Loving Yourself by Loving Others First

One day, a long time ago, when my friend John and I were building a house in New Hampshire, he walked into the room where I was reading.  I looked up and there he was in all his glory: work boots, blue work shirt, rolled up sleeves and big forearms, high forehead with hair on the verge of receding.  A look of perpetual determination etched into his face.  When he saw me, John smiled and I smiled back. I liked John and took a simple pleasure in the relationship, , working hour after hour, side by side, cutting those posts and beams.

I was struck by how I liked John in a simple, unqualified way, and wondered why I couldn’t like myself in just that way.  Why couldn’t I be a really good friend to myself?  And do that consistently. At that time, this seemed like an insight of the first order.  If we could like or love ourselves in the relatively uncomplicated way we like our friends,  if we could rid ourselves of some good measure of self criticism, our lives would be so much more relaxing and satisfying.  Me, being me, I immediately tried to turn the many positive feelings I had for others inward and onto myself.  The goal was to take the focus off what was wrong with me, to minimize the critical voice within, and to love myself.

I teased out qualities I liked in others that I might apply to myself.  I was curious, adventurous, fun, trustworthy, honest, authentic.  At least I thought so.  But turning those qualities inward was like trying to apply paper to ice.  They didn’t stick.  Or they didn’t penetrate.  The effort was neither believable nor soothing.  I was who I was, the same complicated, sometimes difficult guy I had always been.

That failure got me thinking, though.  Had there been ways that I’d actively improved my feelings about myself?  Sure.  The most striking effort took place when I was in the eleventh grade.  For a few years, I had had a difficult time socially.  I wasn’t shunned but I wasn’t so well liked, either.  As I pondered my dilemma, it occurred to me that people would like me better if I liked them. Not such a profound idea, I’ll grant you.  I mentioned it to my mother who thought it ridiculous. “You can’t change yourself or others,” she declared definitively.  But I had an idea.

The first thing I needed to do was to figure out what was most likeable about each potential friend—and not just superficially.  What qualities, I wondered, would they like noticed in themselves.  What part of their character might even have been unnoticed or unappreciated by other teenagers,  yet be important to them?.  Like being a kind person, a determined person, a soulful person.  My attention had to touch something deep and, maybe, partly hidden.  And it had to matter that a person like me noticed.  I was intense and determined.  The fit was as important as the character traits.  Only then might the relationship grow closer.

This approach worked in a way that trying to love myself failed.  I did grow closer to the guys on the football and basketball teams, who liked being seen as tough and kind, to the girls who liked talk with boys, not just other girls, about feelings, and to the nerds, who thought no one saw them. When our relationships revolved around these exchanges, they grew stronger.  And this is the approach that has guided my relationships ever since.

The most sustained period guided by my eleventh grade insight was the thirty odd years that I served as a therapist to individuals, couples, and families.  To create what we used to call a “therapeutic relationship,” I didn’t take the generally prescribed course of neutrality.  Instead, I aimed for loving relationships.  I knew that I needed to find a way to love even the most difficult patient if I were to be admitted to their inner sanctums, if I were to be permitted the privilege of making suggestions to them.  In a nutshell, my theory of change, went like this: connect with the best in people, then bring it out more and more into the open—and guide people on how to let those loving, enabling, strong qualities touch all the rest of who they were.

It may be clear how this approach helped my patients, but how did it help me and my desire to like myself better?  The answer is simple: It put me in touch with the best in myself.  Day after day, being a therapist required me to be deeply caring and consistently helpful.  Love and competency were linked each minute of my working day.  I would be focused on others, not on myself. Focusing on others with a desire to help placed me squarely within my values, squarely within my best professional capabilities, and squarely in relationship with people.

Let me put it another, topsy-turvy way.  I had positioned myself to succeed in my lifelong effort to make good friends with myself.  All I had to do was to work diligently at my craft.  I made friends with myself by being a good friend to others.  In that position, I felt calm much of the time. It was an almost meditative calm. I sometimes pictured myself as a Buddhist teacher.  It was also the type of calm that comes from highly concentrated attention to goals that stretched my ability.  My patients were not easily changed.  They wanted to feel better but rarely wanted to change.  To help them feel better in sustained ways, they needed to change.  And I could try, each day, to help. To do that I had to focus on them, not on me.

