Depression, anxiety and euphoria: what hormonal contraception did to me

I was always pretty much one of the only women and girls I knew who loved having a period. Well not having it per se, which could be far from ideal, but maybe the fact that it happened; my body had its own cycle, its own silent process of birth and regeneration, like the moon, or a tree. It made me feel like my physical substance was in some fundamental way connected to the world around me. The unfortunate attending possibility was of course, obviously, childbirth. And clearly, when one gets to a certain age, and is lucky enough to have sex sometimes, this becomes a mind-blowing and terrifying possibility. Like many people, the thought of having a baby at 21 fills me first overwhelmingly with bafflement and then, very quickly, with worry. I still sometimes cry when I’m hungry, and if there were two of us crying, what would I do?!

In short, at a certain point when these worries (temporarily) came scarily and rudely to a head I decided I needed to take on the responsibility of preventing pregnancy from happening. Or not even that; it was as much about relieving myself of the anxiety of potential pregnancy as the possibility itself.

So I got the contraceptive implant. This is a matchstick shaped device that sits in your arm and releases progestogen into your bloodstream, preventing you from having a child. (Don’t ask me how, I’m a Classicist.) I was told that I might bleed erratically for a while, but that this would settle down; I was told that I might experience minor mood swings, but that they too would settle down, within a few months. That night I had a dream that I was alone at my home in London when four or five female sixteen year old thieves broke in through the front door and seized everything in sight, in spite of my attempts to empathetically reason with them. With some tentativeness, (again, I’m a Classicist not a psychologist) I was initially and remain tempted to view the symbolism at work here as pointing up anxiety about an intrusion into my place of safety (the home often symbolises the body or the self in dreams) by an alien external force, which I would try and fail to reason with. At the time I dismissed the anxieties the dream was trying to communicate, and my subsequent experience seemed to confirm the impulse to reject it; for quite a long time after the implant was inserted I did feel completely myself, noticing no changes to my mood at all.

However I thought something was a bit weird when, five weeks later, I was sitting in my room waiting for my parents to arrive so they could take me out to lunch for my 21st birthday, listening to music and writing my diary (as one does) and little by little I was seized with emotion. My mum and dad loved me so much that they were coming to see me on my birthday! Even though I’m bad at tidying my room and I always always leave the lights on and occassionally I am rude! I felt the force of their love and the gratitude took physical root in my body; I dissolved into tears, and wrote them a letter thanking them for bringing me into the world. I was crying but it was a wonderful feeling. The more I wrote, the more I broke down into tears. When they arrived, they were touched but bemused. On some level, I do tentatively sense that I am more emotional than your average Joe, but it’s not like I cry every time they come round. I do often feel this way for a couple of days before my period starts though – aha! I thought. My period is coming despite the implant.

Only the feeling did not stop. But it did stop being cathartic, no longer representing a much-needed release, but over the next few days identifying itself as sadness, as worry, as anxiety, as fear, not as gratitude. The familiar PMS-feeling – endurable for its transience, even welcome sometimes as it was part of my body’s reassuring cycle – just would not go away. It lasted for about three weeks. In those three weeks I would cry pretty much every day, at no provocation or at the slightest provocation (the bare fact that I don’t currently hold a gym membership being the most laughable of my perceived crosses to bear.) For the first week I was okay; I clung on to the knowledge that underneath all the noise, I was happy; but it became harder and harder to persuade myself that I was crying every day for no reason at all. I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on all the faults and worries in my life and it took all my energy to separate the emotion I felt from the reality I knew was safe and happy. I worried that there were only so many times the people closest to me would be able to hold me while I cried without being able to do anything because the emotion came from a small plastic rod and not from any problems they could support me while I solved. Emotions are contagious. The most insecure part of me worriedly whispered that there would come a time when they would run out of the love or energy to be close to me. They had their own shit to deal with. I resented myself for even feeling like I needed looking after at all.

