Some years ago my cousin told me of an interaction she witnessed between my father and younger brother who was about 5 years old at the time. My cousin, now in her 50s was in her mid-20s then. My little brother, knobby-kneed and blue saucer-eyed, with the sweetest freckles you can possibly imagine, approached my father with a dandelion and gave it to him as a gift. My father promptly snatched the dandelion from my brother’s tiny hands, threw it on the ground (they were outside), and exclaimed, “that’s a weed!” Though I didn’t witness it myself, I can readily imagine my father doing such a thing. His behavior generally fell somewhere on the spectrum of violence, and for my father this was somewhat low-key. I can also imagine the sadness, fear, and crushing sense of rejection of my tender-hearted younger brother.

Love, and our expressions of love are policed and defined through this policing from a very young age. The contortion of love into acceptable relationships and expressions often begins in our families of origin, refractions of the oppressive norms and imperatives of our broader society. Our families also often serve as training grounds for these norms, regardless of our race, class, ethnicity, and immigration status. The most radical, iconoclastic, and even wonderful families pass along to us their fears, internalized oppression and limiting beliefs along with their love. Fully loving ourselves and others is complicated from the start, a truth intimately known by so many of us.

Further, in our white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, ableist society, love or its withholding is one of the primary ways in which our behaviors and their underlying and entangled beliefs are conditioned and controlled. For example many male (passing) children must capitulate to the demands of toxic masculinity to maintain the love and approval of their fathers (or mothers or other caregivers who could certainly uphold and engage in these types of behaviors as well).

In this story above, my brother was asked to refute or reject his own tenderness – an expression of his very organic, even inborn kindness – to protect himself from rejection from one of the few people on the planet, as a five-year-old, he most needed love, acceptance and protection: his father.

From a very young age the contradictions of our society reflected by and circulating through our most intimate relationships require us to choose between the love and acceptance of others and the love of ourselves. The root of these contradictions can be traced to settler colonialism and the highly instrumentalizing and transactionalizing economic system which co-evolved with it – capitalism.

Capitalism is an inherently disintegrating force; that which is dis-integrated and torn asunder can then be reconstituted and captured in the market for profit. Relationships are re-woven to meet the needs of the market instead of human need and we are set up to be divided against each other and ourselves. This has now been happening for generations. A father, my father, any father, chooses to uphold the demands of regulating masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality rather than honor, rejoice in, and fully receive the authentic kindness and love of his child. A child must hide their vulnerability and gentleness to be treated as a person, even though it is this self-same vulnerability and gentleness that enables us to most deeply connect with ourselves and others, and access our deepest wisdom.

Up against such dynamics, without even being conscious of doing it, we may reject or dissociate from some of the most precious, powerful, and self-protecting parts of ourselves to protect ourselves from the searing and annihilating pain of rejection or actual abandonment, which of course for a child could mean real risk of destitution, being passed to the state into the foster care system or real death.

The heteronormative romance narratives which saturate our culture train us to look outside ourselves for love and acceptance rather than looking inward to reclaim the parts we may have needed to leave behind for our survival. This reclamation, I believe, is the basis of true love and also arguably all revolutionary change processes. However, the message most amplified in our culture, especially for people socialized as women, is that we are worthy of being loved and accepted if and when someone chooses to love us. This basic message erodes our connection to our inner truth and is heavily mediated by race, class, and gender expression, age, body shape and ability. The weight and intensity of this message is intensified as people and our bodies occupy more spaces or identities that are marginalized. The lighter (in skin tone), thinner (or more fit for people who pass as men), more gender normative, and able bodied you are, the more validation of your value you will receive from mainstream culture and society’s institutions through which we access success, material support, safety, and acceptance.

Science of course has been historically and contemporarily deployed to reflect, legitimize and naturalize this message with the effect that it takes on the power of a self-evident truth. Evolutionary biology in particular has accumulated a huge body of evidence about mate selection and other aspects of sex, sexuality, and attraction which serve to validate all the underlying assumptions of compulsory monogamous heterosexuality. In the last 5-10 years, feminist neuroscientists have begun to parse out the junk from the science in this highly normalizing field and produce studies that disrupt the hegemony.

In reality, who we are, what it means to love and be loved, is best left up to us to re-envision from the perspective of our most wise and loving selves, and to our collective communities unified by a shared vision for justice. We deserve to reclaim our ability to love ourselves and define what love truly is, not just as a noun, but also as a verb, a liberatory process, central and essential to co-creating a just, sustainable, and healed world.

There are many healing practices and techniques such as meditation, somatic practices, and energy medicine, that can support us individually and collectively to foster self-love. I’ve provided a brief list of resources at the end of this piece. For wherever you might find yourself on your path of (re)gaining and reclaiming self-love, here are three core questions which can function as foundational guides:

1) Is intergenerational trauma/ historical trauma and/or experiences of trauma from within your family of origin impacting your relationship with yourself and others? If so how, and what supports do you need around these dynamics?

2) What do you need to feel safe, supported, and seen amid conflict, when setting boundaries, and in the face of breaking or re-negotiating prior agreements?

3) What does solidarity look like, feel like, and behave like for you? How can you invite people to show up for you in your life in ways which reflect the type of solidarity you truly need?

It’s difficult and often frightening to ask people for what we need. In subtle, persistent, and all too often violent ways, our needs have been refuted or we have been punished for speaking up and out for them, by people we love or work with, or by the social institutions that that we rely upon for our survival. It’s also a reality that our every interaction with people teaches them how we want to be treated and reinforces within us what we feel and believe aligns with loving/self-loving behavior. In a society that teaches us that degrading and exploiting others is a legitimate means of gaining and maintaining power and autonomy, it is a practice of revolutionary self-love and collective love to inform people, with clarity and as much kindness as we can muster (and feel safe mustering), how we need to be treated when someone’s conduct falls short of honoring our needs to be seen as and treated like a person. Liberating love means remembering that we are all worth it.

Resources:

Sins Invalid’s Disability Justice Primer

Real World Mindfulness, by Brenda Salgado

Meditation: East Bay Meditation Center (Bay Area) + Vipassana Meditation, S.E. Goenka tradition (International and by donation 10 day silent retreats)

Generative Somatics

Health Justice Commons, All the Feels Webinar Series

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Mordecai Cohen Ettinger, MA, has over 20 years experience as an integrative healer, critical science, technology, and medicine studies scholar and educator, and social justice organizer. He serves asAdjunct Facultyat the California Institute of Integral Studies. His academic research focuses on the neurobiology of the social nervous system, and its implications with regard to collective trauma, healing and social change. In 2004, Mordecai co-founded the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice). Mordecai is the Founding Director of theHealth Justice Commons.


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