My journey to self-love was not a beautiful, gentle, existential unfolding that one day manifested magically into happily-ever-after (although some days it feels that way now). No, true to character, I found the steepest, hardest, rockiest and most ragged mountain to self-love I could climb and set forth without the slightest clue where I was going or any rational amount of gear for the trek. Luckily, I lived to tell about it and let me tell you, the view from the top made every stumble, fall and bruise worth it.
You see, I fought my story and I fought it hard. I struggled against it. I punched it and kicked it and screamed at it until my face turned blue. I cursed it relentlessly… but, like all stoic parents, it stood there calmly until I was done and welcomed me back with open arms as I finally relinquished my fears and found solace in its Being. In fact, before I climbed up on the woo-woo train I live on now, I considered the term self-love to be incredibly annoying – a catchy headline crafted for lame magazine articles or for people in life (myself included) who just had to find a way to feel better about the fact that they didn't measure up and never would. Self-love was bullshit and I didn’t need it. I’d be fine on my own, just like I always had been. Except not really.
When I was 5 years old, my parents got in divorced and my father disappeared from our lives for the next 25 years. No phone calls, no visits - not a peep. While I realize that divorced parents certainly aren’t the worst thing a child can go through, it was incredibly difficult for my 5-year old brain to wrap my head around the fact that it wasn’t my fault. I took it hard and developed a story-line that would follow me throughout the rest of my life. It went like this:
“He left because you weren’t enough and you’re not lovable. If you were, he would have stayed. Therefore, figure out how to be lovable and perfect and no one will ever leave you again. Oh, and by the way, you NEED others to love you because, without their love, you are nothing and no one.”
I put those gray, gloomy glasses on, and I never once took them off until my life fell a part so hard that I didn’t have any other choice but to question everything I’d ever known or believed.
While it was fairly harmless as a child, as I continued grow, this story line evolved into something bigger. It needed an outlet, somewhere to go other than inside my brain with all it’s swirling, racing thoughts, and so it took on a life of it’s own. At age 12, I had my first panic attack, and my anxiety disorder was born. Fearful and obsessive thoughts became my norm, as did feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing because clearly, I wasn’t normal. When you spend your days working to be perfect, the realization that you are not, in fact, perfect, and even worse, kind of weird, delivers a striking blow to your self-concept. Everything was scary. I developed phobias and fears, obsessive thinking patterns and constant physical manifestations of my stress. I wouldn’t eat in fear of getting sick, I wouldn’t make friends in fear that they’d see how weird I was, I wouldn’t try new hobbies for fear that I’d fail, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t… I remember hiding as much as possible from the world around me in hopes that staying small and unseen would keep me safe. After all, the world was scary and people were even scarier, and if it was me against them, it had to be me.
For better or worse, my family learned to work around my irrational (and exhausting) list of fears, but it never occurred to me that others wouldn’t as well. As I entered into high school, I quickly realized that I’d better learn another way of staying safe because I was getting a lot of attention, and I couldn’t hide anymore. So, being the smart little cookie that I am, I adapted and figured the next best way to hide: I conformed.
I studied out exactly what was cool - what was acceptable - how to manipulate and control my appearance, personality and experiences so that they seemed like I was not only normal, but worth liking. But, underneath it all, I was a mess. I was terrified that at any moment I would be exposed and that everyone around me would find out my deep, dark secret. That truly, I was nothing.
As I look back on my life, I recognize how many of my choices weren’t my own. Not because other people were making them for me, but because I was basing them off of what I thought others wanted me to do and it was exhausting. This manifested in as many ways you can think of, from pretending to like certain music to giving my body over to boys I never should have. Never once, however, did it occur to me that anything was wrong with this scenario. All I was concerned with was being better than everyone around me so that I didn’t have to face my own fears. Essentially, I wasn’t a very nice girl to be around and this behavior only got worse the older I got. I went from innocently gossiping about other girls in high school to hating every other woman that dared enter into my vortex. I was jealous, insecure and vicious, and it affected not only me but all of my relationships as well. Every one seemed to give me weird vibes, but of course, it was them not me, right?
