The journey to self-love can be a tough one, but first you have to realize it’s necessary.
Self love is a hard topic to wrap your mind around if you’re someone like me, who has somehow made themselves believe that self-love is for people who can’t hack it in life. Through a series of events, thoughts, and viewpoints I’m still untangling, I allowed myself to simultaneously believe that I didn’t need self-love and that self-love was for softies who were touchy-feely and not in tune with the harshness of life.
For someone that runs a site that is all about self-expression, self-belief, and even self-love, I realized I was preaching what I wasn’t practicing because the truth is, I felt chronically awful about myself. I should say that in the present tense–I feel chronically awful about myself. That’s a tough thing to admit, but it is true. In other words, I often feel depressed, hopeless, and angry about past decisions, dark possibilities for the future, and just my general state.
One silver lining in this is that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Everyone sits somewhere on the spectrum of being chronically cheery to chronically sad. For some of us, our spot might be created through a mix of ineffective thinking habits (such as black-and-white thinking, all or nothing thinking, rumination, etc.) and clinical diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, and others. Others might struggle with substance abuse, which has its own cluster of diagnoses and mental habits to contend with. Some might feel alone because of life circumstances. The list goes on and on.
Regardless of where you sit on the spectrum and why, one of the biggest hurdles to jump over is realizing that you do feel sad. If you’re used to feeling bad about yourself, you’ve probably developed ways to cope with it through denial, or procrastination on things that might make you feel better, or perfectionism. You might present yourself one way to other people and hide your true feelings under a mask. For me, I still struggle with the effects of perfectionism, and I have been in denial for years about how I truly felt about myself. Instead of telling myself, “I need to be kinder to myself,” I would say, “Why aren’t I trying hard enough? I’m intelligent–why am I failing? I need to go harder, don’t quit! I can’t earn love and respect for myself if I’m a failure!”
Indeed, the crux of my issue has been that I felt love for myself had to be earned. Everything else in my life was earned–you have to study for good grades as a kid; you have to excel in college to get a stellar job; you have to live up to the expectations of adulthood in order to feel successful. But in all of these ideologies, the flaw was believing that a good life was one that was earned through external gain. You don’t need to have good grades to be respected during childhood; you don’t even need to go to college, much less excel, in order to have a great career. You don’t need to live up to everything society tells us about adulthood in order to claim the “successful adult” mantle.
Because I’ve been such a perfectionist, I used emotions as a battleground. I would feel like I couldn’t feel–if I felt anything more complicated than happiness, somehow I was failing, or should be embarrassed. If I got angry, I stuffed it. If I got sad, I hid my tears as much as I could (which I usually failed at, and my relationship with crying is a whole different kettle of fish). All I ever wanted to be was neutral.
My fraught relationship with emotions also inhibited how I viewed my relationship with mental disorder. I do have OCD, anxiety, and a disorganized, dysfunctional relationship with anger, especially anger towards myself (self-directed anger is a key symptom of quiet borderline personality disorder; while I am not sure if I meet the criteria, learning about it has been educational and might be for you). In short, I can be my own worst enemy, even though I try to help others treat themselves with respect. But how can I write anything about that when I’m not walking the walk myself?
While I don’t usually make new year’s resolutions, it just so happens that my personal journey has led me to get more serious about self-love right at the start of the new year. So I will do my best this year to meet myself with the love and respect I deserve. Thankfully, despite my realization of how far I still have to go when it comes to giving myself love, I have learned some lessons over the course of my time in therapy and self-reflection that might help you:
- You are not the worst thing you’ve thought about yourself. Thoughts and feelings aren’t always truths, and you owe it to yourself to get comfortable separating thoughts from facts.
- Every day is a new day, meaning a new chance to start over. This is something my mom has told me, and I am doing my best to apply that idea to my life. I know I’ve felt like I’ve failed in my personal health journey over and over again. But one thing I’m happy about is that even at my lowest, a small corner of my brain now remembers that every day brings new opportunities and new ways of looking at things. Give yourself a good night’s sleep and give yourself the grace to try again.
- Your mental struggles are not excuses for you to treat yourself badly. This is a new thing I’ve realized; for the longest, I’d been using my mental health as a reason to tell myself I didn’t deserve love or even progress in my journey. Since I was a kid, I felt that my then-undiagnosed symptoms were hard proof that I was defective and didn’t deserve to be liked, loved, or respected. But now, I’ve begun realizing how harmful that way of thinking has been. If you are someone like me who has mental struggles, know that that is just one part of what makes you you; you do not have to define your entire identity by one element of yourself. Furthermore, that element doesn’t exist as proof that you are unworthy. Mental struggles–something everyone has to some degree–are merely proof that you are human. You are worthy of love, respect, and kindness just as you are; you don’t have to earn it.
- Find ways to unleash your inner kid. One thing I do is collect dolls, but I am also planning on returning to my first loves, art, creative writing, and solving puzzles. I’m planning on doing some wild stuff, like getting back into creating paper dolls and cardboard houses, learning about hairstyling, and doing some positive daydreaming about positive futures for myself. Perhaps you also need to find some activities that remind you of when you were a kid, activities that feed your imagination and positive thinking.
- There will be bad days. In a mental health journey, there will always be ups and downs. My therapist has often told me that mental health is non-linear, and that couldn’t be more true. As of this moment, I’m typing this after experiencing a mental crash. More than likely, you might experience crashes (or are already experiencing them). But the crashes don’t mean you didn’t succeed at learning more about yourself, or that you’ll never learn, or that you won’t ever change. You’re just having a tough time. It’s easier to say this than to believe it, trust me. But it’s true. Your progress isn’t defined by the number of bad days you have.
- No matter what, find some way to be kind to yourself. Even when I have had a really rough time, like recently, I have tried to find some way to remind myself of my forward progression and that I matter. I take a nice shower, or wash my hair, or slather my face in skincare products. Sometimes I paint my nails. I have a jar that I write positive affirmations or positive actions I’ve taken that day. I try to do something, even if it’s small, to remind myself that I am worthy.
I am not perfect at the whole mental health journey thing. I don’t think anyone is, not even therapists. But one thing I have learned is that the more you sit with yourself, the more you can learn about yourself. The toughest times can also be the times you learn the most. Lessons that you’ve feel you’ve learned already will come back and slap you in the face in a different way than you expected, taking on a new facet. This is a hard journey. But throughout it, try not to make my mistake and view yourself as a victim. You (and me) are a survivor, someone who is resilient no matter what life throws at us (or what we might throw at ourselves). It is okay to be human. It is okay to ask for help. It is okay for self-love to feel hard at first; it doesn’t mean you’re bad at it, you’re just out of practice. You are enough and you have permission to love yourself.