Learning to love myself is a journey that continues through out the span of our lives – not something you accomplish in a day, a weekend getaway, or even in a month. For people like me who are focused on deadlines and checking things off my to-do list, this really aggravated me. I didn’t have time to wait around and try to learn this self-love stuff day-by-day. I wanted results now! And because I couldn’t find just a few minutes a day to practice, I wound up just avoiding it all together.
And I was doing pretty good for myself. I even remember thinking to myself, “oh yah, I definitely love myself”. I would hear Oprah and other talk show hosts talk about having to love yourself first before you could love anyone else and I told myself, “yep, I’ve got that down pat.” And so I kept telling myself, for a good 12- 15 years. I thought I had snuck past that pesky, long drawn out process of learning to love myself and just skipped to the fun part – loving someone else and building a life together.
Well, guess what happened? Life came knocking and reminded me that I hadn’t done the best job of fooling it. “Oh hello, you remember that self-love thing you didn’t ever have time for because you were too busy with your job, your friends, your relationship, your LIFE? Well, now you’re going to have to actually do the hard work because guess what – all those things that kept you so busy aren’t there anymore. So now what’s your excuse?”
And damn it, life was right. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always made sure I was super busy and active, so much so that I didn’t have the down time to work on myself. I remember after my first terrible relationship ended, I started seeing a therapist. I wanted to wrap my head around what I had gone through and be sure that I didn’t have to go through those experiences again. But then I met someone new, and I began spending more time with them in the evenings after work and I decided that was more important than continuing therapy. And then 3 years later, I found myself leaving that relationship and moving very quickly onto a new relationship (less than 2 months between the two).
About 2 years into this new relationship, we begin experiencing similar issues to that former relationship which had landed me in therapy years prior. I took the initiative and suggested we go to therapy, which he actually agreed to (m y ex had refused). I felt this was a super positive sign and was ever helpful that this would be the “fix”. We worked nearly 9 months in therapy, alone and together, as we prepared to say “I do” to one another. Shortly after our wedding, he launched into a serious study course and our therapist switched insurances, so we once again became “too busy” for therapy.
Flash forward less than 18 months, and I somehow wind up fleeing a relationship that was supposed to be “the one”. I suggest we see that same therapist who had counseled us prior to the wedding, but I knew it was too late. The work we had put in before the vows had stopped abruptly and it’s impossible to just pick up where you left off in these sorts of things. So, I decided to go see a therapist on my own, to work through the issues independently. I only saw her a few times, but within the first 10 minutes of meeting me, she delved right into the burning questions I had been avoiding.
- How are feeling?
- How are you dealing with all of this?
- How are you working and still functioning day to day?
- How do you feel about yourself?
- What is your inner voice – your inner critic – saying to you?
All things I didn’t want to answer or face. I utterly and completely blamed myself for everything that was happening to me. I believed it was my fault and that I had somehow caused this cyclone of insanity that had touched down in my life and literally ripped my relationship – and my heart – into shreds. As I sat in her office, I felt as if pieces of my life – my fairy tale, happily ever life – were scattered across her floor like the remnants after a tornado. Oh look – there’s the memories from our honeymoon in New York City, crumbled up in the corner. And over there, that’s the memories of the screaming matches in our first apartment because I didn’t want him to take shots every night when he came home. Oh and that over there? That’s just keys that I threw because I was so fed up with his manic drinking behavior that had last all night and kept me awake.
But that’s not what this therapist wanted to talk about. No, she wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes, deep down inside of me. What was causing me have such a negative outlook on the situation? Why was I taking the blame for something that so clearly had happened to me, but not because of me? Did I do this often – take the blame for things? Oh yes – always. And I was great at just volunteering myself to take the fall; so much so that I think everyone around me just expected it and began to do it for me. Oh why is he having a bad day? Oh well, Erin didn’t wake him up with a kiss and instead went running before he woke up. Yep, that’s why he’s in a bad mood, why he was late to work, why the traffic was horrible…
Wrong. All wrong. But how did I get to this point?