In my early twenties, my anxiety had gotten so bad that I was having a hard time leaving the house. I was ruining simple things like dinners out with my family and would worry about bigger events like vacations months in advance for fear that I’d have a panic attack - which, I invariably then would. They would last for hours and hours, and I’d suck everyone around me into the experience. As much as I hated the anxiety, I hated myself even more for having it. I felt broken and exposed and out of control. And in this lack of control, I began controlling everything and everyone around me in an attempt to make sense of my life. Nothing was left to chance. I became suspicious and fearful of everyone. No motive was left unchecked and no situation was left to chance. There was no room for error or spontaneity in my world. It was too risky.
Then, one night, in the middle of an attack, a friend of mine offered me a little blue pill that made all my problems disappear. I had found my new best friend – Xanax. This simple little pill gave me the kind of relief I’d looked for my entire life. For the first time, maybe ever, I sat on the couch without a care in the world and laughed. It felt good, and I was hooked. All I had to do when things got shaky or my nerves acted up was throw back a little pill and I would melt into oblivion.
For the next 8 years, anytime life felt hard, or the elephant on my chest got heavy, I had a trusty back up. There was no stopping me now. I could party as hard as I wanted to and mask the effects with my little friend. I could get in an argument and five minutes later not give two shits about it. I could fly across the country and knock myself out for 24 hours if I wanted. Anxiety attacks? What were those? I hadn’t had one in years. I controlled my anxiety. I was finally normal. I had found a band-aide so large that it seemed as if no pain couldn't be conquered.
But, here’s the interesting thing about numbing. It's not a selective beast. When I learned to numb the bad, I unknowingly numbed the good as well.
Connection? Out of the question.
Happiness? Seems impossible.
Fulfillment? Not meant for me.
Clarity and peace of mind? A pipedream.
Purpose and passion? Only for special people.
True love? Terrifying.
Despite the fact that I was no longer physically having attacks, the fear never left. I covered it, but I didn’t fix it. I was still broken and damaged, and now also a slave. You see, without my side-kick, I was vulnerable, weak and open to attack. Which meant that I had to make sure my protection followed me everywhere. It was an addiction, but if you’d asked me then, I was fine. I had come to believe that I NEEDED those pills to survive. That without them, I wasn’t strong enough, smart enough, normal enough, good enough, courageous enough to be ok. Nothing had changed. I still wasn’t enough – I was just an expert at covering it up.
The relationship I called into my life during those years did nothing to prove me wrong either. I know now that we call into our life experiences which will uncover and trigger all our deepest wounds in an attempt to heal them, but at the time, I thought my problems stemmed from the fact that I was defective. My boyfriend at the time had a habit of breaking up with me when things got rough, triggering my deepest, darkest fears of abandonment. But, instead of recognizing these situations for what they were (a call to heal my misperceptions), I took them to mean something else entirely: I had to be even MORE perfect. Each and every time he left (which I don’t blame him for given the circumstances), I beat myself into the ground for not being what he wanted and worked to pretend I was fabulous and happier than ever. Sadly, it worked, and I continued to draw him back into my experience, only to unravel once again into self-hatred, control, jealousy, fear and self-sabotage – which would again, send him running for the hills. It was a vicious cycle that lasted for 7 years and only worked to confirm and deepen my fears rather than heal them.
Then something occurred to me that changed me world and uprooted my beliefs in a way that nothing before every had. I don’t know why, what or who led me to my decision, but something inside of me thought, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I didn’t want to be dependent on something outside of myself anymore for happiness (or what I thought was happiness at the time.) I didn’t want to carry around a bottle of prescription ‘calm’ with me everywhere I went or rely on those pills to get through a day. Something inside of me was desperate to be free, and while I didn’t know it at the time, I was willing to risk everything to get it.
Looking back, I could have done it a much easier way. But, like I said, I chose the hard path, and I refuse now to beat myself up over it. I did the best I could with what I knew to be true in those times. I wish I could say that it was sunshine and roses from that moment on, but in all truth, things got a lot worse before they got better. I quit a powerful drug cold-turkey and had no clue what consequences lay in waiting for me. My mind dissolved almost instantly into complete terror and what had seemed like panic attacks before now looked meek and mild in comparison to the episodes I was having now.