I am not suggesting that everyone become a therapist.  God forbid.  A world full of helpers would be beyond boring.  I am suggesting two things: first, that we can all position ourselves to love and help others in ways that also help us forget ourselves, that help us stop being self conscious and self-critical.  I have always been this way with friends. John is no exception.  My children and grandchildren also draw my positive attention.  Students, mentees and colleagues have generally elicited the same.

Here’s my second point: We live too much in a “me first,” narcissistic culture.  The basic idea is that you need to love yourself, take care of yourself, pamper yourself.  That’s as far as many cultural prescriptions go.  Some go further: If you love yourself well enough, you will be more capable of loving others.  Maybe.  But, in this narcissistic culture, I’m not sure you’ll be so inclined to love others or to put them first.  I believe that this is an unsuccessful and somewhat immoral strategy.

What’s more, the emphasis on self love, doesn’t prepare you very well for loving others. When your learning agenda focuses on self love, you only build up experience with one person.  When you learn to understand and love many others, you build up a diverse world of experience, because, like my eleventh grade friends, each requires specific insight and specific action strategies.  You build up a much greater range of loving capacity.

In short, I want to turn our culture’s approach to self love on its head.  Don’t focus on yourself.  Don’t pamper yourself.  That won’t do the trick.  The most effective approach leads through loving others.

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6 thoughts on “Loving Yourself by Loving Others First”

  1. Thank you for your reflections Barry. I appreciate your thought that the effort one makes to reach out, to show kindness, to engage in conversation, to show interest, etc., helps “us forget ourselves, that help us stop being self conscious and self-critical.” The part of ourselves that we forget is the part of ourselves that always seems to get in our way. And so, by relating to others we end up helping ourselves become more compassionate because we learn we are connected to others. Our efforts on behalf of the other end up showing us who we can be in a new light, a light which we would not have known on our own. This means that others are a gift to us if we but allow it. I find myself through my relationships with others and lose the barriers that kept me separated from others as well as from myself.

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  2. Barry,
    I’m so grateful to your for writing your blog. My mate and I occupy similar ages and stages of life with you and find your ruminations provoke important musings for us. And so it was with “Loving Yourself by Loving Others First”. I was immediately drawn in with images of you and your friend John in New Hampshire building a cabin. The title seemed imbued with scripture awakening a desire to believe. But by the second paragraph, in crept the doubts. By the fourth paragraph I had seriously parted ways with you. I realize you are trying to make a case against what has become a platitude in the self-help culture and extreme use of “me first” but I would like to balance your thoughts by defending the wisdom of ‘loving others by loving ourselves first’. In my experience this principle is especially sage for intimate relationships where the boundaries might not be as well defined as those with friends.

    No doubt, we each navigate these realms within the context of our personal histories. As a female raised in middle class America in the 50’s and 60’s, I was socialized with an outward focus. Paying attention to the behavior, mood, wants, needs and voice of others was what girls learned to do, often to the detriment of placing attention on knowing themselves. Throughout my youth, I was taught to perceive the world through the lens of others, whereas, it wasn’t until the eleventh grade, that you discovered the relationship building strategy of focusing on others. It took me decades of living alone as an adult to be able to discern my own voice while still in the company of others. Up until then, if others were within my physical or psychological space, which was pretty much all the time, it was difficult to hear my inner thoughts or be aware of my own feelings. I don’t think I am unusual and my guess is that more of us that focus our attention outwardly are female.

    In Al-Anon we learn that this kind of socialization typifies the disease of codependence. Brought about by living with various isms, it is a continual, habitual, addictive dominant attention given to the affairs of others. We feel good when we are doing something for others and they appreciate it and we feel bad when we are doing something for others and they don’t appreciate it. In every case, the reaction of others is paramount. In your letter, you describe how good you felt when your service as a therapist helped you focus on others. Many a codependent is employed in a helping career because this is our familiar.