Remember what I had no time for? That little thing called self-love, that which I had run from and avoided all these years, telling myself that I did love myself… Well I hadn’t ever developed it. Or if I had, it had disappeared long before I hit my college years. Instead of taking the time to learn about myself and really become my best friend, I had run wildly out into the world, expecting it to fill me up and fill the gaping holes within me.
But when to world around you crumbles down and you’re left there standing alone amongst the rubble, you begin to realize how large and hollow the holes really are. Before when I was so busy decorating, cleaning, dancing, partying, working, running, flirting, loving, and cooking, I hadn’t noticed them. I filled my spare time with all the things that I loved so I didn’t have to be alone. Oh, I was along for a good portion of my first year of marriage due to my husband’s courses, but I found lots of things to do. I was never bored; rarely lonely. But in those 9 months that I was alone, do you think I took the time to just be with myself and my feelings?
Come on, you know the answer to this one. Nope. And when I did feel that my emotions and thoughts were creeping in, I would drink to desperately keep the thoughts at bay and make them recede to the farthest, darkest corners of my mind. Thankfully this didn’t happen very often, or I may be sitting here today with quiet a different problem on my hands. But no, my problem – the underlying cause of all my failed relationships and not-so-happy-endings was very simple: I don’t love myself.
You see, when you don’t love yourself, you have no example of what love is. Oh, we have Hollywood and social media and friends and family to show us examples of love. And trust me, you’ll get a wide kaleidoscope of varying types of loves from all of those sources. And like me, you’ll start to pick and choose which types of love that you like. You’ll play around with different behaviors, different looks, different tricks, in order to “win” the love that you’re looking for. Or the one you think you’re looking for, because remember, you don’t really know what love you want.
And maybe you’ll get lucky and stumble across a type of love that is raw, pure, and magical. The kind of love that you read about in fairy tales or see on television. And you’ll get swept up in that love whirlwind and sail off to Never-Ever Land, where you and your love will live happily ever after. Content. Happy. Blissful.
But maybe you won’t find your Prince Charming and you end up with some jerk face who can barely remember your name. And even though you know he’s not good for you, you’ll keep trying to keep his attention, even just for a few second longer. Knowing full well that the moment you are gone from his mind, it’s on to the next pretty lil’ thing he sees. And why do we torture ourselves with this game, when we know deep down we should stop playing? Because deep down, we have a hole that we’re trying to fill and when we’re with him, the aching of that hole fades away.
The hole is aching for love. We are all aching for love. But we have been raised to believe that we can find love through things and through others. And so the moment we begin to deal with the pain, we start reaching out for love. Never once do we think to just turn inwards and try to love ourselves. Instead of crying out for love from someone else and then making ourselves miserable because we don’t receive that attention… we could just give ourselves attention. But that would seem so simple, now wouldn’t it? And if it was so simple as taking the time to be with yourself, don’t you think more people would be doing it??
So, my dear readers, I have been embarking on this self-love journey for almost a year now. It began last summer when I began focusing on myself in order to stop focusing on trying to get pregnant. And I really began to feel confident and stronger about myself after just a few short months. I even remember thinking to myself, “oh yeah, you’ve got this thing down. You totally learned to love yourself in way less time than you thought it would take you. Go you!” Imaginary high five to myself. But I still had my life at that point. Sure, it wasn’t the greatest or anything to write a fairy tale about, but I still have people present in my life on a a day-to-day basis. I had that support system that I had grown accustomed to. I had the routine that I had built for myself and was reliant upon.
But when all that crumbled apart and that one person wasn’t there every morning when I woke up or every night as I fell asleep, or even throughout the day via text or phone… well that’s when the true test of self-love commences. That’s when you realize that you really can’t rely on anyone else to fill you up when you’re lacking, to pull you back up when you’re down, or to make you smile when you’re sad. That’s when you realize that YOU are the only person you can truly rely on (and should rely on) to do those things for you. And that’s when you actually have to start doing these things for yourself, or else that great big gaping hole instead of you will swallow you up.
And so I re-started my self-love journey, but this time from the very bottom. I had lost the entire world that I had known for nearly 4 years, and I was having to face some pretty tough decisions. I could continue being as I had always been – flitting here, there, and everywhere in hopes of gaining love. Or I could use this situation as a learning experience and finally start the annoying business of learning to love myself. I only call it that because in my mind, it was annoying and not half as much fun as falling in love with someone else. What could possibly be exciting about loving myself??