I was losing my mind, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Some stubborn ounce of reserve kept me from going back to my drugs, but I was out on an open ledge with no protection and no idea how to talk myself down.
I pushed everyone away. I couldn’t hold a job, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t make love, I could barely go to the grocery store… Once again, I couldn’t, and I was pissed.
So I did what every sane, average person would do – I began a healing journey so intense that it would unravel every single thread of my life in order to put it back together in a more authentic way that matched who I really was underneath it all.
Doesn’t everybody Eat, Pray, Love their way through life like that?
Sounds nice, yeah? It was – and it wasn’t – and it was – and it wasn’t – and it was. It would take me about three years to get to where I am now - happy and free and loving my life. Three years filled with more pain that I thought I could physically bear and more happiness than I ever knew was humanly possible. The journey has not been a linear path of rolling hills and grassy fields, but rather an arduous, sometimes life-threatening adventure filled with peaks and valleys of all depths. There were in fact, many moments in time where I considered ending my life and pictured how sweet of release it would have been. And I don’t say that lightly. But somewhere, in the back of my stubborn mind, there was always a dim light of hope that there WAS something more – something better – something good – even when I couldn't see it.
The first two years, I healed many parts of myself, but most of them were physical. Through the use of a real-food diet and meditative tools, my anxiety dissipated into a distant memory. My body changed from frail and sickly to thriving and healthy. I learned new ways of thinking, new patterns of thoughts and new beliefs and ways of interacting with others. But still, one lingering issue remained: I didn’t actually love myself, and I still didn’t believe anyone else could either.
It didn’t make sense. Based on how far I’d come and how well my life was going, I should have been happier than I’d ever been, yet I was battling an internal war no one knew about. I was empty, and still numb, and in a last ditch attempt to find out if I was lovable, I self-sabotaged in the most hurtful way I possibly could have. And while I still cringe a bit in sharing this part of myself, it would leave out the most important part of my story so far: My ultimate catalyst to self-acceptance, love and compassion.
In my desperate search for validation and acceptance, I led myself into the arms of someone who was not my boyfriend. It was as if I was 16 years old again, looking for anything and anyone to fill the void – the emptiness and loneliness – the lack of love from the one person who mattered most – myself.
While I stubbornly believed that I just needed my boyfriend to love me more... not leave me so much... not dislike my annoying habits so much... in order for me to happy, I failed to realize that it was never about him. It never mattered if he stayed or went. It never mattered if he loved me or not. None of my actions were, or were not, about him. But you bet your ass that’s what I went with. We always search outside ourselves for answers until we no longer have a choice and that is exactly what happened.
After trying to work it out one last time, he left, and he didn’t come back. I was 5 years old once again, and every fear I’d ever had about being unlovable, unworthy and no good to anyone roared through my psyche and threatened to consume me. This was it. I was backed against the wall, living with a shame so deep it left me breathless and unable to cope with the consequences of my actions. You think others have the power to threaten your self-love? Try loving yourself when you've done something very, very hurtful and wrong. To say I was my own worst critic would have been a gross understatement. There was no where to run, no one to blame, no where to hide…There was no choice but the one right in front of me. It was time to heal once and for all.
