For Valentine’s Day we thought we’d turn to the experts for some words on love. At a conference last summer, world-renowned relationship experts Dr’s John and Julie Gottman, and Dr. Dan Siegel, sat down together and talked about love. What is love? They asked one another.
John went first, stating decisively that, ‘it’s the decision we make to magnify the positive in our partner.’ (It was noted that his wife Julie raised her eyebrows and smiled when he said it.)
Dan, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, paused for a moment and then offered his belief that love is ‘increasing states of integration’ in the brain and self, which ‘create a flow of selfing’. (‘Selfing’, according to Dan, is ‘the emerging creation of a self that may reveal in fact how the self is a plural verb rather than a singular noun… We are finding our sense of self in connections to others whether these connections are real-time, remembered, or imagined.’)
Julie nodded as she spoke, declaring that ‘we are hard-wired for connection’. She ventured that love is ‘when we are looked at with warmth. It’s the connection we experience pleasurably with warmth through the eyes, touch, etcetera.’
It was a privilege to hear these experts speak so candidly and yet thoughtfully on the idea of love, which can feel like an elusive concept.
It’s clear from these definitions that while love is not limited to romantic love, it is about connecting with others. And as a starting point, it’s about loving ourselves. Dan’s comments about the integration of the self is important. From a neuroscience perspective, the more we are well integrated (including our left and right brain, our mind and body, and our memories and personal narratives), the more we can connect to others.
In other words, love for ourselves makes it possible to have empathy and compassion, to give and receive warmth, and to see the positives in our partner and others.
So what are 3 important ways we can love ourselves?
1. Self-care – There is a reason we are asked to put on our oxygen mask first on an airplane before helping others. If we do not take care of ourselves, our emotional and physical health, then we can’t really be there for others. It is a sign of self-love, of believing you are worthy of this care – as much as anyone else in your life. Self-care can include making or keeping time for yourself, ensuring your needs are met, exercising and eating healthy, getting enough sleep, engaging in activities that bring you joy or peace (like sports or yoga or writing or singing).
2. Forgiveness & self-compassion – It can be difficult to forgive ourselves. In fact, it’s often more difficult to forgive ourselves then others. It can help to imagine how you would respond to a friend who has made the same mistake, or who is experiencing similar regret. You deserve the same empathy and understanding. The Dalai Lama has even expressed surprise at how we in our Western society can be so hard on ourselves, finding it more difficult to have compassion for ourselves than others. Fortunately there are ways to develop our self-compassion through positive self-talk, mantras, and meditation. Try it now: tell yourself, I love and accept myself just as I am. And then repeat it over and over.
3. Self-growth – It’s never too late to change or grow. One of the most exciting recent discoveries of science is neuroplasticity: our brains have the capacity to change throughout our lives. This means that we can always develop our self-awareness and a sense of wisdom. We can start to notice our patterns of response and behaviour, learning why we act or feel the way we do, and then realize that we can make changes if we want. Through dedicated processes like journal writing, or mindfulness practice, meditation, or therapy, you can start one of the most exciting and life-changing journeys of your life… the journey inward.