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As a teenager and young adult, I thought I loved myself.
While I struggled with usual teenage insecurities and hormonal fluctuations, I felt like I treated myself well enough, physically speaking. I was buried in the throes of self-hatred by that point, but because I wasn’t engaging in overt self-destructive behavior (drugs, partying, etc.), clearly I loved myself. Right?
I still engaged in self-destructive behavior. If I was awake, I was mentally berating myself in some fashion. Because I wasn’t physically destroying my body, I thought I loved myself. I was mentally and emotionally destroying my body with the constant stress I put myself under, and unconsciously, I knew I was in denial.
I did not love myself. I hated myself. It’s something I said to myself multiple times a day.
When Jai was born nearly three years ago, I realized I needed to change my relationship with myself. I am expected to teach my child to love himself, but how could I teach this lesson if I didn’t believe it for myself?
I knew something needed to change, but I wasn’t sure how to change it. Two years ago, I started my wellness journey. It was the first step of learning to fall in love with myself. Six months ago, I decided to commit to fall in love with myself.
Out of My Control
A few months back, I started reading Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. In one of the chapters, author Rich Karlgaard discusses the concept of “Executive Function.” I’d heard about the idea of executive function, but usually in the context of “Executive Function Disorder,” which has a negative connotation. But executive function refers to the higher level of cognitive skills we develop as we grow.
Unless there’s a biological or chemical reason to prevent it, our executive function doesn’t peak until later in life, which I did not know. As kids and teenagers, we wait for that magical age of 18 (or for some, 21) when we’re legally deemed adults. On that birthday, we wake up in the morning fully grown and ready to conquer the world.
As a teenager, I felt so much pressure to achieve. I saw success from my peers, and yet I felt like I was floundering. I later found out that they struggled as much as I did, with one of the first addicts in the growing opioid crisis (from what I know, they’ve overcome that addiction). This pressure to succeed, and perceived failure to do so, also drove my feelings of self-hatred.
What I didn’t realize is that my mediocrity wasn’t my fault (and to be clear, I am not using this as an excuse). I did not have the cognitive capability to succeed in the way I wanted. I thought I was lazy and unmotivated. Turns out, I wasn’t finished developing.
You don’t expect a toddler to have the motor skills needed to complete an adult puzzle, and yet that was what I expected of myself. I was fighting my own nature and blocking myself from self-compassion and love.
In reading the book, a light clicked. I was holding my love hostage from myself until I achieved a level of personal success. I had a lot of starts and stops, but I never really saw anything to completion. I followed the path I thought I was supposed to take, but could not find the drive to overcome the common roadblocks. There were other factors in why I could not love myself, but the feeling of failure ranked high.
I had Jai when I was in my early thirties, which meant that his birth coincided with my executive function peaking. I attribute my new found personal drive with his birth, but the reality is I finally finished becoming an adult.
As with all my new endeavors, I started the journey to self-love and appreciation on a very superficial level.
I exercised more, which signaled that I cared about my physical abilities; I ate better, which meant I cared about preventing exacerbations; I took a more active role in my therapy, which meant I cared about my mental and emotional health; and I started this blog both the chronicle my journey, but as a potential portfolio for professional opportunities.
I know this doesn’t sound superficial, but it was for me. I needed to undo years of physical and emotional damage that I used as forms of poor coping mechanisms. In January 2019, the real work began. I addressed everything I could address by that point. The time for procrastination came to an end.
I needed to pursue myself in a relationship.
As I’ve said, being comfortable with myself is hard. I felt for so long that I was a horrible person. I worried about coming across as arrogant when I publicly acknowledge things I appreciate about myself. I worried about how others perceived me because I didn’t want to be judged by them (I’ve done so much judging of myself, I didn’t want more).
When I said “enough,” that was the moment I decided to stop worrying about everything holding me back. Each time I felt the pang of shame for loving some part of me, I treated myself to self-compassion. I pushed myself beyond the discomfort and kept embracing myself, figuratively, until I calmed down and accepted the love.
Each moment I was tempted to say something nasty to myself, I countered with a loving phrase and repeated it until the need to be mean passed.
Love Ain’t Easy
Relationships of any kind are hard. Some are easier to manage because each person understands the balance between work and fun. Others are more difficult because there is a level of inequity that acts as drag to bring the relationship down.
If you are at war with yourself, then chances are there is an inequality between what you think about yourself, one side of the relationship, and how you actually are, the other side of the relationship. That’s what happened to me: I thought I was a failure for not achieving goals at an early age; not a “good person;” and feeling like a screw-up over any little thing. But tugging at the back of my mind was the knowledge I wasn’t as bad as I perceived myself.
Each time I protested my perceived badness, I felt shame and physical pain in my chest for wanting to defend myself. I learned to give in to the shame because it was easier than fighting it.
I started to fight back. I still struggle with that negative internal narrative. I still struggle with the perceived judgment from others. I still struggle with the pain of shame for wanting to think of myself as a decent person. Like any relationship, I will have to continue to work at it.
I will continue to make sure the perspective I have of myself matches the reality. There will be times where I will get into an argument with myself, but instead of giving into the abusive words, I will stand up to myself and say “this hasn’t worked before, and it will continue not to work.”
Each time I say “I love you,” to me – the pain lessens and I actually believe it. That’s a good feeling.
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