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Whose No. 1 Valentine Are You?

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There's a crafty independent short film starring John C. Reilly conducting a man-in-the-street interview. He starts with the single question, "Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?" and exposes some poignant moments of social isolation.

In point of fact, the only person responsible for making sure you feel loved is... you.

This Valentine's Day, you could do a lot for your physical and mental health by ranking yourself as your own No. 1 valentine. The components of enduring love are:

• joy
• loving kindness
• equanimity
• compassion

This dharma or philosophical and spiritual teaching about love is a wonderful way to approach the world, and many people automatically go out of their way for others, whether those are family members, friends, or even strangers.

Yet one of my favorite dharma teachers, Sharon Salzberg, challenges her audiences of health professionals to look after themselves, too. "If I said spending 20 minutes a day on a particular activity would significantly help one of your friends, how many of you would do it, without skipping a beat?" Her listeners usually all raise their hands. Then comes the kicker: "So why is it so hard for us to spend 20 minutes a day meditating or exercising or slowing down to take care of ourselves?"

As a neurologist escorting families through the complicated illness of dementia, I have found that to exert loving kindness towards oneself is one of the most vital survival tips I can pass on to caregivers. It trumps teaching them how to pronounce the long names of medications. My aim is to help them to help themselves, because only then can they be of more assistance to the patient in a sustainable way.

My former professor in the Emergency Department at the University of California San Diego, Dr. Tom Neuman, urged us to remember that, "The patient is always having a worse day than you." Over time, though, I've learned that sometimes the health care professional can be having a worse day than the patient. Mastering the role of caregiver, whether as a professional or as a family member not trained in medicine or nursing, begins with caring for self, extending loving kindness to oneself. It means taking stock of one's own situation and asking: "Do I feel safe? Do I feel loved? Do I feel healthy? Do I feel happy?" Honest answers may reveal that a person is overextended and developing a vague sense of resentment, having sacrificed his or her own health to the needs of the patient or a significant other and not sensing any return on the investment.

While we all aspire to share an enduring, self-less love with a partner, you'll be able to offer the most as a partner, if you hold yourself responsible for making joy, loving kindness, equanimity, and compassion happen during your day.

Many people use the words joy and happiness interchangeably. Thich Nhat Hahn clarifies the difference between joy and happiness. "Joy," he explains, "is a delight in something that more frequently is related to an external event [like seeing a family reunited at the international gate at the airport]. Happiness, on the other hand, has to do with recognizing the absence of pain." Joy does not require that something good or pleasurable happens to you personally; it does require that you remain open to celebrating something good happening around you. This we can do for ourselves.

Loving kindness is the sort of good will and supportive action that a best friend provides. The patient ear, the willingness to see your side of any story, the absence of judgment, a steady presence. Yet even our best friends can't always be available to provide that service on-demand. In these cases, we have to make the space and time to reflect without judgment or self-flagellation on our own issues and to forgive ourselves for those situations that went awry. Best friends always see the good intentions behind our unskilled acts and feel our pain with us if the outcomes are undesirable; by the same token, they are lovingly honest about when we blew it, without threatening to abandon us. Can you do that for yourself? You would, for your No. 1 valentine!

Another way of to describe equanimity is "No discrimination." [See Thich Nhat Hahn's writings on this.] Try not to discriminate between the very fortunate or pleasurable and the most disgusting and awful experiences in your reactions. During life, circumstances constantly change. Unhappiness and discontent arise when we try to cling to something good although its time has passed; the same unhappiness and discontented avoidance arise when we cannot face horrible events. The clinging and the avoidance can take energy away from one's ability to face the challenges of letting go or of taking positive action or even keeping a mind open to what can be learned from the experience. If you can bring equanimity to your own world outlook, you can provide tremendous stability to your No. 2 valentine.

Self-compassion can temper all of these tenets: While you may be a very giving partner, if that somehow takes away from your capacity to feel joy, loving kindness, and equanimity during your days, the situation is not sustainable. Things are out of balance. Self-compassion alerts you to correct the imbalance. Experience, recognizing patterns of your behavior or those of others around you that takes away from your joy or equanimity, informs self-compassion so that you can maintain boundaries that keep you safe, loved, happy, and healthy.

These are messages I repeat to caregivers under long-term stress, to help keep them going throughout the involuntary marathon of dementia care. But at their root, these are messages about how we can best love others. It starts with making yourself your No. 1 Valentine.