I didn’t see it as an expression of love until decades later. What my mom did every morning of my childhood felt, instead, like rejection. I dreaded getting ready each morning because I knew that, as I walked from my bedroom into the kitchen, I would be scanned from head to toe.
Sometimes it was just a disapproving glance, but glances were worse than comments. Comments informed me of changes I could make. Mere glances told me she wasn’t going to bother critiquing how I looked, because it was hopeless.
My mom is lovely, devoted, and generous. An educated Vietnamese woman from North Vietnam, she married my father in her 20s and began a family in South Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War. Our family fled the country a week before Saigon fell, arriving in California in the spring of 1975 as political refugees. Growing up, I shared a three-bedroom house with four siblings, three grandparents, and both of my parents.
My parents and grandparents sacrificed much to make sure that we children were disciplined, well-fed, and well-educated. Toward that end, they certainly succeeded. All of us graduated from college with honors and became accomplished professionals.
We embodied the American Dream. Yet like many in the West, I found the Dream to be wanting. In my early 30s, I found myself feeling completely empty. I watched numbly as I walked away from my marriage, lawyering job, and home, all in the same week, in hopes of a more satisfying future.
My quest for fulfillment was passionate, but ill-advised. For two years, I continued to change my outer circumstances, futilely pursuing happiness in one new job, relationship, and home after another. Finally, during a relationship fallout in the spring of 2004, my then-boyfriend helped me see that I had spiraled into the throes of addiction. Demoralized, I humbly made my way into a 12-Step recovery room.
There, I learned how to give myself the unconditional love and acceptance I had always wanted from my mother and father, and later, the world. To develop self-love, I began by forgiving myself for the ways in which I had rejected or otherwise harmed myself. I also adopted “self-care” practices, which helped me to begin to know love, not just as an idea, but as an experience.
Finally, I regulated my self-talk. I practiced not saying or agreeing with any thoughts about myself that I would not say or think about someone I loved or respected. I even engaged in a 10-week affirmative practice of looking at myself in the mirror twice a day and telling myself: “I love you, Nhien, unconditionally.” Although it initially felt awkward, my discomfort quickly subsided as I began, through tears, to realize the truth of my own words.
Most, if not all of us, have experienced criticism or outright rejection in our lives. These experiences, such as my own with my mother, can provide us with invaluable information about ourselves and our conduct in the world. In fact, those who cannot countenance constructive criticism often struggle to function effectively in society.
Yet someone else’s—or even our own—opinion cannot define our worth. After all, as unique, radiant expressions of Spirit itself, we are inherently whole and worthy. Nothing can change that.
When we remember the truth of our wholeness—not just as an idea but as an experience—we not only enrich our own lives but the lives of others as well. No longer needing to control or manipulate circumstances or people outside ourselves to give us a sense of worth or fulfillment, we express our true nature, which is Love. And what we are radiates throughout the world.