When someone says they love you, is your first impulse to argue that they can't?
One night when I was 21, a man with curly copper-penny hair told me: I love you.
Under the streetlight, in his tan nylon shirt, he sounded so confident. I said: I love you too.
But even as I said it, I felt conflicted and sneaky and deceptive—like a liar. But I wasn't lying. Really. He was sweet and smart and thus difficult not to cherish. My problem was that I hated myself almost more than I loved him.
The old cliché that says you can't love others if you can't love yourself: Well, it's almost true. You can love others if you cannot love or even like yourself—just not wholeheartedly. Loving someone without loving or liking yourself is like trying to sew while blindfolded, or eat spaghetti with a golf ball in your mouth. The quest is much desired and not impossible. You need to sew. You're hungry. This person is really special. But something stands in the way. What obstructs love is not as tangible as golf balls or blindfolds, but worse because what obstructs love is stubborn and invisible. Self-loathing feels legitimate and valid: That's its trick. That's why we cannot simply tear it off or spit it out. It hypnotizes us. We trust it.
So when we are told I love you, our first impulse is to argue. No, you don't. You can't.
Because I don't deserve you, because I'm bad/weird/ugly/mean.
Or because you have a sinister motive. Love me? You’re joking.
Loving others should be a pure, simple and exquisitely easy action: Whether at-first-sight or accruing slowly over days or years, once love arrives, it should beam like a lighthouse, straight and sure and bright and true. At least, I think so. But. Those of us who don’t feel worthy refract every emotion involving others through our emotions involving us. Because our negative self-images seldom reflect reality, we tend to transform all relationships—and potential relationships—into bizarre obstacle courses lined with pitfalls, tripwires and trick mirrors. Self-loathing makes us certain of nothing, makes us afraid and too easily ashamed. Self-loathing makes us second-guess ourselves and others, turns pleasure into performance, punctures joy.
Self-loathing makes love difficult and makes us difficult to love. It makes us needy, sluggish, argumentative, often withdrawn. Whoever loves us has to do a lot of pleading. Because we believe our self-loathing is justified, each might-be-love becomes a tug-of-war between our potential partner and it. Which is to say: and us.
The upside is: Whoever chooses to love (not abuse or use or take advantage of, but really love) someone with low self-esteem proves him—or herself— heroic, simply by doing so. Persistent. Patient. Brave.
So when such people summon the courage to say they love us, who are we going to believe: these heroes, or our own lying, self-loathing eyes?
What if each of us could grow a new pair of ears? Functioning separately from our regular ears, these new ears would be disconnected from our inner critics: could not hear those constant insults, whines and warnings but could hear only the words of those who love us, uninflected and direct. How would loving words sound if we weren't always trying so hard to fight them, debate them and drown them out? What if we learned to trust our new ears, learned to listen to those loving words—and accept them with grace?