After a particularly bad episode involving one ‘seen’ Facebook messenger notification, two hours of physically uncontrollable sobbing, and an essay I could not write because crying was taking up all of my time, I decided to have the implant taken out. I called my GP, tentatively telling her I felt like what I was experiencing was ‘a bit of a mental health emergency’, and expecting her to give me an appointment in the next couple of days. I was told that as I had had sex in the last two weeks there was a risk of pregnancy if it was taken out, so I would have to wait another two weeks for any existing sperm to bugger off. Hearing this, my eyes filled (yes, you guessed it!) with tears. It seemed like the end of the world. As it turned out, due to the risk of pregnancy the only way my doctor would allow me to have it taken out quickly was if I allowed them to first fit my womb with the (blissfully hormone free) copper coil, which is immediately effective as contraception, and then have the implant taken out. I accepted this advice, and although the memory of having the coil placed inside my womb and the ensuing last day of being bed ridden with tears pouring down my face has been promptly filed away by my subconscious into the file titled ‘REPRESSED THINGS’, it is a choice I am proud I made. Three days after having the implant removed the clouds have cleared and I am happy again, with all the other great benefits that come with being happy: I am more self- confident, more creative, take a great deal of pleasure in my alone time, studying is a joy rather than a struggle, I am more lucid, more compassionate, the list goes on. I am so grateful for all these things. I am so grateful that it is gone.

The worst thing about the effect the implant had on me (which for the uninitiated contains the same hormones as the ‘mini’ or progestogen-only contraceptive pill) was that I risked becoming my own worst enemy. Increasingly I felt that I was no longer able to trust my own thoughts and feelings. Were my emotional reaction to things and corresponding behavioural responses rational? Every time an event made me cripplingly, cripplingly sad the sadness was accompanied by a quiet suspicion that I was blowing everything out of proportion. I was left with the alternatives of swallowing my feelings, which had served me badly in the past, or communicating them to the people I loved and risking scaring or overwhelming them. In my opinion, things get dangerous when you become alienated from the sad, scared, angry parts of yourself, because exasperated and exhausted you reject them, unable to give them your love, attention, and acceptance. I am incredibly lucky to know myself well enough to always have been able to hold on to the fact that the feelings weren’t mine, to have had this happen to me during a period of my life that I am positive I am happy, because during a tougher patch it would have been much harder to distinguish the ‘real’ sadness from the ‘synthetic’ sadness.

Because so many women use hormonal contraception and a large proportion of those women don’t suffer such debilitating side effects it is easy to feel like you are making a massive fuss about nothing, to assume that other women feel the same way as you do in their heads but you are too weak to deal with it, especially when the tone of every healthcare professional you speak to on the phone is coloured with skepticism even when the words themselves aren’t. If this sounds like you, have faith in your conviction that you aren’t making a big fuss about nothing, and if hormonal contraception is making you sad, don’t feel embarrassed or weak in making the decision to come off it. My doctor (who, for the record, is lovely and whom I don’t really blame) told me to wait six months for the side effects to subside. Six months – especially when those six months coincide with an already impossibly volatile Cambridge term – is a very, very long time. The burden of responsibility for contraception is, for now, entirely placed on women. I could wax lyrical about how fucking unfair this is, but instead I will say: it will be okay, you have every right to stop and put your mental health first, and the amount of time you choose to wait before implementing any decision to do so is entirely for you to determine, and not for anyone else.

On the premature sexualisation of young women

I have a vivid memory of something someone said to me once that puzzled me, but didn’t particularly upset me at the time. I was in the queue for lunch at school with a few of my male friends when one of them described me as “sexually charged.”

I didn’t really understand. Sexually charged? What did that even mean? At 13 I was still at the age where I privately suspected sex was an elaborate joke made up by someone to confuse or amuse me. Unlike most of my male friends of that time, I did not watch porn (still don’t, for reasons that may become clear) because to be honest it just didn’t occur to me: my closest brush with observing The Act was probably watching Titanic, and seeing that sweaty hand up against that car window. I was not really sure what Rose and Jack were up to in there, but I knew it was fun, consensual, and an act of love. Whatever sex was, that’s what it would be like, I thought.

It is only now, as I look back at my teenage years growing up in a co-educational school where boys vastly outnumbered girls, that I see that a lot of the stuff that went on was fucking weird. In hindsight, thank goodness I didn’t really know what he meant. It would have disturbed me.

I think the tension here comes from something that is quite universal – think back to the Miley Cyrus debate. My friend looked at me, little thirteen year old beginning to grow towards the woman I am now, as all the boys saw all the girls in my year, and may have felt some kind of sexual or emotional response. He feels the response. It is new and strong and weird, and something that happens when he looks at me; is it not natural to assume that I am making him feel it?

