The process of loving oneself begins and is sustained with self-nurturance.
Self-nurturance is the process of taking quality care of yourself. The person who puts themselves on the top of their priority list nourishes their basic physical and emotional needs consistently. They know when they need to push themselves, and provide necessary sustenance to do so. They also are aware of when they need to back off and rest. For a person who has trouble with self nurturance, the tendency is to put themselves last, do too much, and burnout fast. The guilty feelings that arise if one does meet their needs, or ask for them to be met, catabolizes the positive influence that self-nurturing has.
Guilt is a barrier to self-nurturance
The biggest barrier to a self-nurturance practice is guilt. If you have ever been shamed for asking for your needs to be met or your needs were ignored in childhood, self-nurturing may be a challenge for you.
Guilt is the depleting emotional substance that arises from a belief that you do not deserve to, or shouldn't, have needs.
I remember one time when I was 8 years old and I was at a friend’s house for a play date. I was ferociously hungry from playing outside and her mom had just made us lunch. After we were finished, I was still hungry. I went to the refrigerator and tried to get something else to eat. Her mother snapped “No! You have had enough today!” Something in her voice made me think something was wrong with me for being hungry. I quickly recoiled into a deep sense of shame. From then on, whenever I felt hungry I would repeat to myself “No! You have had enough,” and would feel guilty for my body’s natural yearning for food.
Managing guilt around food, eating, and my body has been central to my own healing. I have learned that it is okay to feel hunger and eat until I am full. It took overcoming guilt to self-nurture consistently.
What to do about guilt
There is great benefit and healing in owning your emotions. There is nothing wrong with the emotion itself, but we add the narrative that it is harmful or bad, too much, shouldn’t be happening, etc. When you own your feelings, you resolve the need to resist it and can therefore listen to the message(s)/information it has for you. Call your attention to the emotion, name it, and draw a circle of acceptance around it.
Attend and befriend
Tara Brach, a Buddhist mindfulness guru, writes about and discusses the concept of “attend and befriend.” Essentially, it is combining the awareness practice from above and taking it a step deeper. Beginning with awareness and acceptance of guilt, then sitting with it awhile longer. Creating a safe container for the emotion of guilt to live, breathing with it, and opening to the deeper reason or feelings that underlie guilt. You may notice thoughts, memories, images, body feelings or emotions that make your experience more complete and understandable.
Who’s guilt is it?
We feel guilt for two reasons. One is because we have behaved in a way that goes against our personal values. The second, and I anecdotally believe is more common, happens when we have acted in a way that conflicts with our perception of what others expect (close relationship or society/culture at large). Identifying which you are experiencing helps you understand if the guilt you feel is productive or not.
Productive guilt is associated with the first reason, it is healthy, and can motivate a change in your behavior. Usually this looks like an apology or some sort of corrective action that re-aligns you with your values.
On the other hand, unproductive guilt that results from adhering to others’ expectations is not as healthy. Unproductive guilt is the kind of guilt that does not dissolve after a corrective action has taken place. You can’t fix what doesn’t belong to you. You can’t fix guilt that has been internalized from an external source. Address whose expectations you are trying to live by. Counter the expectation you internalized with one that is connected with your personal values.
Guilt-inducing statement coming from an outside source: “No! You have had enough!”
Value-driven belief: “I deserve to eat until I am full and satisfied.”
Self-love is available to anyone at any time. Yet the process of connecting to it is often a huge challenge because of guilt mismanagement. Additionally, unhealed or unrecognized trauma, chronic stress, untreated mental health struggles, lack of self-love modeling from others, and gaps in kinship contribute to decreased well being and feeling absent in your own body. Practice the guilt-clearing strategies above to restore a nurturing internal environment so you can create space for self-love to grow.