Emotional Health

Feeling Lit from Within: The Power of Self-Love

Confidence, self-esteem, self-compassion—there are many ways of referring to it, but when it comes to loving ourselves, many women have significant difficulties. In my clinical practice, I have found that self-doubting, criticizing, and even undermining is almost a given. While we all have a strong sense of self-preservation, literally the will to survive, a consistent sense of self-worth that helps us flourish is often absent.

One of the most enduring and helpful concepts in understanding how we sabotage ourselves is that of the unlit stove. I am thinking of a traditional, old-fashioned kitchen stove, with a pilot light. The pilot light, once lit, stays on, so when you need the burners, all you have to do is turn the handle.

If you have self-worth problems you have a stove whose pilot light won’t stay on. Instead of burning continuously, making the stove ready to fully light up when needed, the pilot light must be lit by a match, and only then can you get the burners to light up so the stove can be used. In this metaphor, someone like this must rely on external sources to create a feeling of worthiness—i.e., when she wants warm up the stove.

Ideally, we internalize our mother’s love for us, which forms the basis for the pilot light. Subsequently, the burners can easily be turned on by the child herself, giving her a healthy, positive sense of self, and allowing her to feel strong emotion such as love for other people. She can give the love because she is already “lit” from within.

People with a healthy love for themselves who know their worth have a steady pilot light on their stove. When they need energy, warmth, creativity (the list is long), they need only turn the switch and a burner will light. Many others of us have no steady pilot light. To light those burners, a flame must be provided from an external rather than internal source—a lover, a performance review, etc. If that flame is not forthcoming, or if the burner is blown out, real suffering occurs.

The theater, for example, is full of stories of glorious actors who cannot sustain a feeling of worth between performances. No matter how great the applause, by the following night the glow has disappeared and they need the approval and love of the audience all over again to feel good.

If you don’t have a well-internalized sense of self-worth it is like lacking a steady pilot light—you always need to be lit by something external or someone else. In order to feel positive emotions, because there is no internal steady flame, you have to have the burners lit by hand by a match every time. And burners get switched off fairly quickly—they cannot be left on.

Here’s an example:

Ann is a successful stage actress, who despite the odds, has built a good career and has steady work. She also gets very positive reviews from the critics. Despite getting a standing ovation from the audience most nights, by the next day her confidence has faltered. She is unsure if she can repeat her success, and suffers acute anxiety before every performance. The accolades she gets warm her each night, but by morning the embers are cold, and she is overcome once again by insecurity and worry that she will be revealed as a fraud.

While we imagine that glamorous stars have all the reason in the world to feel worthy, this scenario is very common among performers, and many of them are attracted to these professions because the external accolades temporarily bolster their self-love. But it doesn’t last, because there is no internal foundation to absorb it.

Having dozens of positive reviews that can be looked over and reread doesn’t help either. Their internal critic remembers the bad ones in bold print, while the good ones are almost written in invisible ink as far as they are concerned.

The problem for those who need this constant “hand-lighting” is obvious. You are stuck in an endless pursuit of sources of outside validation. When you can’t find one, you may feel empty, depressed, anxious, or worse.

Here’s a common scenario:

Susanna has a large circle of friends, and she depends on them for company when she is not at work. Often when she gets home at night she feels lonely or empty, and at those times, she is prone to binge eating, trying to fill herself up and soothe herself with food. The result is always that she feels “fat” and “disgusting,” so she tries to avoid going straight home.

Most nights she will make plans with friends, and they often have supportive talks with each other about the problems of being single in a big city. Usually she feels bolstered by these talks, and goes home feeling strong enough to face the rest of the night.

In this instance, friends are a kind of “transitional object”—the teddy bear that stands in for the mother when we are making the transition from needing her constant attention to the acquiring an ability to soothe ourselves from within. For those who never fully accomplish this task, we sometimes use other people as living teddy bears, what psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut termed “self objects.”

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