And that is what I did. With no power whatsoever to change my outside circumstances, I had no choice but to turn inward. For me, this looked a lot like reclusiveness. I read, I walked, I wrote in my journal, I cried, I cooked, I listened to books, podcasts and talks, I cried some more, I did yoga, I did energy work, I meditated, I took long, warm baths, I prayed, I cried again, I exercised too much, I exercised too little, I ate too much, I ate too little, I yelled and screamed and cried again until I there were no tears left, but all along I searched. Little by little, I began to learn more about myself and felt the weight lift. I saw glimpses of the woman I was becoming, full of pain but also resolve and integrity, and it felt nice. I began to feel kinder, more loving and more accepting of others. As I started to slowly let myself off the hook, I was able to let others off as well. As I allowed myself to be where I was, it was ok for others to be in their own space too. My relationships began to heal, and I realized that we all feel pain, and that no one feels in control. I learned that change is what keeps life exciting and that I was resilient even in the face of uncertainty. I learned that there is a source much greater than me ALWAYS working for me and my highest good, and that I am safe no matter what. I learned that when I stay committed to tuning in, I don't do or say hurtful things. It's when I veer from my truth that I get scared and lash out. I learned that the world is anything but scary and that it's ok to laugh, and then cry because I'm laughing. I learned that it's ok to feel scared by the depth of my own happiness, and that I can try again tomorrow when I unravel back into old patterns. I learned that I'm not weird for feeling such deep emotions and that my passion is exactly what makes me so beautiful. I learned that the emotions I feared would never sweep me away like I imagined, so I might as well quit running from them. But, then, in the most unexpected and beautiful unfolding of all, I learned the one thing that mattered most…
While traveling across the state to visit a friend, I had some good music on in the car and miles of beautiful scenery before me. I was feeling good. I was feeling happy and light and carefree. Feelings that were becoming more and more regular the deeper into my healing I went. Sunshine was warming my skin and my mind felt calm, peaceful and clear. In that moment, as if from somewhere outside of myself I was delivered a thought so clear and beautiful it’s hard to describe in words. I realized for the first time who it was that had gotten me there to that delicious moment of joy. It was as if I was seeing two girls, both myself, but one of which who always known this moment in time would come. She was the one who pulled me off the bathroom floor so many times in the middle of a melt down. She was the one who whispered “there’s a better way” when I was blind to it. She was the one who led me to the books and teachers, who then led me to healing, which led me to happiness. She was the one who, when I felt like I couldn’t possibly go on, grabbed me and threw me on her back to carry me the rest of the way.
In that moment, upon realizing that there were no mountains she would not climb for me, nothing she would not do to ensure my happiness and peace, and that this girl was ME, I fell in love. Giddy, star-struck, mouth-open-in-amazement love. And yes, I cried. A lot. I’m a crier, and that’s ok.
In that moment, I realized what it meant to become whole. I appreciate and love that girl inside so much, that even if someone came up to me tomorrow spewing hateful comments about her, I wouldn’t believe them. I’ve seen what she’s done for me, and no one can convince me otherwise. I love her unconditionally. I may make mistakes, but she never does. I may choose fear over love, but she never will. I may forget who I am, but she will always know. And her and I are inseparable. She is my new sidekick, and I kinda like her….
To me, self-love is about so much more than looking in the mirror and liking what you see looking back. It’s more than enjoying your personality or writing down a list of positive qualities. It’s bigger than all of that. Self-love is the absolute alignment with who you are – It is an energy and love so great that it creates worlds – it’s recognizing that no person, no experience, no place and no thing has the power to separate you from that which you are, which IS LOVE.
It would be silly to say that I’ll never experience negative or fearful emotions again. I do all the time. I’m human after all, and that’s ok. It’s more than ok, it’s perfect. We all get triggered and we all want to be loved and accepted. Even the darkest, ugliest parts of ourselves are just searching for love.
But, I will never again doubt that there is someone who loves me unconditionally and irrationally, and now I will always know that that person is me.
My story may not look like yours, and that’s fine. That’s not really the point. I share this with you today not to relate, but rather to say that no matter what your story is, it’s waiting for you with open arms, ready to love you unconditionally. There is nothing wrong with you or any of us. We are not broken, we do not need fixing and we are certainly not damaged. We may need some polishing from time to time and a little TLC, but hear me when I say this, YOU ARE NOT BROKEN and neither am I. Today I feel happy, beautiful and free. Today I feel empowered beyond belief and able to tackle anything that comes my way with patience, grace and humility. Life is not as simple as one, measly blog post about self-love, but it is as simple as this:
"Decide you want to love yourself and don’t stop until you get there."
When we make the decision to heal, we WILL be led to circumstances and experiences that will call it forth. It might not always look pretty, but it will get you there if you trust the process. You don’t have to understand self-love today or tomorrow or even the next day. Just trust that you will someday and look for evidence to support that belief every day until you have your own moment in the car.
Signing off with love,