A lot can be, actually. Deciding to take a million steps backwards and looking at my life through the most honest of eyes possible, I’ve begun to peel back the layers of myself and see what really makes me, me.
- I’ve had to learn to be ok with myself. I’ve always been super critical of myself, mainly because I feel this is how I’ve been able to accomplish so much in life. If I’m my biggest and harshest critic, I can never truly be hurt by anyone else. I learned that lesson early on in grade school when I stuck out like a sore thumb for being very tall, gangly and then curvy, and having not-so-mainstream interests (like choreographing my skating moves on roller blades in the driveway because I was determined that I would be a figure skater).
- I’ve had to learn how to make myself smile and to make myself laugh. Not a lot of things truly makes me do either these days. And that’s really sad because I have amazing parents and friends who I communicate with daily. But somehow, my moods somehow get in the way and bumble everything up. Or something they’ll say or do triggers a memory, which then triggers and unwanted emotion. Things that shouldn’t upset me cause me to be angry; other actions cause me to be sad. There really isn’t a rhyme or reason to it all.
- To combat these mood swings, I’ve had to learn what I need in my life. Prior to all of this, I was working out and running every morning, working full-time, making dinner every night, and then working and writing until bedtime. I never had a spare moment. I figured if I was busy, I wouldn’t have to deal with the nonsense that was going on around me – I could just block it out. Since embarking on this journey, I’ve learned that not all of those things are necessary for me to get through the day. I’ve had to let a lot of my expectations for myself go. Sure, I would love to work out for 2 hours a day and have a six-pack. But that doesn’t make me smile as much as being able to write about my feelings or about cooking.
- I also had to learn what is best for my body. Waking up early, running myself ragged all day, and going to bed late was not working for me. After two weeks of this behavior, I would wake up one day just absolutely exhausted and not wanting to do anything. I would get the extra sleep, but then I would wake up feeling terrible because I had “wasted” my day. I wouldn’t do any sort of exercise or physical activity because I was anxious to attack my to-do list and (you guessed it), I would crash shortly afterwards in a puddle of angry tears. After about two of these episodes, I learned three very important things: 1) I need my sleep now more than ever; 2) I need a routine to help me combat the depression in the mornings; 3) I need to exercise in the morning to counteract the depressing thoughts.
- I’ve learned that I missed reading. I never had time for reading outside of work projects, and we all know how exciting those can get. I always told myself that I would read when I free time, but then I never gave myself any of it! Prior to Christmas, I ordered a whole box of books from Amazon and lined them up on my bookshelf of me to see them daily. I’ve been slowly working my way through them, which gives me a sense of accomplishment. What’s better is that these books have all been centered around learning to understand and love yourself.
- For the first time, I really have had to look at my life and decide, “what do I want to do? If I can’t be a mother, what will I do?” This is a question I’ve been dreading to face and still don’t know quite how to answer. Ever since I was in college and in relationships, I planned my life around what was best for US – where we would live, where we would work, where we would find a house, where we could have children. Whether it was moving the Virginia to be near his parents (my first love in college); or staying in Jacksonville because his family was here (my first troublesome relationship); or to moving somewhere between our parents so that our kids would have grandparents who could easily visit (my marriage) – I always strove to find what would work best for us both. Don’t get me wrong – I was selfish from time to time (like wanting to have kids now vs. waiting another 2 years). But when I was faced with the reality that my future might not involve kids and a big house as soon as I’d hoped (and that I might have to start over), I was petrified. I hate not knowing and I still hate not knowing what is going to happen. But you what I’m begun to notice in the past week or so is that when others are starting to plan around me and have me involved, I’m now the one getting anxious. I take this as a sign that I’m beginning to learn my lesson of relinquishing control to someone stronger than me.
