How I finally found self-love or what I call, internal love
About 3 years ago, sitting on the sofa, in an altered state of consciousness, I was suddenly struck by a visceral realisation that I did not love myself. Ever since then, I’ve been on a treasure hunt in pursuit of self-love.
It’s become apparent to me that much of my own and other people’s internal suffering is downstream of a lack of self-love. Everything from self-doubt, negative self-talk and self-image, to the inability to connect deeply with others, is a partial symptom of a lack of self-love.
Learning to regulate my emotions: baby steps
I started my journey by reading Tara Brach’s Radical Compassion having read and enjoyed her previous book Radical Acceptance. In it, I learned the RAIN (recognise, allow, investigate, nurture) method. And I started to learn how to regulate my emotions in a systematic way. Prior to that, my tools were journaling and verbal processing. In particular, I relied heavily on my partner to help me make sense of and regulate my emotions. RAIN on the other hand felt more empowering and embodied. Any time negative emotions would knock on my door, I’d turn to RAIN to identify the underlying reason. I would Recognise what I was feeling, eg: “fear”. Then I would Allow it and let myself feel the fear. Then I would Investigate and reflect on why I was feeling that way, usually something would click for me, eg: I feel afraid because something in me believes that this failure could threaten my livelihood. Then I would Nurture myself by offering myself what I’d need to receive at that moment.
Each letter in the acronym served as an anchor to stick with the process and the emotions. RAIN gave me solace for some time, and although it taught me the beginnings of emotional regulation, it didn’t exactly stick. In hindsight it served as a stepping stone, paving the way for even more embodied tools.
Dissolving the negative inner voice
The next breakthrough came in the shape of an intensive online course called the Art of Accomplishment. Much of what our coach Joe Hudson taught rested on the premise that almost all of us grow up with the false notion that we are not inherently “good”. This problematic belief then prevents us from loving ourselves, because well why would we be worthy of love if we’re “bad”?
Joe tasked us with many poignant exercises to shine light on this belief, with prompts such as “I’d rather improve my ___ than love myself as I am”.
We had to repeat these prompts over and over again to a course partner to identify all the ways our minds seek improvement to feel more lovable. We did some variations of this for 8 weeks, but the most impactful exercise for me was something called an “anger exercise”. We had to release our anger for 5+ minutes while being witnessed (or alone). The exercise was simple: set a timer, find a source of anger, feel and express it fully and stop once you reached some clarity. Usually, a short sentence would wash over you and conclude the anger release. An example of one such clarity for me, that happened to be within this theme, was “I don’t need (external) acceptance to love myself”.
While I took part in many anger exercise sessions, it didn’t start out easy. The first time I attempted the exercise, I could not muster up any rage. I started talking about a topic that upset me, as instructed by Joe, but all I had access to was sadness or nervous laughter. I would try to get angry but like a toddler that fake cries dry tears, I failed to emote a single shred of anger. Then I felt frustrated that I couldn’t do it. And my course partner encouraged me to stick with the frustration and allow it to grow. Eventually the previously stuck “tap” turned slowly; at first, it was dripping slowly, but eventually the anger came gushing out.When I asked Joe what to do about the crippling self-doubt that I had back then, he advised two things: 1) continue with the anger exercises to get through the backlog of repressed anger, and 2) work through the nervous system regulation meditation exercises that he had provided.
Over the course of the training, I did close to 10 anger exercises and by the end of it, a significant percentage of my negative self-talk had vanished! After all, Joe describes negative self-talk as anger that gets directed at yourself when it isn’t released. So it makes sense that releasing much of one’s latent anger would eliminate the negative self-talk. Today, I can say I have almost no negative self-talk; I have doubts and fears of course, but the voice in my head is respectful and gentle.
As for the nervous system regulation exercises that he recommended? Well, I did not engage much with those. I mention this because, in hindsight, nervous system regulation ended up being the most important lever to pull but I had to learn this the hard way! More on this later.
A sick nervous system
Fast forward to 2021, it’s the second year of the pandemic, I’m progressively getting burnt out at work, and my nervous system is increasingly dysregulated. Though I wouldn’t have called it that, I knew that my brain and body were not in their “regular” state. Fear had become a prominent emotion, making me anxious, risk-averse and uninspired.
In the autumn, I discovered the Othership app, and I rekindled my interest in breathwork. Throughout 2020, I had been taking part in 2hr long neurodynamic breathwork journeys but I had eventually stopped due to the time commitment and intensity. The app on the other hand offered many different types of breathwork, sessions ranging from 3 to 75 minutes. Over time, I gravitated more and more towards the down-regulated sessions. Down-regulated breathwork is any form of breathwork that returns the nervous system to the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Examples include Box Breathing, Triangle Breathing, 478 and Alternate Nostril Breathing. I found these to be a refuge. I became obsessed with breathwork and started practicing daily.
The great purging
Towards the end of 2021, I left my job and started Internal Family Systems therapy. Which is a form of somatic therapy that uses the intelligence of the body to communicate with the “parts” within us.
Having just left my job, I was suddenly left with a lot of free time, a dysregulated nervous system, remnants of a recent intense medicine ceremony running through my veins and therapy to poke at my wounds. The backlog of unfelt emotions rose rushing to the surface. For weeks, I would sit in therapy, feel and breathe into my body, and all these emotions from my past would bubble up. I would feel a peach-sized lump in my throat and see a 7-year-old part hiding under my childhood bed. Together, me, my parts and my therapist would perform what felt like surgery and the lump would dissolve away. Then I would spend the next couple of days nursing the fresh wound by giving myself time to rest, moving my body and spending time with friends; and I’d start to feel better. Only to go back the following week to find a watermelon-sized hurricane in my belly. This went on for months. It was the great purging.