Fair enough, at 13, the boys I knew were silly at worst and adorable at best really. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was projecting agency onto me for a sexual response I had (honestly) no idea he was feeling. I was being sexualised, and at this stage, I was not choosing to sexualise myself. Actually, I was just queuing for lunch and my mind was mostly occupied with the question of whether there were any muffins left.

I’m not going to pretend that I was particularly traumatised by this event. I have never had my sense of self seriously bruised by male violation, emotional or physical, and I took most of the creepy stuff boys said to me as a compliment. If anything, it was my ego that I needed to worry about; I got in trouble with my group of friends once for referring to the 14th person to ask me to “go out” with them as “Number 14.” I look back laughing but also slightly disturbed by the arrogance of my teenage self, so much crueller to these poor boys than I knew at the time – though it wasn’t so much because I didn’t like them and think they were lovely as the fact that I had no idea how to kiss and the thought of doing it wrong terrified me (I was privately convinced that mouths had to be designed purely for eating what if I’d just had loads of onion?!)

Don’t spare too many tears for unknowingly sexualised, unknowingly arrogant 13 year old Amelia. I was fine, I was exceptionally happy and fulfilled at the time. I mention this because it is part of a much wider problem.

When the Miley Cyrus video for Wrecking Ball came out I was torn. I was torn because I would secretly quite like to be having some fun on that swingy thing in her position; but in private, alone, probably. Surely Miley would really rather express her sexuality with those close to her, rather than share her nudity and her sexuality with the entire world?

In hindsight I see that it was wrong of me to ask that question, even gently. Because Miley had absolutely every right to express her sexuality in a way that felt true to her (even if she happened to be making a nice bunch of money in the same gesture.) I’m not gonna pretend I’m a Miley fan, but all those songs (I recall the lyric ‘it’s our party we can do what we want’) are about rebellion, about breaking away from the expectations placed on her by the trauma of having her childhood in the public eye.

We always overestimate the degree of agency musicians, and artists in the public eye, have. But this is disproportionately true when it comes to female musicians. If they choose to propagate a sexualised public image, it is all too easy to view them as either (a unwillingly sexualised victims of a sexist industry or (b unscrupulous temptresses selling their sexuality for money. This relates to that old virgin/whore binary that is so, so false and unhelpful for our understanding of female sexuality. I would imagine that in the vast majority of cases, from Miley to Birdy, the reality lies somewhere in between.

We need to stop being so quick either to label girls and women as either whore or virgin. Yes tossing women into one of these categories in our words and thoughts helps that classic insecurity about female sexuality and what women might do if men go to war for too long and the neighbour is sexy and cooks up an impeccable pumpkin soup for the winter. But it is a cipher, and should be recognised as such if we are going to fight the patriarchy and deconstruct the structures that oppress us.

On Mindfulness

I have sorta wanted to write an article about mindfulness ever since I did the university course in Michaelmas term of my second year, but I hesitate; this is mainly because mindfulness means different things to different people, and one of the greatest joys of it for me has been creating my own version of it, tailored to me, and exploring it on my own terms. So I am wary of prescribing what it is, and I am sure that there will be many things I have taken from mindfulness that other people haven’t, or that other people have picked up on but I haven’t. I am writing nonetheless because I think that it could do a lot of people a lot of good, really; it has done me a tremendous amount of good, and at this stage I feel the compulsion to share this goodness.

 

So what is mindfulness? At the heart of mindfulness for me is the practice of compassion. It starts with yourself. In a mindfulness meditation, you take the time to concentrate on all the physical sensations available to you, starting and ending with the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. You pay attention to the way it feels to be sat on the chair or lying on your bed, focusing on all the places your body makes contact with the bed or chair beneath you, and feeling the ground beneath your feet. This process is called ‘grounding’, because the practice of feeling the earth beneath you grounds you physically and mentally. Feet on the ground, bum on the chair you are safe, the earth holds you, and that physical security translates into mental security.

 

Grounding achieved, the idea is to continue focusing on the physical sensations available to you, as these ground you in the present. Of course, this is not the easiest thing in the world, and inevitably thoughts will arise, positive or negative, as they tend to do. The idea is to accept these thoughts as they arise, listen to them, and return to focusing on the breath when you can. The key is rather than getting frustrated with the lapse in attention you are wholly accepting of your tendency to get lost in thought, and respond by gently guiding your attention back to your breath and corporeal presence but only when you remember to.