- I’ve had to learn to rely on my own judgement. I have come to realize that I really don’t know how to make decisions for myself. I would always get someone else’s opinions or thoughts before I did something too rash. Even in the case of my relationship – I literally went to my 3 closest friends and told them what happened and in a timid voice would ask, “what should I do?” I knew damn well what I should do, but I’m so scared to making the “wrong” decision that I always ask for everyone else’s advice. Which means I usually get about 10 different viewpoints and wind up irritating someone because, well, you can’t take everyone’s advice in one situation. A part of me thinks I am doing this advice-seeking as a means for attention, and I wasn’t pleased to when I made that self-discovery. I immediately retracted into my hole and counseled myself about the reasons I was asking for help in the first place. And people noticed – especially those close to me who were used to me opening up on a daily or weekly basis. But they didn’t question – they just let me be and understood that I must be going through a part of the process where I’m silent and withdrawn. And I’m still kind of in that place, but I’m beginning to make decisions based on my own truth and desires, only reaching out to others when I’m truly at a loss for direction.
- I’m learning to not compare myself to others. I am notorious for this in every aspect of my life. Running. Drinking. Marriage. Relationships. Cooking. Work. Driving. Getting pregnant. You name it; I’ll find someone who is better at it than me. I can rarely be heard praising myself for something I’ve done. Whenever someone pays mea compliment, I actually feel super awkward accepting it. I’m that person who automatically wants to respond with, “you did a great job too!” and immediately deflect the attention. I guess I grew up believing that you shouldn’t boast or talk about your accomplishments, and I just kept taking it seriously. While that is a great guiding principle, if you take it as seriously as I have, you wind up just shoving yourself to the ground. Forget having someone else do it for you – you’ll go ahead and criticize. And that’s the place I found myself 6 months ago – lying on the ground, not sure how to stand up and support myself. Not in a literal sense, but in an emotional sense. While I didn’t fully accept or believe the compliments I was receiving, those were the only positive things being fed to me. Everything coming out of my own mind, heart, and soul were negative. “You cause this. You’re such an idiot. You’re just like her – you got sucked in and now you’re going through the same things. How could you let things get to this point? What is wrong with you???” And when I wasn’t too busy beating myself up, I was looking over the fence to see what they were doing to make their grass greener than mine.
- I’m learning to speak nicer to myself and others. In not knowing how to accept compliments and feeling awkward, I’ve gradually just stopped giving them to others. This occurred especially in my close personal relationships. I’ve never been great at voicing praise (probably one of my weakest points as an elementary teacher), and it’ showed in my relationships. I think a lot of it has to do with me being so busy that I just don’t notice little things like a hairstyle, a new outfit, or new glasses. I would realize someone got a haircut like a week after it happened and I would be so embarrassed that I would never compliment. And it’s horrible, because you would think I would take a moment to notice these things, instead of just rushing through life. That’s how my husband describes it – that I’m too busy thinking about or planning the next big thing, I don’t even take a moment to revel in what is going on right now. This mindset works really well in my line of work, but not in my personal life. People notice when you don’t notice them and the little things. All those little things are memories and moments in life that you can’t get back. Those little things are what grow a relationship.
- I’m learning to be present. When I went to my first individual therapy session last fall, she could tell I was a wreck. I showed up a few minutes late to my appointment and she wasn’t there. I called every number I could find and even tried to check the neighboring offices to be sure I was in the right spot. When she arrived 20 minutes later, I was just relieved. Then we discovered I had somehow not made it onto her calendar at all for that day! I must’ve looked like I was about to bust into tears because she took me in and saw me anyways. I unloaded everything on her in those brief 20 minutes and I remember her just sitting there, trying to take it all in. Then she asked, “what is it I can help you with today – right now?” And I recall not knowing how to answer. It was the first time I had told my story and broken down completely. I had been holding it all together for weeks, not shedding a tear and putting up this hard exterior. But I was shattered there again in her office. She reached into a drawer and brought out a stone. With great seriousness, she told me that this was a grounding rock and that I needed to carry it with me everywhere. That the one thing I needed to focus on right now was being present in what was going on. Not the past and the pain; not the future and the uncertainty. But right here, right now. And while I don’t hold that rock in my hand quite as often now, it stays nearby and reminds me to take a deep breath and tell myself to stay right here. Me being the planner that I am; this is a difficult task for me.