Between sessions, I tasted many shades of darkness; dread, guilt, shame and the terrorising feeling of being untethered from the rest of society for having left my job. After all, I made money so I didn’t have to ask for help, but here I was; with the unsustainability of my lifeline staring back at me.
There were many highs too, of course. Freedom, deeper connections, growth, adventure and a feeling of getting closer to the authentic core. Like a snake shedding skin to reveal the growth inside. I also poured a lot more energy into movement through dance, climbing and strength training, and I could sense a shift in how I related to my body.
A healthy nervous system
Alongside going to therapy, I was falling deep into my daily breathwork practice. And after 5 months of daily practice, my nervous system was out of its dysregulated state. But not only that, I had found so much safety in my body that my nervous system was more regulated than my original pre-burnout baseline. Dropping into my body became my happy place.
In the past, I was never well-equipped to deal with stress. It always had a detrimental impact on my body; causing diarrhea, migraines, shakiness, sudden sprouts of gray hair and more. I saw it as an inconvenient external force to be avoided. But as I learned to regulate my nervous system, I came to see stress as an inevitability of life, where the key is not necessarily to find ways to avoid it, but to find ways to process it so that it doesn’t linger in the body and cause harm.
I’m confident that regulating my nervous system was the biggest catalyst in helping me to love myself wholeheartedly. When we’re stressed out (chronically or otherwise), our energy and attention is directed towards survival. Whether we recognise this consciously or not, our body is not prioritising love and well-being. When there’s an immediate threat, those things take the back seat. By regulating my nervous system daily, I was able to repeatedly learn that my body is safe.
I want to recognise that many traumatic experiences can make us dissociate, or make us feel too unsafe in our bodies. I tasted a small version of this when I stopped being able to cry properly for a whole year; something that used to come to me with little effort. Perhaps that’s where a skilful practitioner, such as a trauma-informed, somatic therapist or a breathwork practitioner could help to guide with grounding, nervous system regulation and healing past traumas. There are also many ordinary grounding tools such as physical contact with others (hugging, petting, grooming, massage), movement (stretching, dance, yoga, walking), eating (especially root vegetables, legumes, meat), working with the breath (box breathing, elongating the exhale), being barefoot in nature and many others.
One sunny day, after several months of therapy and daily breathwork, it suddenly dawned on me that I had become self-reliant in regulating my own emotions! It seemed, I was no longer relying on my partner to help me regulate my emotions. I realised getting through the backlog of unfelt emotions, had allowed me enough breathing room to be able to sit with my emotions and feel them properly. Whenever I would try in the past, my mind would either go blank or distract me. Like a teenager finding themselves on the other side of puberty, I felt developmentally different. It felt like magic, and as time goes by, the process is getting more efficient.
I landed on this process by accident but in trying to understand and explain it, I realise that it can be best thought of as a form of meditation. You shine your attention onto the emotions and sensations in the body and observe them one by one without getting attached to them.
And as you do that, you start to notice that emotions shift from one moment to the next. It’s in resisting them or creating a story about them that we end up holding on to them and making them static. I can’t stress enough how monumental learning this skill has been. It’s essentially akin to having a button that soothes negative emotions.
In the following months after learning this tool, I experienced a lot of equanimity and a sense of emotional non-attachment. Of course, I experienced low points, doubt and the untethered-ness terror at times, but somehow I wouldn’t get sucked into them or spiral. This felt like more progress.
Healing in community
Next, I went to Berlin to complete a 10-week residency called Medley. Here I was immersed in a rich community of like-minded individuals. It felt like everything I had done up to this point had been a process of peeling the layers of the onion. The onion being me. I had the felt sense of being in the closest proximity to my authentic core. And I believe that as a result, I was able to belong there more than I ever had in any other community. This was very significant for me as someone who used to struggle to belong. The depth of love I received and gave during this time healed many of my parts. For much of my time there, I lived through a gratitude-high; gratitude for the absurdity of the experience and for my friends who birthed it.
On top of it all I had the opportunity to be of service by holding space through facilitating 1:1 sessions.
Finding indestructible love
Then, during another unordinary state of consciousness, I experienced a thing deep, deep inside me that loved me no matter what. It wasn’t a “part” exactly, it felt deeper than that. Unconditional, unapologetic love. It didn’t care what the hell I did, it loved me regardless. There was no need for shame. And although I am skeptical of unconditional love (between individuals), I had no doubt in the unconditionality of this love. All the negative emotions I felt towards myself 3 years ago, seemed to have vanished, and be replaced by this love. Or perhaps it had always been there, buried under harmful beliefs about myself.
I don’t know whether this shift is persistent and baseline-raising or not. But what I do know is that in general, these days, I relate to myself in a much more loving way. And I seem to have more equanimity too as seen in my Tweets:
I don’t, however, think that persistent self-love necessarily protects us from getting triggered. Though it can help with de-escalation and bringing us out of the triggered state, which is more than half of the battle.
The key ingredient in self-love
So what’s the 80/20 of self-love acquisition, you ask? There are probably as many ways to get there as there are people on earth. But in my experience, creating or increasing safety in the body (achieved by regulating my nervous system via breathwork) and learning to feel my emotions was the key. Attempting to do that is an act of love in itself. A baby that feels safe in its mother’s embrace is a baby that is able to love more freely.
Update: I am now offering 1:1 sessions combining all of my experience with self-love and inner work to help others achieve self-love via nervous system regulation and feeling the emotions. You can learn more about it here.
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