“You don’t think I love you because you don’t love yourself.” I wish I could credit the author of this quote, but I can’t for the life of me remember any names regarding the source. I can, however, tell you where I was and how I felt when I first heard these words. I was sitting in an overly-air-conditioned classroom watching one of the short films my professor played for us. A mature artist character was having a spirited discussion with his younger love interest/protégé, who couldn’t accept his words of affirmation. I believe her response to his profession of love was “No, you don’t.” Her lover then dropped this absolute truth bomb of a line on her and I think I blacked out from the impact.
“YES! OH MY GOD! 100%! THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN SAYINGGG-“ is what my internal monologue was in that moment. I had just recently broken up with someone who needed to hear those exact words. I knew that a part of the reason why our relationship wasn’t working was his pervasive insecurities. However, up until that moment, I don’t think I had realized the gravity of the root problem: self-love. If you don’t even love yourself, how can you believe that someone else could love you? *cue Rupaul*
The craziest thing about this exchange is that it has actually happened to me twice before. I’ve had the opportunity to play both the role of the professor of love and the denier. You might think it strange that I refer to this uncomfortable situation as an “opportunity,” but the lesson I’ve learned from these experiences has proved invaluable. In fact, I firmly believe that my prior experience with crippling self-doubt is what allowed me to see the situation with my ex so clearly. I recognized that the catalyst of our issues was not that my love for him was not enough, but that he didn’t even love himself. I was able to resist the urge to blame myself and let him drag me down because I had already fought this battle before. I already figured out how to love myself.
Unfortunately, I didn’t always feel the way about myself that I do now. I experienced a lot of bullying during most of my school years and had zero confidence. I frequently compared myself to others and of course, always fell short. I believed every single critique that others would have about me. I remember going out in public and hoping that no one would even look at me, because getting no attention would mean that I was at least safe from negative attention. When I did receive compliments, most often coming solely from family friends or teachers, I struggled to accept them. The attention made me uncomfortable and I’d always try to deflect and shrink myself down. They’re just being nice. They feel bad for me. When I looked in the mirror, I saw so many flaws. How could they be seeing the same “me” so differently? My mom would try to reassure me that my differences should be seen as positives and that I was truly beautiful, but I lacked the perspective to understand and believe her. At that point in my life, I didn’t want to be different or unique--I just wanted to fit in.
When I entered a new school for junior high, I originally tried to maintain my tactic of flying under the radar. However, the basic respect and manners of the majority at this place made me feel safe enough to actually have a presence. As awful and dramatic as it may sound, I actually started to feel like a human being. I grew the confidence to stop trying so desperately to be accepted and instead focused on doing the things that actually made me happy. I began to wear
accessories that I liked (but was too afraid to wear before), participate in extracurricular activities that were new to me, and even date. Well, as much as you can “date” when neither party can drive yet...
During those two years, I was truly blossoming (pun not intended, but hopefully appreciated). However, there are no good seasons without terrible seasons to compare. My first broken heart struck right before I started high school. There’s nothing like a shitty ex-boyfriend to make you excited about entering ninth grade at an all-girls school. Although my confidence was bruised from my junior high Casanova, I quickly realized how much positive attention I could get from my older brother’s peers. Unfortunately, strutting around his all-boys football team did in fact do wonders for my ego. Is it really saying much that some hormonal, female-starved boys found me intriguing? No, but I didn’t rationalize it. I was too busy getting high off the compliments.
What didn’t do any favors for my ego was the ultra-competitive academic environment that I just threw myself into. Up until that year, I had always been an A+ student. Now, I was barely sleeping, turning down social activities, and still barely getting average grades. For the first time ever, I was struggling with academics. Before I became comfortable with how I looked on the outside, I knew that I at least had my intelligence going for me. With my grades now suffering, I started to have a bit of an identity crisis. If I wasn’t the smart, nerdy girl anymore, then who was I? To make my breakdown worse, I was gaining weight, my skin started to break out, and I stopped liking what I saw in the mirror. Did I mention I also got rejected from the dance team? Yeah, that one hurt. I felt like I was burning myself out just to fail in every category of my life. I would have multiple panic attacks every week, sometimes multiple in a single day. I didn’t even know what a panic attack was at the time, but apparently, it’s not normal to have stomach cramps, heart palpitations, disassociate, and sit in a pool of sweat. I was so worried about failing and letting people down that I would get physically ill from anxiety.
