“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance,” said Oscar Wilde, but how do you acquire self-worth when you kind of sort of hate yourself?
I’ve always regarded the prospect of self-love as seriously lame. But not just lame: the very thought of focusing one’s affections onto oneself was a bit nauseating.
My religion was self-hatred. How hilarious is self-hatred? Self-deprecation is my favourite kind of humour. Comedians who hate all over themselves by poking fun at their alcoholism, their chronic feelings of unworthiness or their inability to have functional adult relationships are HiLaRiOUs! Gets me every time.
Not only is self-hatred a bone tickler, it’s also powerfully motivating. I have personally used a generalised sense of nondescript inadequacy to drive all my goals, which had me chasing shiny things from country to country, career peak to peak, ladder rung to rung. Through all that relentless striving, I was trying to get to one sparkly destination: a place called Good Enough.
It was an excellent approach to productivity, I felt.
It’s part of the Australian culture to loathe oneself at least 85% of the time – a trait we picked up from the British. If you start to get a bit too self-accepting, your community will be sure to tug you back down to the communal pit of mild discontent. We don’t want anyone to float away with elation, now. That wouldn’t be fair to rest of the folks out there who loathe themselves day and night.
And so I fit in. I got pats on the back whenever I was openly self-rejecting. You’re doing it right! said society.
I used this negative energy to drive me – furiously. Inside me there was a fire that burned strong with the determination to prove myself. I didn’t even care to whom I was proving myself, but my approximate goal was: Absolutely everyone, at all times.
I worked tirelessly and over-delivered on everything. I got all of my projects to the point of laboured, bleeding perfection, and then I put in another 250%, just in case.
And I fit in. I got pats on the back whenever I under-slept to over-deliver. You’re doing it right! said society.
There was just one small caveat. All I wanted, for all the hard work and missed sleep, was a little magic phrase uttered from the lips of literally anyone, along the lines of:
If that phrase was a gold coin, I made sure I was cashing in.
My schoolteachers said “You get an A+!” whenever I submitted anything. I made sure they did. I just stayed up all night to make it happen. My employers said, “You’re excellent at your job!” and my boyfriend said, “You’re beautiful and fun to be around!”
Ka-Ching, ching, ching!
I made these people my Good Enough judges.
It was great.
I built the foundation of my sense of self-worth onto this precious pile of approval. All I had to do was make sure I was over-delivering at all times, in every area of my life – always.
It was effective.
I was successful.
I was fitting into my culture.
I had plenty of great self-deprecating joke material.
Everything was completely fine, up until…
… my relationship fell apart and my dad died. My freelance work dried up, my plans collapsed, and I tumbled from the mountain of self-worth I had been building, smacking the ground hard on impact.
Turns out, I had built my sense of self-belief upon the worst possible foundation:
And now those people were now gone.
(People can be terribly unreliable like that.)
Here’s a portrait of me from that time of my life:
A maggot was born.
Let me tell you, it’s hard to get around in the world when you’re nothing but a tiny, disgusting, self-loathing maggot. It was awful. I felt worthless. So lacking was my backbone of self-belief that I could hardly stand upright without collapsing in on myself. This was no way to live. But a very small part of me – the part that still cared – knew I needed help.
And so that gross little maggot got on the internet one day and there she came across some words on the blog of a writer named Gigi Griffis. The piece was called: How Solo Travel Taught me to Love Myself.
I clicked the link.
“…self-love is, in part, being your own mother, father, sister, friend, lover, and advocate. It’s about not waiting for someone else to stand up for you, to comfort you, to love you unconditionally…but, instead, doing those things for yourself first.”
The trouble with hating yourself is, the very thought of learning to love yourself feels as stomach-churning as trying to force yourself to love anyone you despise, like that weird guy Murray in accounting who smells of mothballs and artificial cheese flavouring.
I read on, now more concerned with judging Gigi than learning from her.
Gigi said that she has this habit of assigning specific love songs to each adored person in her life: some kind of song that fits that person and expresses the love she feels for them. To help with her journey towards self-love, she decided she would give a love song to herself.
How saccharine. How lovey-dovey, gooey-soupy gross.
But I did it too.
I sang a love song to myself, because I was sick of being a maggot.
At first it felt so corny and stupid, just as it felt stupid to try to treat myself like I was my own mother, father, sister, friend, lover and advocate. It felt stupid and lovey-dovey, gooey-soupy gross, but I did it anyway, because I knew I needed help.
