If we want to live fully and show up fully, courageously, and authentically in our lives and relationships, we need to be willing to get to know ourselves with all the good and bad, the light and darkness within us. We cannot love ourselves if we don’t know ourselves, and we cannot love others if we don’t love ourselves. Unfortunately, too many of us are strangers to ourselves, and our loves and relationships suffer as a result.
In this episode, we’re exploring something that is surprisingly often overlooked in spiritual and religious teachings—learning to know and love the stranger within us.
The story is told that when Oliver Cromwell sat for the painting of his portrait by the royal painter Sir Peter Lely, he instructed the Painter not to indulge in the usual flattering that was expected of such portraits. Apparently, he said, “Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.” There’s no real evidence that Cromwell ever actually uttered these words, but his portrait certainly included his “warts and all”.
Of course, we all have our own version of ‘warts and all’—the things about ourselves that we don’t like, that we feel don’t fit into the norms of beauty or goodness in our society. The question is not whether we have our imperfections, but how willing we are to know our imperfect selves. Because, if we are to be fully alive, if we are to show up fully, authentically, and courageously in our lives and relationships, then we need to know ourselves—the whole of us, warts and all. We cannot live fully if we remain strangers to ourselves.
And more than just knowing ourselves, we need to connect deeply with ourselves as we are, not just as we wish we could be. That includes knowing and accepting—actually loving—our lives: what has been, what is now, and what possibilities await us. Too many of us are strangers to ourselves—and we can’t ever live fully when that’s the case. We need to be willing to meet and get to know the stranger within us. And we need to learn to love that stranger deeply and truly.
So what does it mean to know and love ourselves? In a moment I’ll offer some thoughts, but first I hope you won’t mind a quick reminder to subscribe to this channel. If you’re watching on YouTube, click on the bell to be notified of new episodes, and please like and share this podcast as widely as possible. If you’re listening on a podcast platform, please rate EvoFaith and tell everyone you know about it. Thank you so much!
So firstly, learning to know and love ourselves starts with recognising that we all live with a sense of what William James called ‘dividedness’ within us: there is the self we actually are now. And then there’s another self, an ideal self, we want to be. But there’s a gap, a divide, between these two selves which we are constantly trying to bridge, whether we know it or not. And a big part of an authentic and healthy spirituality is overcoming this divide. Here’s a quick glimpse of how spirituality does that.
It does it by enabling us to love ourselves, to be gracious toward our imperfections, and to teach us how to find life, goodness, and our best lives in our imperfection not in spite of it.
And spirituality also helps us to learn to love and know ourselves by teaching us to bridge the gap between the person we are now and the person we long to be—our better, more whole, more connected, selves. I will speak more in a future episode about the specifics of how spirituality helps us to bridge our dividedness, but for now, I simply want to acknowledge how important this work is.
I also want to stress that working to become more like our ideal selves doesn’t contradict loving ourselves as we are. We can love who we are and still graciously strive for a life and a self that is more authentic and whole. We can love ourselves all along the journey from where we are to where we want to be. This is important—too many of us view self-improvement as something that begins from being unhappy with ourselves, or not loving ourselves as we are. Too many of us project loving ourselves into the future when we have achieved or become what we long for. But self-loathing won’t lead us to our best life or make us better people in any way. We can only grow freely, creatively and healthily when we do it with love, understanding, and compassion for who we are now. And when the journey to growth is a journey of self-love, not of shame, punishment or rejection toward ourselves that’s when we truly grow into our best selves.
Then the second thing I want to explore about getting to know and love ourselves is that we need to learn not just to recognise what’s going on inside us, but to connect deeply with our authentic selves—the good and bad, the self we recognise and own and the self, the stranger, we prefer to ignore and disown. And then we need to learn to welcome and embrace, to truly love ourselves as we are and as we long to be. And here are some thoughts on how to do this:
We need to become observers of ourselves. Observing the me who watches me. And then observing the me who watches the me who watches me. It’s about getting to know that deeper you, that deeper me. And learning to notice what arises from that deep self—good and bad. What unguarded thoughts, feelings, motives, values, priorities, longings, desires, hopes and dreams, fears and loathings arise from within us. We can make an intentional practice of watching ourselves and of watching ourselves watch ourselves. And meditation, of course, is designed to help us to do this. But it’s great if we can learn to reflect not just on our lives, but in our lives too—to develop this habit of reflecting as we go through whatever it is we’re going through. And so becoming an observer of ourselves is a helpful thing.
And then we can learn to build the courage and compassion to recognise, integrate, and learn to love our shadow. Not only what we think of as bad—the shadow isn’t just that. The shadow is anything that we haven’t acknowledged, or owned, or allowed to be an accepted and acknowledged part of ourselves. Gifts and talents can be part of our shadow. Parts of our personality that we don’t want to have as part of us, those can be parts of our shadow. For a long time, my introversion was a part of my shadow that I hadn’t recognised or integrated into myself. And yes, things of which we are ashamed or that we fear will be rejected or judged by others, those are also part of our shadow. And all of these things need to be integrated and accepted into who we are.
And then we can spend time alone where we can explore ourselves free from the gaze and mediation of others. To have space and time where we can really allow ourselves to experience our most authentic self and learn what that self needs and how best to set it free to express itself. We need to give ourselves time to get to know both who we are now, and who we want to be. To explore that divide between these two selves and to learn to get comfortable with the discomfort of this dividedness. And we can explore what we can do to love ourselves as we are while cheering ourselves on in the journey of growth.
And of course, when we spend time getting to know ourselves, we need to remember to include our history with its achievements and regrets, our circumstances and our environment, our current joys and struggles, and our future possibilities, and hopes, and fears.
We cannot show up, we cannot live our best lives and be our best selves, and we cannot connect with others, if we are unwilling to connect with ourselves—all of ourselves. The great commandment includes loving your neighbour as yourself (and we’re exploring loving ourselves in this month’s spiritual practice videos on EvoFaith, so you might want to check that out too). But if you don’t love yourself, then your love for your neighbour is also diminished. So one of the most important and significant things we can do, not just for ourselves but for the world, is to get to know and love the stranger inside of us.
In the next episode we’ll explore what it means to connect with and love your body and to include your body in a healthy, vibrant and life-giving spirituality.
But that’s it for this episode. Thank you for listening. Thank you for watching. And I’ll catch you next time!
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