Learning to love yourself
January 9, 2014
It seems like such a sissy topic. A few years ago, I would have wondered “What the hell is that all about?” That sounds like the mumbo jumbo of someone who also might need to “find themselves” As if anyone could seriously be lost. Or the self-absorbed meanderings of a person who claims to “not know who she is” in spite of the fact that she doesn’t have amnesia. There was a time when all of these words seemed to be the epitome of selfishness. Until they came out of my mouth.
It turns out that spending too much time striving to be someone else’s version of you is really exhausting. When mundane daily decisions like “What will I wear today” becomes “Which outfit is least likely to piss him off?” then you might be in danger of forgetting who you really are. When you’re invited to stay after the tupperware party for a chat and you decide not to because you don’t want him to accuse you of cheating, then you might be losing an opportunity to love yourself.
Love it or lose it
How does someone lose themselves? It’s the mindless self-talk, the everyday constant stream of thoughts in your head that let you know you’re losing yourself. There isn’t a single solitary definitive moment when you say “I’m going to lock real self in a closet.” Losing yourself is sometimes cleverly disguised as some other kind of devotion. Sometimes it feels good to give of yourself (until there’s nothing left.) Sometimes, it feels good to give of yourself. Until there’s nothing left. Sometimes it feels good; to give of yourself until there’s nothing left. But how do we know when enough is enough? What’s a healthy level of sacrifice for someone who doesn’t want to be a martyr? Which moments do we need to watch out for?
- It’s the little moments, like when you decide to NOT buy your own socks because you don’t want to take away from the money you need to pay the bills. (Just wear his socks. It’s no big deal).
- It happens a little in the moments when you decide you don’t need to make your own plate. (Just eat whatever the kids leave behind, it’s one less dish to wash).
- It happens when you want to say YES to something with all your heart, so badly and you know that you’ll be “in trouble” or that “he wouldn’t understand” so you say no. (That opportunity will come back around).
- It happens in the times when you’re embarrassed to receive recognition or accept an award or even a compliment. If you’ve earned a moment in the spotlight, you should shine. (Some people might need that kind of encouragement, but not me).
If you don’t know what you’d do with an entire day to yourself, it’s a sign that you might need to spend more time focusing on the things you want and need in life.
If your bucket list is longer than your daily to-do list then you might need to spend more time TODAY focusing on the things you want to do in life.
It’s easy for me to say right now, my youngest child is six. There was a time, like when I had very small children, that I believed (and still do) that they needed me to be there. I wouldn’t advocate a woman’s taking time away from her kids against her own will. I knew a lady who once left her six-week-old son for a two week trip. I would never ever ever ever ever have been comfortable with that plan. I also didn’t ever WANT to be away from my babies when they were that young. So the idea of taking “me time” that lasted longer than their nap would have caused me more stress than it relieved. But it needs to be an option. If it takes two people to create a child, then both people should be equally willing to spend time with that child, caring for its needs and being responsible for its well-being.
Dressing like you love yourself
When I was married, my ex and I often fought about the clothes I would wear. I was shocked as hell to learn that he had some very unfamiliar beliefs about women’s clothes that frankly blew me away. The first was that every time a woman wears a black bra it means that she wants sex. Women who wear black bras are sluts. I had no idea, see I thought that a black bra was simply what you were supposed to wear under a black top. Live and learn. The second thing I learned was that “When women get dressed in the morning they look into the mirror and ask themselves ‘what kind of men will I attract in this outfit?” I was so surprised. I must not be like other women because when I get dressed and look in the mirror, my thoughts are more like:
- Do I match?
- Do I look well groomed?
- Is it OK that these colors aren’t exactly the same?
- When I lift my arms, does my shirt come up too high?
- Do these earrings go with this?
- Do the lines flatter me or emphasize things I don’t like?
- Will I be warm enough or cool enough?
- If I get too hot or too cold, what can I throw on or take off that will still look good?
If all the answers are satisfactory, then I’ll wear it. I never thought to ask myself about what kind of men I’d be attracting. In fact, I laughed at him for suggesting it but he insisted that women’s getting-dressed procedures were all driven by what men’s perceptions would be. In fact, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve casually interviewed a bunch of my friends and it turns out that I have a knack for finding the rare woman who doesn’t obsess about men when she gets dressed, because so far no one but my ex has known about this information.
A few years ago if anyone was asking “Why are you wearing that” My answer would generally be along the lines of
- Because it fits
- Because it’s mine
- Because it’s clean
- Because it suits the weather
All of which are code for
- Because I can’t afford things I like
- Because my husband won’t complain about this
Today (on any given day) if someone asks me “Why are you wearing that” my answer is undoubtedly
- This was a gift from a friend isn’t it lovely?
- I love the color and feel of this fabric, isn’t it cool?
- This is a souvenir I picked up when I was in California with Emilee, isn’t it cute?
- This is from the time I treated myself to a shopping spree in Canada. I only spent a few dollars that day but trying everything on and having time to shop alone was so special
- This was a dress I picked up on vacation in ______, I needed something to wear to an impromptu dinner and this was the first thing I saw.
I don’t have anything against hand-me-downs but when you’re wearing hand-me-ups from your niece 10 years after she wore them simply because you can’t afford to buy anything else, then maybe there’s a problem.
In my case, the problem was that instead of surrounding myself with love and wrapping myself up in clothes that I loved, I was just settling for second best. On the rare occasion when I could afford to spend money on clothes back then, my choices would be made in response to the following questions:
- Does it go with things I already have?
- Is it the cheapest solution?
- Does it make me look too fat or too skinny?
- Will my husband accuse me of trying to be sexy if I wear this?
- If I get pregnant again will I still be able to wear this?