 

One of the tenets of mindful practice is that thoughts and feelings are there to help you. Anger, sadness and anxiety exist not to just make you feel horrible but to highlight unmet needs, so that you are looking after yourself, body and soul, as well as possible. A useful image is to see these feelings as guests knocking on your door, whom during a meditation you take the time to lovingly welcome in, give a cup of tea, and listen to.

 

This is not an easy thing to do. Often our gut reaction is to reject sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. But by welcoming them and seeing them as things that exist to make us happy we can do ourselves a world of good.

 

One mindful practice that makes this easier is changing the way we think. Rather than thinking ‘I am sad’ we isolate the emotion within our psyche and think ‘part of me is sad’; this image is hugely helpful, because we are able to remember that the rest of us is available to embrace the sad part of us and give them the love and attention they need.

 

The more we are able to master the practice of self-compassion, the more we can feel compassion towards the people and things around us, starting of course with those closest to us who gain a great deal from our love and attention. With the ability to love ourselves generously comes the ability to love other people generously. Understanding your own needs gives you a great deal of insight into other people’s, and you are more able to respect other people’s needs and love them for exactly who they are, rather than just for the good things they bring to your life. During formal meditation, another tenet of mindful practice is to take a moment to think of those closest to you, hold awareness of them in your heart, and send love in their direction.

 

Having compassion for all other human beings is the next step. Sending love to those closest to you comes naturally; it is not as easy to extend love to everyone else in the world, but again, from empathising with your own needs comes the awareness that everyone on this planet has their own internal universe, their own worries and joys, and they are as deserving of love as yourself or your boyfriend or your best friend.

 

To make a slightly more questionable next step I would say the ultimate move is to extend your love to all the other living beings in this world, including the animals and the trees and the lakes and the mountains, respecting their own individual beauty and loving them for themselves, not for what they can do for you.

 

Not that loving things for what they can do for you is an impulse to be ashamed of. Shame gets in the way of compassion. Selfishness is a natural thing; it is about self preservation, really, and as such serves its purpose. Like every other emotional impulse, it is something to be accepted.

 

 

varium et mutabile, semper femina

 

This is a repost of the introduction to my previous blog, which I started in April this year, and can be found here.

***

Varium et mutabile, semper femina is a quotation taken from Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid. It roughly translates to “fickle and ever-changing is woman.” In the context of the poem, it is meant by Mercury (who is referring to Dido here) as an insult, designed to prod Aeneas into abandoning her on the island of Carthage as quickly as possible because goodness knows what she might do with her volatile woman brain! (As it happens, she does pile up their marriage bed and all his clothes, set them on fire, and stab herself through the chest with a sword, lying dead as the smoke from the flames curls up into the sky for Aeneas to anxiously watch as equally heartbroken he sails away to fulfil his destiny of founding Rome. This is tragic, and deeply upsetting for Aeneas and the reader, but it is also a beautiful, cathartic, piece of art, that entails Dido expressing her grief in a way that symbolises its depth.)

I fell in love with Classics when I fell in love with Aeneid 4, during a Year 13 Latin class in which we were reading this very part of the poem as a group. I remember this quote well because it sums up a male perspective on women that we see a lot: “Oh women, they’re so unstable! Always crying! Too volatile, in fact, to be given political or social responsibility.” It is a male impulse that lies behind every time a man has told me to “calm down” or “not to get so worked up all the time.” This always lighted an anger in me that I found hard to understand; was what they were saying really that wrong?

My sister was told by her first boyfriend (poor guy tbh I hope he never reads this) that sometimes she “emotionally overreacted to things.” She broke up with him quite soon after that. Again, it has taken me a while to understand why this caused my 17-year-old self such anger and an exceptionally fiery, defensive compassion for her at the time, but I think now I do. It is because when someone tells you to “calm down”, they are effectively saying that your emotional response is disproportionate to whatever has happened – that is, ultimately, that your mind and body are not working properly. That’s why it entails such an affront.

