, and funny. Maybe you’re extremely talented or hard-working. You might be a great friend, a dedicated parent, or a loyal employee.
When I talk to women about self-love, this is often where we start:
“Tell me about the parts of you that are easy to love. Tell me what you’re amazing at. Tell me what you’re proud of. Tell me what you want people to see about you.”
Most likely, your answers to these questions are similar to the traits and qualities that earned you love and approval as a child. These are the traits and qualities that are easy for you to embody. They’re well practiced parts of your identity, and you recognize their value.
When it comes to true self-love and self-acceptance however, recognizing these traits and qualities is not going to cut it. That’s because they are, in your mind, already inherently lovable. They aren’t risky, or painful, or dangerous.
If you want to learn how to deeply love yourself, you have to send love and attention to the parts of you that you believe are dangerous. The parts that you feel sure will cost you opportunities, connection, attention, and approval. The parts of yourself that you have deemed inherently unlovable: your dark material.
In order to experience deep self-love, you have to invite your dark material to come home.
Reintegration of your dark material may be a simple concept, but it’s far from easy to put into practice. Every single one of us experiences insecurity, shame, fear, anger, grief, pain, and all kinds of other stuff that we would rather people didn’t see about us.
The important thing to remember is that these traits and qualities aren’t bad or weird or unlovable; they’re human. Don’t let yourself be fooled into believing you’re an outlier of any kind: whatever you’re feeling (no matter how horrible), other people feel that way too.
If you’re brand new to the concept of loving your unlovable parts, prepare to be challenged. You’re turning a lifetime of programming upside down, and it’s extremely difficult and even painful. I promise you though that it will get easier the more you do it. It’s a skill, like anything else, and you’ll improve the more you practice.
A client of mine once told me she was afraid of how much anger she felt. She said that if she started allowing herself to feel it, she was afraid the rage would whip through her life like wildfire and “burn everything to the ground.” I told her that her fear was understandable, and to first sit and breathe and allow herself to experience that fear.
Then I had her write a letter to her anger, explaining why she had ignored and rejected it for so long, apologizing for declaring war against is, and asking it to move– gently and slowly– back in with her.
Practically overnight, my client found that her rage had significantly diminished, along with her fear of it. By taking this first step to invite her anger to come home, she began the long journey to finally processing all the stuff she had been so angry about for so long.
And this is where the magic happens: by finding a way to love the unlovable, you expand and grow in impossibly wonderful ways. By proving to yourself that the monster in your closet is really just a prince in disguise, you become braver, less afraid, more playful, more kind, and more authentically you.
Bit by bit, by facing and reintegrating your dark material, you will experience a new sense of peace, love, acceptance, compassion, and wholeness inside of yourself. You will face the world without fear or hiding, and you start finding joy and beauty in places you never expected.
Which parts of yourself do you consider “unlovable”?
Which parts do you hate, reject, or fear are “too much” for the world to handle?
Which parts of yourself have you rejected and excluded from your identity?
This Valentine’s Day, spend your love and attention on the hardest-to-love parts of yourself. Go out of your way to face, recognize, appreciate, and celebrate the “least lovable” parts of yourself. Apologize, wave a white flag, and invite your “worst” and “most shameful” qualities to come home.
You’ll be amazed at how much more love you can experience.