Dr Samuel Hall on why loving yourself first can help sustain healthy and happy relationships with others.
When it comes to writing this column, I’m usually awash with ideas until I actually put pen to paper, at which point all those brilliant soundbites and gems of wisdom that have been popping into my head for weeks suddenly seem to desert me! I’m becoming increasingly familiar with writers’ block, and have considerable sympathy for those who depend on writing to make a living. I really don’t think I could take the pressure. As I sit typing at this moment, we’re smack in the middle of what many people believe is the most depressing month, with plenty of evidence to suggest that we really do hit a low some time around the third week of January. So I can add a mild seasonal depression to my writers’ block, and only apologise readers if my ennui rubs off on you.
To combat this I’m determined to elaborate on the theme for this issue – love. I’m hoping that my thoughts on the matter will serve to elevate me and anyone who is reading this, out of the winter blues. I’m a lucky soul, I have a LOT of love in my life. I’m incomprehensibly loved by my wife, a fact which flummoxed me on a daily basis – why? what does she see in me? I can be such an idiot, insensitive, self-obsessed, coarse, lazy…. and yet she seems to see beyond all of that to something else. Something at the core of me which she finds adorable. Every now and again I get a glimpse of myself through her eyes, and a flicker of self-knowledge or understanding.
The thing is, it’s not really possible to sustain a healthy and happy relationship with another person unless you love yourself first; and loving oneself is no mean feat. We didn’t learn to do it when we were younger – most children get negative messages about being themselves from a very young age, and this sets us up from early childhood to not like ourselves very much. It’s a universal experience, unless life is consumed with the matter of one’s very survival; a shortage of food and somewhere safe to sleep doesn’t give time or space for emotional wounding.
Most of us have been royally wounded by people we love, some of us badly. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. We’re all human, and when it comes to parenting, which is our earliest experience of love, no one is perfect. Our parents (or others responsible for raising us) do their very best, for the most part, to love us. I only found this out when I became one. I know I do my best, and that will have to be good enough, but boy does it feel lousy sometimes. You see ‘my best’ is relative. I’m far from a perfect parent. My kids drive me crazy and often I just wish they would disappear so I can just have some peace. I get scratchy and techy and lairy (their word), sometimes I’m downright unreasonable with them, and sometimes I shout and say things I regret later. It’s all a bit of a mess really. Looking back at my own childhood I see the same features of intent and purpose in my parents, coupled with spectacular failure at times. It has humbled me to realise that I really am no better at the job.
Allowing all of this to sink in leads me to a place of forgiveness. I can forgive my parents for their mistakes, and forgive myself for mine. I can look at the parts of myself I don’t like very much and learn to embrace them, so that my tolerance for my own mistakes becomes greater, and I can largely say, in my fifth decade, that I do love myself. Hopefully not in an egotistical fog of self-aggrandisement, but rather in a gentle and generous way. I apologise for my behaviour when it’s not reasonable, I don’t dwell on my mistakes, I forgive myself when I have messed up and I let go of the past as soon as it has passed, rather than hanging on to and building up grudges for future reference.
It’s been a battle to get to this point. Blood and tears have been shed and a few psychotherapists have been left reeling. But it’s all been worth it, because I truly think that today, in 2017, I can honestly say I do love myself. I’m proud of my achievements, of my tenacity in the face of adversity, I’m proud that I persevered with my transition in the face of resistance and anger from my family. And I’m especially proud that now, some years down the line, my family seem to be falling in love with me for the first time. I feel that acceptance of me as a transgender man is imminent, and that they’re looking at me with new eyes. It’s hard not to attribute this to my marriage last year. There is something about it that has caused a seismic shift in the extended family dynamic. It’s quite difficult to put my finger on, but I know that it has a lot more to do with her, than it does with me.
I think it goes something like this. I move from self-hatred to self-love over many years, which causes me to take the brave step of transitioning. This has the effect of making me a nicer person to be around. I’m being myself, not pretending to be someone I’m not. I like myself for the first time in my life. It shows. When she meets me she meets someone who is comfortable in his own skin and likes being who he is. This is very attractive. We hit it off, and start a relationship. She sees something brave and noble in this, whereas I see a woman who is divine in her understanding of me. She sees me. And through her eyes I see myself. I’ve come full circle and it’s beautiful. So thank you with all my heart to the lovely woman who is my wife. I can only pray that my love for you has the same impact on your life.