I took myself on fun little outings and treated myself to movies, small gifts and picnics, like a good lover would.
I did exercise and put good food into my body and nurtured my physical self, like a good parent would.
I put music on and danced with myself, just for fun, like a good friend would.
I forgave myself for making silly mistakes, like a good sister would.
I cheered myself forward even when I felt like quitting, like a good advocate would.
I even sang myself love songs.
Nothing was happening.
I was just running through the motions, but feeling nothing. It was like going to the gym everyday but losing no weight.
And now, not only was I a maggot, I was also a massive loser of a maggot who was taking myself out on “dates” and dancing solo to Beyoncé with the door closed.
All the single ladies indeed.
I remember being struck by something Gigi said in her piece, which happened to her one day as she was walking past a mirror and she caught her own reflection:
“…seeing myself staring back, I felt a rush of affection. The kind of affection I feel for my little sister or my best friend. The kind of affection that makes you want to run over and embrace someone. Suddenly and beautifully, my self-worth existed because I existed. I was worth something because I am me.”
I was worth something because I am me.
I pushed on through the motions.
At first it was barely distinguishable: a bouncier step, a lighter feeling in my body, an easier laugh, smoother Beyoncé high kicks with less inner-thigh muscle damage.
But then I began to notice some more substantial changes.
Where before I had absorbed other people’s emotions – taking on their anger or sadness like a seasonal flu – I could now see a clear boundary between somebody else’s emotional state and my own. Low on self-worth, I had mistakenly assumed I was to blame for other people’s emotions, that I had somehow caused them or that it was my duty in life to be a receptacle for other people’s pain, lowly maggot that I was.
This made me either defensive or withdrawn in self protection, overly tolerant and easily exploited, or else obligated to jump in and try to fix problems that weren’t mine to fix. Combat, endure or fix: those were my only options anytime someone was unhappy around me.
I resented people for being unhappy too, because it was a horrendous burden to have to combat, endure or fix all the time. I was vulnerable to sudden, unpredictable mood shifts, because it would only take someone getting upset in my near vicinity and – boom – day ruined. As it turns out, I had been going around in the world absorbing a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t belong to me.
But I was worth something now. I was worth not having the job of pain fixer-up-er-er. I was worth inner peace and happiness. I was worth a bright, light, sacred bubble of personal space controlled by me and me alone, and so I let all negativity bounce off this magical force field that I made with my mind:
A weird thing happened as a result: I had far more energy. Turns out, absorbing other people’s toxicity like a human sponge is a really heavy burden to carry around, but now I was floating about with an unfamiliar lightness of being.
Surplus energy produced more joy and joy produced more energy. It felt almost wrong to feel so free.
Am I forgetting something? I kept asking myself. So accustomed was I to this extra workload, I had to train myself into this new state of being.
It’s okay to be this happy, I would remember.
With more energy and joy, social situations became not just easy, but fun. When before, at parties, I’d shied into a corner to eat all the cheese while focusing the bulk of my mental capacity on clever tactics for avoiding people – in case I ended up having to combat, endure or fix – I was now free to just connect, soul to soul. Socialising was no longer an exhausting prospect.
I was making new and interesting friends. And these new and interesting friends brought new and interesting experiences to my life, which brought me more energy and joy. One good thing built upon the next in a positive feedback loop.
(There was a lot more cheese left on antipasto platters, too.)
It was during a phone call with my mother that I knew something significant had shifted inside of me. I was telling her a story about a conversation I’d had with a dear friend in a supermarket the day before. My story stopped short when my memory went blank—
“I was standing in the frozen food section talking with…”
…who was that person again?
I couldn’t remember who this person was. It had only been one day since this event – what was wrong with my memory? Was I getting Alzheimer’s? Who was I with yesterday? I scanned my brain for clues. She was someone I really adored, a dear friend, a fun friend, a women who I truly loved…
…but who was she?
And then I remembered a key detail: I was alone that day. With my inner dialogue.
That dear friend who I truly loved was… me.
I had forgotten I was alone that day because I wasn’t used to feeling such kind, accepting warmth in my own company.
This was post #2 of The Illustrated Guide to Calming the F#@! Down.
Every few weeks, I’ll be bringing you creations on this theme (with Sarah Steenland on cartooning), so that you can go on an inward-bound travel adventure with us towards introspection and self-exploration, with the goal of better understanding ourselves and each other. Subscribe to never miss a post.
Read post #1 here on How To Listen To Your Gut.