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.