Female creativity, and female sexuality, have been repressed from being publicly expressed for thousands of years. That is not to say they have not always crept out in our personal lives – volumes of notebooks, hummed songs, the way we dress (everything is art if you think about it) and I am happy to observe that there have been thousands of women who have been able to wield political power and have a public outlet for their creativity. But in general, our instinctively more empathetic tendencies have meant that we have often felt solely responsible for and good at childcare, which involves absolutely endless time, love and energy, limiting the time we have to explore and express ourselves. It is incredible now that we have so many female artists in the Western mainstream media that weren’t there in such numbers before: actresses, poets, singers, dancers, visual artists, filmmakers, the list of artistic media goes on. In my opinion, the fact that, generally speaking, our sexuality is less constrained and more freely expressed has a direct relationship with the fact that worldwide our partners, brothers and fathers are increasingly seeing our public expressions of creativity as something to celebrate rather than something to police.

In myself, I have after various experiments with hormonal contraception (which unfortunately I am too sensitive to use for now; I have recently opted for the copper coil, which has been a dream) noticed the relationship between my menstrual cycle and my creativity. I feel most creative when I’m at the peak of fertility (my body literally yearning to make things) and most depressive in the two days before the catharsis of my period. Then the cycle begins again.

With this blog – entitled varium et mutabile, semper femina, an insult which I am choosing to reclaim as something that points up what exactly what I think makes women valuable and unique – I intend to contribute my thoughts on whatever I feel is important. It is likely to be mental health related for now, as that is where my energy is at the moment, but I place no constraints on its evolution: hopefully, it will be whatever it wants to be. I will also share pieces of art that I value; poems, books, paintings, plays, in case anyone else likes them too. Thanks for reading.

How to look after yourself in exam term

IMG_3849Gladstone Park, London, Spring 2017

Hello, my dearest (and potentially imaginary) readers. I have compiled a list of tips to help you hack your way through a tricky time. I have often wished someone had sat me down in my first exam term and told me to be gentle with myself, and not to work an unhealthy amount. The bottom line with academic work is that everybody is different, and you’ve just got to find a rhythm that works for you. Nonetheless I hope you find something in here that is worthwhile. Nothing is more important than your mental and physical health.

  • Listen to angry music. Music increases testosterone in women, and decreases it in men. I don’t care what it is, just turn it on, please (with the exception of anything with misogynistic lyrics; that shit is BAD for the soul). I’d however recommend Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, by My Chemical Romance. Listen to what makes you feel empowered and in control. You have got this.
  • Have a bath. PLEASE. Get out the bubble bath, the ducks, the half eaten Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the floating ship if you feel compelled to uphold your masculinity (gratuitous tip: let it go) the white wine, even another human being. Just get in the bath. It’s so hard to feel stressed when your body is submerged in warm water.
  • Play sport. You do not have to be good. Fall over. Injure yourself and your tennis partner. They’ll heal fine and the bruises will give you a cool story, bro.
  • GO OUTSIDE. Whoever told you you can’t revise in the sun was lying. Sun is good for the skin. Also, we’re not in Troy anymore – everyone looks good with a tan.
  • Have breakfast. I don’t care what it is, cereal, a lone banana, eggs on toast spread with a subtle combination of mashed avocado and lime and a sliver of prosciutto, WHATEVER, Aldi is ten minutes out of town. COOK.
  • Cuddle your friends, yourself, your secret dog that college doesn’t know about. Touching your own chest with a tender palm releases the same comforting hormones as it would if someone else was doing it.
  • Lie on the grass for ten minutes on your college lawn. Cambridge is beautiful. Look at it.
  • Doodle endlessly, without psychoanalysing your doodles. It’s good for you.
  • Go to bed early and don’t work past 6pm when you can. There’s no need. Your body needs rest.
  • Get the hell out of your college library. Cambridge offers itself up to you. If you think you need complete silence to work in, try another library. AMES is great and always empty because so few people study AMES!!!! Once I had to move because a lady came to water the plant I was sitting in front of. Yes AMES! Nature over academia any day.
  • Wear unnecessarily sexy clothes to do menial tasks. Who says you can’t look like a princess just because all you’re doing is picking up some flour from Sainsbury’s? You’re gorgeous. Own it.
  • Listen to songs you’re embarrassed you used to love. I’ve just rediscovered Unfaithful by Rihanna and it is the. bomb. You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift is something you should play exuding an almost offensively fearless and apologetic air as you stride, swaying slightly, down King’s Parade. Same goes for MCR, Paramore, Green Day, Avril Lavigne. Crack out those classics when you need a lift; you used to love these songs for a reason.
  • Keep a diary. Not a work diary, obv. Just something where you can catch your future self up with how your day’s been whenever you feel like it.
  • Above all. Listen to your body. If it’s crying out for rest, get into the bath or into bed. If it wants to go outside take it for a wander. A 20 minute walk can work wonders. As can a 5 minute cycle. Feel the sun on your face. Try not to walk into any lampposts or other moving humans.
  • Be kind. Remember everyone else is worried about work too. Open a door for someone, smile at someone you suspect hates you. Look after your friends, and remember to call your mum. You got this.

