A few months ago, I was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance thinking that I was drawing my last few breaths. I had had routine surgery the week before, and had been cautioned, as only medical professionals can do, about the dangers of a blood clot insidiously sneaking its way into my lungs and snuffing out my life within seconds. Sure enough, the following beautiful Sunday morning I had a painful pressure in my chest and difficulty breathing.
On my way to the hospital and in the Emergency Room, I was certain that I was one of the rare cases about which I had been warned, and that these difficult breaths would likely be my last. As the saying goes, I certainly wasn’t thinking, “I sure wish I had spent more time at the office,” but what did happen surprised me.
What I felt was the greatest sense of kindness and compassion toward my own self that I had ever experienced. I realized that my own life was precious; indeed that I was precious, and that my life had been a gift — a gift to me. Yes, I also thought of my loved ones and hoped that they knew how much I loved them, but my immediate experience was a sense of truly loving myself.
This was not an experience of loving my accomplishments, my education or my career, or my home or possessions. This was an absolute awareness of my own person, my own being, and my own self, and a sense of love and acceptance that I had not previously experienced. My regret in that moment was that I had not lived my life feeling that sense of love and acceptance toward myself, but had more often felt a sense of self-condemnation, judgement, and criticism.
I was also aware in those moments that I had been tying my self-worth to things that were external to who I was at the core of my being — my true inner self. I have always felt the sting of not having done more, done better, done enough. How often when speaking to others have I thought “What a dumb thing to say, Lewis” or wanted to say something and held back for fear of sounding stupid.
How often have I felt that I was too this or too that to be acceptable or loved? How often have I felt that I was “less than” or “not good enough?” How often have I looked at others and envied their superior minds, better health, youth, or advantage? How often have I thought that I was insufficient in some unnameable but undeniable way, simply because I was?
Lying on that bed in the ER, this felt like a tragic loss to me, this sense of harshness with which I have judged myself. It felt punitive and unfair. And it was. Yes, I have made mistakes in my life, and I have failed to take advantage of opportunities I should have seized upon. No, I haven’t been the best manager of my time, my money, my resources, or my skills. These things are true, but they do not define who I am and they certainly do not make me unloveable. They make me human.
Spoiler alert! I didn’t die that day. Some of you more astute readers may have figured that out. I walked out later with a prescription for yet another needed surgery, but I also left with a resolute determination.
That day I determined that I would not forget that feeling of loss connected to not appreciating myself, loving myself, and caring for myself. I believed then, and do now, that in those moments I came closer to actually knowing myself than I ever have; stripped of the accoutrements of my life; my education, my career, my family, my possessions, and all that I had used to define myself. Stripped down to the essence of my body, my mind, and the inchoate personality with which I came into this world; simply me.
There will be another deathbed scene for me, and there will be one for you. Before you get there, please take a close look at how you see yourself, how you feel about yourself, and how you treat yourself. If someone off the street came up to you and talked about you the way you like to talk about yourself, would you want to hug them or knock them five ways into Sunday?
Self love is not selfish. Self love acknowledges the precious gift of life and enables us to love others. Self love is the seed of the ability to truly appreciate and love life. It enables us to celebrate every moment of our lives, every laugh, every tear, and even every sorrow. Please take some time to care for and about yourself every day between now and your last. You wont regret it.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who provides adult individual, couples and marriage counseling, and family therapy in Denver, CO through Maria Droste Counseling Center.