By Kathy Simon
In our society’s day-to-day speech, there are many words that seem to denigrate self-love and self-focus. Here are a few: self-absorbed, self-centered, self-satisfied, self-important, selfish. Remarkably, the first definition in the dictionary for “self-love” is “an excessive regard for one’s own advantage”; and other definitions include “conceit, vanity, narcissism.” In the dictionary and in common parlance, there’s nothing positive at all about self-love.
While many of us may disagree with the dictionary’s definition and acknowledge that “self-love” can be positive, we also have surely absorbed at least some of the negative messages about self that are so pervasive in our culture. We criticize ourselves internally in ways that we’d never speak to someone else, we worry about taking up too much space, we hold back on asking for what we need for fear of seeming to care too much about ourselves. We talk easily of our love of others, but how many of us can say, easily, out loud, “I love myself”? How many of us can relax into and celebrate who we are and practice self-love?
It would be one thing if the societal distaste for self-love and self-focus had served to create a powerful tradition of compassion for others and had helped us to create a truly generous and loving environment for all. But that’s not what we have. We clearly live in a world where compassion for both others and ourselves is not reliably evident or easily accessible.
In Nonviolent Communication’s vision of a different kind of society, we speak of a world where everyone’s needs matter. This includes our needs as well as those of others. NVC suggests the radical possibility that practices that might be called self-centered can in fact serve as the foundation for our ability to love and contribute to others, rather than inhibiting this possibility. Self-love, self-acceptance, and self-understanding are seen as beautiful human needs and essential practices for living in alignment with the idea that everyone’s needs matter.
In fact, again and again I find that self-judgments and challenge with accepting and loving ourselves can be the greatest stumbling blocks in relationships with others — greater even than criticisms of one another. Paradoxically, self-judgments are often what block the way to feeling compassion for others and to developing the capacity to take everyone into consideration. And similarly, self-acceptance — even self-celebration — can make it more possible to accept and celebrate others.
So while we give much attention in NVC classes and retreats to building our capacity for relating with others, we also focus on the tender, inner work of relating with ourselves. This work, like any relationship work, often takes great courage, creativity, and stamina. There is, perhaps, some mystery involved. But like any relationship work, there are also simple, daily practices that help build one’s capacity for self-love. Strange as it might sound, I feel convinced that self-love, or at least a growing capacity for self-love, is a learnable skill.
I have had the great privilege over the past two years to lead BayNVC’s Living Peace retreats and its Immersion Program (BIP), and have seen how a supportive learning community can contribute to both subtle and dramatic transformations, often in unexpected ways. This experience leaves me with great joy and hope for what is possible for human beings. Indeed, a world where everyone matters seems much more within reach when people develop a strong foundation within.
Kathy Simon, Ph.D. has been practicing NVC for more than 18 years and teaching it for 9 years. She has led the Living Peace retreat and the BayNVC Immersion Program each year since 2009, and she especially appreciates the chance to work with a small, warm community of dedicated practitioners. Along with the Immersion Program, Kathy also leads NVC trainings for organizations and works with individuals, parents and couples to integrate NVC into their personal lives. A former high school English and drama teacher, Kathy guided student teachers at Stanford University and co-directed the Coalition of Essential Schools, a nonprofit school reform organization. Kathy is the author of Moral Questions in the Classroom and co-author of other books on education and school reform. She lives in Oakland with her partner, Inbal Kashtan, co-founder of BayNVC, and their 15-year-old son.