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Guilin, China, Summer 2017

Image credit: Hannah Chukwu

On Mindfulness

I have sorta wanted to write an article about mindfulness ever since I did the university course in Michaelmas term of my second year, but hesitate; this is mainly because mindfulness means different things to different people, and one of the greatest joys of it for me has been creating my own version of it, tailored to me, and exploring it on my own terms. So I am wary of prescribing what it is, and I am sure that there will be many things I have taken from mindfulness that other people haven’t, or that other people have picked up on but I haven’t. I am writing nonetheless because I think that it could do a lot of people a lot of good, really; it has done me a tremendous amount of good, and at this stage I feel the compulsion to share this goodness.

So what is mindfulness? At the heart of mindfulness for me is the practice of compassion. It starts with yourself. In a mindfulness meditation, you take the time to concentrate on all the physical sensations available to you, starting and ending with the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. You pay attention to the way it feels to be sat on the chair or lying on your bed, focusing on all the places your body makes contact with the bed or chair beneath you, and feeling the ground beneath your feet. This process is called ‘grounding’, because the practice of feeling the earth beneath you grounds you physically and mentally. Feet on the ground, bum on the chair you are safe, the earth holds you, and that physical security translates into mental security.

Grounding achieved, the idea is to continue focusing on the physical sensations available to you, as these ground you in the present. Of course, this is not the easiest thing in the world, and inevitably thoughts will arise, positive or negative, as they tend to do. The idea is to accept these thoughts as they arise, listen to them, and return to focusing on the breath when you can. The key is rather than getting frustrated with the lapse in attention you are wholly accepting of your tendency to get lost in thought, and respond by gently guiding your attention back to your breath and corporeal presence but only when you remember to.

One of the tenets of mindful practice is that thoughts and feelings are there to help you. Anger, sadness and anxiety exist not to just make you feel horrible but to highlight unmet needs, so that you are looking after yourself, body and soul, as well as possible. A useful image is to see these feelings as guests knocking on your door, whom during a meditation you take the time to lovingly welcome in, give a cup of tea, and listen to.

This is not an easy thing to do. Often our gut reaction is to reject sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. But by welcoming them and seeing them as things that exist to make us happy we can do ourselves a world of good.

One mindful practice that makes this easier is changing the way we think. Rather than thinking ‘I am sad’ we isolate the emotion within our psyche and think ‘part of me is sad’; this image is hugely helpful, because we are able to remember that the rest of us is available to embrace the sad parts of us and give them the love and attention they need.

The more we are able to master the practice of self-compassion, the more we can feel compassion towards the people and things around us, starting of course with those closest to us who gain a great deal from our love and attention. With the ability to love ourselves generously comes the ability to love other people generously. Understanding your own needs gives you a great deal of insight into other people’s, and you are more able to respect other people’s needs and love them for exactly who they are, rather than just for the good things they bring to your life. During formal meditation, another tenet of mindful practice is to take a moment to think of those closest to you, hold awareness of them in your heart, and send love in their direction.

Having compassion for all other human beings is the next step. Sending love to those closest to you comes naturally; it is not as easy to extend love to everyone else in the world, but again, from empathising with your own needs comes the awareness that everyone on this planet has their own internal universe, their own worries and joys, and they are as deserving of love as yourself or your boyfriend or your best friend.

To make a slightly more questionable next step I would say the ultimate move is to extend your love to all the other living beings in this world, including the animals and the trees and the lakes and the mountains, respecting their own individual beauty and loving them for themselves, not for what they can do for you.

Not that loving things for what they can do for you is an impulse to be ashamed of. Shame gets in the way of compassion. Selfishness is a natural thing; it is about self preservation, really, and as such serves its purpose. Like every other emotional impulse, it is something to be accepted.

me in sea (1)

Image credit: Hannah Chukwu

Yangshuo, Guilin, China, July 2016