My dog barks at the neighbors.
Sometimes, he’s lazy and he barks at the neighbors without getting off the couch or lifting his head. And he smells bad.
Despite his behavior — and odor — I love him. Frankly, I love that dog more than I love most people.
I love my dog more than I love myself, more than I love my friends, and more than I love some of my extended family.
Given that the dog is horrible, and that I’m actually pretty cool, why do I love the dog and struggle to love myself? Why are you quite possibly doing the same thing: loving others but not yourself?
Why Loving Yourself is So Hard
Dog-love is simple; self-love is complex, or at least it can feel that way.
Self-dislike — or even self-hate — is epidemic in the Western world. Ask anyone. They won’t tell you. They won’t tell you because they’re ashamed.
We’re supposed to have it all together, to have it figured out. But in reality many of us feel like a mess.
Our relationships are strained, we fearfully avoid our finances, and, frankly, we feel like we could use a drink.
The cure is loving ourselves and all our messiness. And it’s a lot like loving a dog.
Yet society tells us that only narcissists love themselves. We’re implicitly forbidden from having a good relationship with ourselves. Authority figures teach us that self-love is vaguely sinful, masturbatory, and pointless. It’s a waste of time and it might be hurtful. It’s taboo.
Our society makes self-love taboo because people who hate themselves are very easy to control. And if you love yourself, you’re likely to be more unruly.
Whenever a person in power wants to control others — employees, students, or a congregation of churchgoers — the best way to do so is to make them feel bad about themselves.
It’s pretty fucked, but when you can threaten someone’s spiritual worthiness with shame, you can make them do just about anything.
Licking Yourself: Reconciling Shame with Self-Love
Dogs are my superheroes. They’re shame-proof. They’re honest.
And I believe that’s why we humans love the canine species. They embody all of our repressed impulses for pleasure. At their core, they have no regard for what they “should” do, and they live in the moment.
Every time we ingest the criticism of others or buy into false expectations, we lose ourselves to shame. Worse still, we start to shame ourselves internally.
School teachers tell us we’re bad if we don’t follow their directions; advertisers convince us we’re inadequate if we don’t buy their products; and the church, during its worst epochs, told us we were going to hell unless we followed the rules of the king. Now it’s what we believe.
Dogs, however, don’t feel bad about themselves. Ever. Even if you scream at them. (But please don’t do that.)
Those online dog-shaming videos (which are hilarious, and which I love) don’t depict dogs feeling shame. The dogs are simply fearing their owners’ reactions. Researchers tell us that the dogs don’t feel guilty; they’re just trying to avoid the consequences of their bad behavior.
Fortunately for dogs, they don’t think in the same way we do. They lack language and can’t ruminate. They don’t harass themselves with memories of social gaffes from four years ago, and they don’t complicate their lives with personal narratives.
Why You Should Start Loving Yourself Like a Dog
Self-love is not selfish. Loving ourselves is fundamental to being human, to loving others, to producing beautiful art, to loving our children, and yes, loving our dogs.
Without self-love, we’re misaligned. Life doesn’t flow. What should be a beautiful river becomes eddy currents, psychic fragments, and exhausted energy.
Self-criticism is an ironic waste of life. I know personally.
My own self-esteem comes and goes, flits and flutters.
Sometimes I feel like I have my shit together. Other times I question that. How productive was my day? How much did I earn? Do other people respect me — or not? These are the echoes of neurosis which was once much worse.
But I believe if you love your dog, you can love yourself — radically and completely.
So if you’re asking how to love yourself, your love for your dog (or cats, or kids) might hold some clues. Here are some tips on how to love yourself, straight from my dog (and behavioral researchers too 😉
Self-Love Tips From My Dog
#1 Forgive Yourself with Forgetfulness
My dog doesn’t hold (many) grudges. He doesn’t like people who ring the doorbell — until they step inside the house. After he meets them, he’s their friend for life.
He certainly doesn’t hold grudges with himself. With no ego or personal narrative, his past misdeeds are just that — passed. He learns from the consequences of his mistakes (sometimes) and carries on.
I experienced self-forgiveness in a sudden, profound way as I walked out of the bathroom at a Starbucks.