One of the opinions I cared about the most was my mother’s. I wanted her to be proud of me for something, and it didn’t seem to me at the time like I had many options left. I remember her getting upset when I would stay up late, skip family outings, and still come to her crying about a bad grade. I took her frustration personally and let my mind convince me that she was starting to love me less. I started to feel like a burden, especially since I wasn’t normally the token “problem child” (I’ll let my brothers decide which one of them is). It drove both of us insane. I would follow her around the house, moping, sobbing, and begging for hugs and words of affirmation. “Do you still love me, Mom?” I would ask her. “Yes! I’ve already told you that!” She’d try to shoo me away, visibly overwhelmed and annoyed. “But I don’t feel like you do! I don’t like the tone you say it in. Can you say it a different way maybe? In a nicer tone?”
...Yeah. I really said those things. Looking back on it, I feel pretty damn pathetic. Then again, people say and do a lot of desperate things they wouldn’t normally when they’re lost. On the positive side, that was a wake-up call for me that I needed some help. Although I had been to various therapists previously throughout childhood (just typical child of divorce & alcoholic father things), I had never found one who I felt actually helped me. That is, until my mom found me Dr. C. Although I was skeptical at first, I eventually realized that Dr. C was going to improve my quality of life exponentially. After listening to the mess of symptoms I sputtered out between ragged breaths, she explained to me that everything I was feeling made sense. She made me feel like even though I was suffering from OCD, Generalized Anxiety, and Major Depressive Disorder, I wasn’t a lost cause. Feelings are temporary, and I would be happy again. She helped me find the right meds, create a better-suited lifestyle, and even taught me how to ask other people for help (like scary teachers). One of the most important warnings she gave me was to not take things so personally. As I encountered more life events and learned a lot on my own, I expanded on this lesson of hers. Over time, I realized that if I take to heart what other people think about me, my value will always be hanging in the balance. This is a very tricky thing to learn, because who doesn’t love compliments? Of course, we all tend to tie strong positive emotions to compliments and thus, very negative emotions to insults or critiques. However, letting other people have control over our emotions is a slippery slope. Once you let someone else start controlling how you feel, your worth and value become subject to their opinions, as well. Try to be polite, but neutral about compliments. Don’t be the one who tries to reject the kind words, but also try not to get swept up in the sweet sounds. Detach from others’ opinions of you by not attaching feelings towards both critiques or compliments. You get to decide how you feel and who you are, and no one will ever truly know you like you know yourself. In the same vein, don’t rely on other people to make you feel better (therapist excluded). You are in charge of your own happiness (this should be freeing, not disappointing)! Realizing how many ways I can make myself happy has made this whole “self-love” thing so much easier.
Another part of the mindset I’ve adopted that has helped me the most to continue to love myself is to find ways to make myself proud. One of the best things I can do for my mental health is to try something new, scary, or hard. Whether it be putting together furniture on my own, experimenting with a new recipe, or something as scary to me as snowboarding for the first time. I always feel euphoric when I complete an act of self-growth. Sure, learning new skills can make you more interesting to other people, but that shouldn’t be the intention behind it. Why does it matter if you’re interesting to other people if you don’t interest yourself? You have to (get to!) be with yourself every second of every day for the rest of your life. Literally, the only person that you can guarantee will always be with you is you! Even friends and family may come and go. This is one of the main reasons why being absolutely in love with yourself is so essential. It is your armor from the world. Think about the phrase “Protect your heart.” Loving yourself helps to protect you from people who don’t actually love you, are not capable of doing so, and/or have no plans to. If you already know you’re hot shit, it won’t matter if that Tinder kid gives you a backhanded compliment. Also, get off Tinder. Please.
While you’re busy loving yourself and tuning out the voices of society, try being grateful. You can start by just listing daily things you’re grateful for, but try to make it a way of life. Find ways to put a positive spin on everything (you’d be surprised how creative you can get with this). When you’re having really dark days or just a bad day in general, put it into perspective: why does it feel so “bad”? Probably because you know what it’s like to have a really good day. You know what that means? Your next “good” day is going to feel even better. You have so many better days to look forward to. In the meantime, what can you learn from this moment? Be grateful for that lesson. It’s either going to help you or someone else someday.
Although my mental health struggles haven’t vanished, I’ve come a long way. I’ve learned a lot of helpful lessons and tools to manage them and make the most out of my life. Just to be clear: having a mental illness doesn’t at all make someone a pathetic or weak person. In fact, it takes a strong-ass person to deal with this shit day-in and day-out and not give up. It takes even more courage to be willing to get help. Some of us will find improvements with medicine, some of us need a professional to talk to, and some of us need both. Heck, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who can fix all of their problems with a jog around the block. Nothing has made a more positive impact for my mental health than learning how to love myself and practicing gratitude. From what I’ve learned, I can promise you this: it actually feels possible to get past the hard days once you know and believe you are worthy of better ones.