- How easily will this be to wash?
The questions I ask myself now are totally different:
- Do I love this?
- Do I really love this?
- Which shoes will I wear with this?
- Where can I go to wear this?
- Will it wrinkle when I pack it?
Doing things you LOVE
For me, it started with hula hooping. I read an article about how to make your own hoop and I started watching hoop dancing videos in the middle of the winter in 2009. I was dancing in my head long before I was able to spend the $15 on supplies I needed to make my own first adult-sized hoop. Once I got started, I realized that I also want to learn how to do aerial silk dance and trapeze. It’s important to do things I love because then I don’t I feel neglected. Feeling depleted make it SO DIFFICULT to have the energy to give others, and I want to be able to give myself to my kids and my work and important things like that. Now that I’m on my own, it’s my responsibility to make sure that I get plenty of time to do the things I enjoy. I can no longer fool myself into believing lies like “He said he’d watch the kids at 6:00.”
Traveling is another thing I love. When I was married, it often seemed like life was just a constant succession of canceled trips. When we finally ever DID get away, we always returned much worse than when we left. The stress of being in close quarters with someone who couldn’t get his daily drug of choice was maddening. I can’t even count how many times I was afraid we’d be killed by his road rage. Now that I’m free to run my own life, I travel with and without my kids. It’s strange sometimes because home is such a nice and happy place that I no longer feel the NEED to escape. In the moments right before a trip now, I often find myself pouting a little “I don’t want to go” and “I want to stay home.” Luckily, I know that travel really IS an important part of who I am and I push through those moments because exploring and experiencing is so much fun.
Back in 2005 when I was determined to break out of a depression, I decided that I should try to do the things I used to remember enjoying, even if my depression made it difficult to enjoy. So I went hiking, I took my kids to the park. I fought with my feeling of “blah everything sucks” and forced myself to engage in activities that once brought me joy. It was just one of a few things I was doing for myself (as an act of love) and it worked. I often look back at that time and wonder if I had been with a spouse who actually loved me, would it have helped? I think so. I can’t imagine allowing someone in my life to be so sad without trying to help.
Eating like someone who loves themselves
I don’t “think” I have food issues, except that sometimes I’ll forget to eat. I don’t have much of a craving for sweets or carbs anymore, I’m not the type to over-indulge in anything really. So many foods make me sick, often my “forgetting” is code for not being in the mood to think about finding something I can stomach. Hunger actually feels kinda good to me since it’s the opposite of reacting-badly to gluten. I’m pretty good about forcing myself to remember when I’m doing something strenuous. At a hoop dance workshop, for example, I’ll pack snacks. My kids tend to eat frequently, so every time I see someone eating I’ll check with my tummy to see if I need food yet. I hear from a lot of friends, though, that in times of stress they find themselves eating a lot of sweets or drinking a lot of alcohol. That’s such a deep self-sabotage because over-indulgence has consequences that snowball. First you’re feeling bad that you indulged, then your body starts to feel sick, then there’s a lack-of-energy and eventually you assign any weight gain to your own over-indulgence. Who needs that kind of stress? Don’t CHOOSE that kind of stress.
When I hear my friends doing this I’m often amazed, these are the same moms who are so meticulous about feeding their children. They aren’t stupid, they KNOW that food is fuel and they go to great lengths to make sure the foods they give their kids are clean, well-balanced, nutritiously prepared. Their babies are breastfed, their toddlers like vegetables and their car isn’t littered with fast-food wrappers. It’s not like they’re ignorant. They’re just not loving themselves.
How do you START to love yourself?
That’s the question that got me pondering all of this today. I’m in a very empowering private group of women who love and nurture one another through some hard times. We’re like sisters and it’s a very special group. Today one of them approached the topic like this: (totally not a quote but I’m going to block the text anyway because it’s important):
I know that I can’t depend on others to make me feel loved anymore but I don’t know how to find that feeling alone. What can I do to feel loved, or to start loving myself when I don’t know how?
Isn’t that a profound question? It’s one that’s been on my mind so often over the past couple years. Apparently, if you love yourself you’re not vulnerable to other’s destructiveness. But what is this whole loving-yourself thing? And how does one go about falling in love with themselves?
For me, it was a gift, because when I was at my worst, someone loved me. When my very own husband had decided to initiate a smear campaign and orchestrate the kidnapping of my kids, I felt like I had lost everything. I had a friend that I was confiding in at that time who could see the real me well enough to hold up a mirror and say “THIS IS YOU” and “YOU ARE AMAZING.” I was so used to hearing him (my ex) tell me how useless I was. He was always quick to tell me “I always go on and on about how wonderful you are” when talking to other people, but in private, he’d berate me and tell me that everyone thought poorly of me (they were just afraid to say it to my face, he said) I can’t even verbalize the importance of having a friend who is raw and open and honest in this situation. How many people can have you sobbing in tears of joy within 5 minutes on the phone? How many friends can get directly to the heart of the matter, bypassing ego and land straight where it matters?
I might have reached a point where I could love myself on my own. I’ve heard stories of moms who have been in similarly bad relationships and accepted the love of their children as proof that they were worthy and lovable. Whatever it takes to plant that first seed, it doesn’t matter.
The most important question I began to ask myself was “What advice would you give your daughter in this situation?” And that made everything SO MUCH EASIER. I’d tell my daughter to “do whatever it takes to get those babies back home” and “Use every resource at your disposal to make SURE you’re never at his mercy again” and “Dammit, sweetheart, get yourself a pedicure.”
Whatever route you take to get to a place of self-love, it’s so worth it. Go through the motions til you’re in the habit of being true to yourself. Respect and honor the desires you have inside of you because that’s who you are. Life shouldn’t suck. Stop making it.