In thinking about what it means to be relational, to be hospitable, we often focus on how we engage with others. This is not a bad place to start, and for many of us it is easier to offer generosity and care to others. Our wider American culture has embraced self-denigration, self-abandonment, and self-flagellation as the foundation for how we find “success” and “value” in our lives. It’s not a moral issue to struggle in our relationship with ourselves despite the shaming that sometimes comes along with all the “self-care” mantras of the wellness industry. This is a legacy of intergenerational cultural trauma that has falsely separated the individual from the collective of other humans, living and dead, the more-than-human world, and the wider Earth from whom we arise, to whom we return, and within whom we are as vital as the microbiota and mitochondria that form essential parts of our own bodily function.
Our worth, like our belonging, is as inherent to us than that of the wrens, of the beauty berries on which I am watching them feast through my window, of the fungi whose mycelium facilitate these complex cycles of life and death on Earth. We are each part of creating a mutually flourishing world. Please do not mistake my point for that truism “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” This may be true but it situates worth only in what we give to others. The virtuous cycle of *ghosti, the dance of a reciprocity that is not transactional but arises from the relationships that form our context and, in a very real way, our selfhood, applies to all of our relationships.
Our self is therefore just like any person: worthy of our time and care, our hospitality. And our relationship with ourselves is just like any relationship: it takes intentionality and (re)building. The way we do that is by doing the same kinds of things we'd do to build any relationship. It can be helpful to take the attitudes, values, and behaviors that guide our care for others as a starting point for our care towards ourselves. We may never really have explored these before, which just means we have a good starting place for getting to know ourselves better! In this case, we can begin to ask ourselves how we want to show up in our relationships and use that as a guide to identify where our attitudes and behaviors to ourselves may beneficially change. In general, though, we are often (re)starting at the very beginning in our relationship with ourselves: a warm introduction and welcome into our home, both metaphorically and physically.
Metaphorically, we can begin to make time to know ourselves and to respond to what we learn the same way we would anyone we are growing a friendship with. Sitting here right now, we can place a hand kindly on our heart, belly, or cheek, whatever feels right, and just say “Hi! I know things have been hard between us, and I want to change that. Let’s get to know each other.” This may look like setting aside ten minutes a day or a week to journal. We could write letters to and from ourselves about our day, what matters to us, who we are now and hope to become. We can begin as simply as starting to notice our thoughts and feelings, labeling them, and then offering ourselves some kindness. “I am thinking this is hard and it shouldn’t be. That is just a thought. It’s ok that it’s hard; things are sometimes.”
Physically, this may look like inviting ourselves back into our bodies through mindful presence, noticing sensations, enjoyable movement, satisfying food, lots of different kinds of rest, and other acts of experiencing and care. This one can be the trickiest for many of us, especially if we have histories of trauma, experience dysphoria, and/or are disabled or neurodivergent. There’s absolutely not one right and true way to be embodied or in right relationship with our physical home. The important thing is treating ourselves with care much as we would our home. Not as we would when judgey neighbors are coming for a dinner party but more like when we know a dear friend is popping in who delights in seeing our real lives–the crafts on the table, the jumble of shoes by the door, the cozy blanket nest on the couch, and the half-drunk tea we abandoned when we got excited about an idea then never made it back.
For many of us, this is the most fraught relationship we will ever try to navigate. In general, we are socialized to earn worth, belonging, and care, so that lack of boundaries, overwork, and perfectionism are treated as goals rather than pathogens. Additionally, our cultural messaging often confuses contentment with complacency and compassion with conciliation. It is common, for example, to hear someone say “I don’t want to be content; I want to keep growing and learning!” or “If I give myself an inch, I’ll take a mile.” It is as though gratitude for and even delight in what we have and who we are does not create nourishing soil in which to grow. As if we can somehow be greedy for meeting our basic needs and alleviating our suffering.
When we have the kinds of experiences with ourselves that hurt, it can be especially hard to consider offering care. Sometimes life teaches us that harshness is what we deserve and we get so caught in that cycle that we don’t trust our capacity to loosen the strictures a little in order to let things shift. We may have reasons to mistrust, feel out of alignment with, even hate our bodies or ourselves. It’s okay for us to move towards neutrality rather than some ideal of self-love. It’s okay to offer acts of care because it’s the next right thing to do according to our values. One of those things that's so easy to forget when life is really painful: we don't actually have to care about ourselves to take care of ourselves. We don't need to like ourselves and we can be kind to ourselves even when filled with self-loathing. Take a page from us Southern feminine presenting people who have a lot of practice at being kind to people we'd like to smack instead: it's a similar practice but perhaps best if there’s a touch less felt sarcasm whenever possible.
All this can sound like the kind of supposedly great advice that is so unrealistic as to never actually make a difference. The thing is, when we start changing our behavior in a relationship, the relationship itself starts to shift. This can be painful and scary as much as it can be thrilling and nourishing. We all make mistakes, overreact, cause harm, have truly terrible and even terrifying thoughts and feelings and biases. We all give generously, embrace warmly, love deeply. We will likely see more of both the "best" and the "worst" parts of us as we build this relationship. The thing is, those are both just labels. We tend to treat them like they really tell us something about an action or part of ourselves. Really they are just stories we have about what are inherent parts of our humanity. Both the best and the worst in us exist because they were useful and even necessary for survival at some point in human evolution and/or our personal history.
Every relationship has its complications, its history. For many of us in the West, these include deeply painful feelings, harms done to us and sometimes by us to ourselves. We carry so many narratives about who we are, our worth, what parts of us matter. At the root of it, our relationship with ourselves is the one relationship we will be in our whole lives. It's perhaps worth asking what we want that to look like, what our values are in relationships, and using that as a template to choose our behaviors rather than our feelings about or story of ourselves. Little by little, acting as if we care by engaging in the behaviors that align with who we want to be in the world will amend the soil of our self-relationship, creating the conditions that feed our flourishing.