    In my career of managing “helping organizations”, I was an excellent number two. It came naturally for me to figure out what number one needed in order to implement their vision. I was in my fifties before I could hear my own voice well enough to become a number one. Even then, my own voice was clearest and most confident when it was aligned with a larger purpose. The calming energy of flow arose when I felt myself channeling (as opposed to reacting) to something outside of myself. The energy was similar to falling in love, an all-encompassing cathexis. But just like falling in love, the channeling or flow was impermanent, a glimpse of the summit. The French poet Rene Daumal puts it like this, “One climbs, one sees, one descends. One sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. What one can no longer see, one can at least still know”.

    For me this “art of conducting oneself in the lower regions” begins with being inwardly attentive to my own well being, or self-love. Here, I want to tease out a critical distinction between narcissistic self-love and healthy self-love. The former can be recognized as having a single purpose that is regressive and turns in on itself. The healthy kind is generative and forms a runway for mutuality and altruism. Healthy self-love is not unaware or uncaring of others but it is analogous with the oxygen mask instructions on the airplane: first put the mask on yourself even if you have a child for which to care. To love ourselves despite or even because we are complicated, self-conscious, self-critical beings with deep flaws is to build the foundation for loving a deeply flawed world inhabited by deeply flawed beings. The word pamper is so loaded, I’ve had to redeem it from my own shadow-land. But I can assure you that my children and mate would much prefer I relaxed into a hot bubble bath then acted out resentments from overextending myself.

    This brings me to my second point, the idea that self-love may be more of a prerequisite to healthy intimacy than to friendships. I definitely relate to the ease of your friendship with John. During the twenty years I lived uncoupled, I created a life of good friendships that brought me then and still brings me now, a great deal of simple pleasure and meaning. It has been relatively easy to enjoy and admire my friends and not be bothered by their flaws. I feel the same toward my grandchildren. Even when I am awash in self-criticism or they are acting out, I enjoy the engagement with them. However, and this is the biggie, each of them goes home at the end of the hour or day or weekend or trip. These parameters remind me of Robert Frost’s counsel in The Mending Wall, “Good fences make good neighbors”. Therapy patients similarly go home at the end of the hour. I recognize that transference and all that goes into a deep therapeutic relationship certainly wear holes in the fences but a therapist’s defenses including the clock seem pretty solid.

    Now that I live with a mate that is still with me after the day, weekend or trip, how I conduct myself in the lower regions has taken on a new level of importance. The critical voice in my head is just as likely to form around him as around myself. And guess what, as grateful as I am to be with him, he has the same complexities as I have. The people we live with whether our children, our mates or our many selves hop the fence regularly even when we put up barbed wire. Try faking your sorry state of mind with an intimate! Ha! The ‘complex’ doubles down and flattens us. On the other hand, when I take responsibility for my own well being whether to ask for help from someone or to find the space for creative expression or to stay still long enough to accept what is, it increases the odds that engagement will be constructive. When I come from a place of equanimity within, it seems to open me up to the memory of what I once saw on the mountain top or the feelings of being in love and I am likely to conduct myself outwardly with more wonder and appreciation for my intimate other.

    I’m not arguing that equanimity is never stimulated by paying attention to others. However, that path may lead some of us on more detours than others, so I’m defending a healthy focus on self as a conscious choice for generating love.
    phbrandes

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    1. Pat, to call this a rejoinder would be to diminish the thoughtfulness of your commentary. You have added a key point about gender: that girls, who become women, are taught early on to put others first. While men might seek love and redemption by loving others first, it may be that women must reverse the order: loving themselves in order to love others deeply. I love this response and hope that others take off on its ideas…. Barry

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    2. Yes! Putting the oxygen mask on yourself first requires…a commonsense born of wisdom, of having been to the mountaintop, of having done the hard work of navigating honestly one’s inner landscape in “the lower regions,” of having listened to and internalized the instructions and remembering them in crisis. It is less about gender and more about listening. The men suffer a different dilemma because doors have opened for them with less work in the lower regions and then they unknowingly occupy the “narcissistic self-love” and end up not knowing (or perhaps caring to know) that they are missing something – a poverty of spirit.

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      1. Listening is an art, though. It requires to make of yourself, as much as possible, a blank slate, to put aside your regular narratives and learn what the other person is saying–independent of you. Listening and learning are two halves of the same kind. Every time we really listen to another, we learn something new, sometimes something wondrous.

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