I’d been on the road all summer, living in a state of self-chosen homelessness. I was tired. Out of the blue, I saw myself as I was — without the usual insecurities or pride — as though I was outside of my own body, outside of my own ego.
I was — and am — a good-hearted person with shortcomings, just like everyone else. A lot like a dog.
Let go of your past mistakes by stepping outside of yourself. If someone else had committed the same misdeed, would you judge them as harshly?
#2 Learn How to Love Yourself by Embracing Pleasure
Dogs feel no shame about pursuing pleasure: food, belly rubs, vigorous self-licking . You shouldn’t either. If you’re learning to love yourself — like me — accepting pleasure helps.
Whether it’s sexual pleasure or stamp collecting, allowing some indulgence confirms our worthiness. We get the message that we’re worthy because we’re receiving. Rather than wondering if we’re worthy enough to receive, we learn we’re worthy because we’re receiving. Sometimes receiving stirs up some guilt, it’s true, but that can illuminate deeper issues for personal work.
But, if there’s no negative impact on yourself or others, go for it. The trick is knowing the difference between over indulgence (like eating an entire pizza or doing heroin) and healthy indulgence (like a massage).
#3 Love Yourself in the Moment
Dogs exist in the moment, without any narrative of the past. And while they may anticipate events, the future is never longer than a car ride. Without a past or future, dogs are essentially free from ego — and self-criticism.
When we truly drop into the moment, everything is alright. There’s rarely a problem that’s an actual problem when we perk up our consciousness and become aware of our surroundings and sensations.
Being mindful isn’t easy. My thoughts will convince me to worry or feel bad about myself sometimes, but being mindful of the moment helps me build self-love. It erases all my limiting stories about myself and frees me to envision new possibilities.
But our egos don’t like being in the moment, without a past or future. The ego needs a narrative. It needs problems in order to operate, and when we practice single-pointed awareness, the ego starts to itch. It throws problems our way in the form of intrusive thoughts.
Gently letting the thoughts go disappoints the ego, yet returns us to peace. From that moment of peace, loving ourselves becomes easier, and we may find the ability to wedge in some positive thoughts.
#4 Don’t Honor Negativity
I try to be as honest as I can at all times. If I feel bad, I’m apt to be open and talk about it, but that’s not always the best thing to do. Sometimes, you have to stuff it.
Repression — the denial of emotions or impulses — is bad news when practiced in excess, but the opposite damages us just as certainly. When “honesty” entails honoring stories that hurt us, honesty sucks. It’s not self-loving or true.
A bad mood or a negative thought compels us to scratch the itch, to focus on the problem. Negativity sometimes seems to have more truth than our other mindstates, as though there’s more emotional mass there. It pulls us in its direction like gravity.
So, if you’ve learned the lesson that negativity has to offer, let it go as much as possible. Quit provoking the problem. Quit poking the bear.
#5 Love Yourself by Being Brave
Contrary to the point above, it’s important to deal with negativity by feeling it and letting it go. Dealing with our emotional baggage is an important part of self-care; it’s like basic hygiene. If we carry the same emotion or thoughts around with us long enough, we’ll get cancer for sure.
So don’t do that. Get therapy if your psyche is all twisted around. I’ve had plenty of therapy, and it helped untwist a great deal of my suffering. Opening to what hurts can help it heal.
My dog did a long stint of psychotherapy. Wait, no, he didn’t. He’s a dog.
My dog doesn’t need therapy. He’s not afflicted with human thoughts. (And he receives obsessive love 24/7, so that helps too.)
#5 Love Yourself by Resting
Dogs understand rest and relaxation. It’s their baseline state of being. In the wild, most animals forage when they’re hungry and simply rest when they aren’t. Humans, however, are driven to productivity. We’re like neurotic squirrels, constantly storing nuts (money) for a day that will never come.
I have to remind myself to step away from work into rest and self-care. It may seem like a self-help platitude, but self-care (i.e., rest, exercise, diet) is a fundamental part of self-love.
Schedule a day off from everything. Everything. Give yourself a break for once.
Lay on the couch. Bark at FedEx.
Maybe even lick yourself a little.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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