The following piece was contributed by Hillary Martin, and is about self-love (the non-gimmicky kind) and growing into oneself.
My whole life has been leading up to one quiet moment. It happened last night, when I thought to myself, “I choose you.”
I was sitting on one end of a red couch, opposite the man that I love, as we gently explained to each other with teary eyes the things about our relationship that weren’t making us happy.
I looked at this man and his arms that can wrap all the way around me and, in an instant, make the world feel safe. I thought of the way he makes me laugh, and the way that we so fiercely believe in each other. I could feel the ghost of the way the soft skin of his cheek feels when it is pressed against mine. I listened to his words, and I felt in my belly that everything he needed was deeply valid.
What was so new about this particular moment, however, was not that I knew with certainty that he deserved to have his needs met and feel truly happy. It was, instead, what I wholeheartedly felt about myself as we moved through this painful conversation: that everything I needed was valid, too.
With all of our messiness and baggage and fears, the two of us were both OK and worthy of love — just as we were; myself included. And as the thought, “I choose you”, entered my mind, I decided that no matter what happened, I would hold my own hand and I would not condemn myself for my flaws.
When I say that my whole life was leading up to this moment, I mean that it has taken all my 30 years to really believe that I deserve to be my own caretaker just as much as anyone else deserves my care. And this is, without a doubt, a political issue.
As a little girl, I learned that my most valuable attribute was being adaptable to others. I learned that I should first and foremost, be liked by everyone. So, instead of developing my own interests and hobbies in adolescence, I became an expert at losing myself into other people’s worlds and expectations.
In young adulthood, as is almost always true for the ways we learn to cope with the world in early years, my fool-proof approach to life suddenly went from keeping me safe to causing me great pain.
One day, I decided quite consciously to stop eating. I didn’t know who I was, but damnit, I knew I could be thin. (In our society, everyone likes thin people.) I launched myself into nearly a decade of battling Anorexia and perfectionism.
Women are supposed to want to be small. We are supposed to believe that the smaller we are, the more worthy of love we are. If we are busy wanting to be small (literally and symbolically), we are focused on pleasing the eyes of others instead of creating a home in ourselves and allowing ourselves to have an impact on the world around us. We are busy thinking that making other people comfortable is more important than making ourselves comfortable. We lose track of caring for ourselves.
At the very same time, in our culture where the terms “self-love” and “self-care” are thrown around left and right, we are receiving the message that we are supposed to know what this means and how to access it; but in my experience, self-love is a clumsy and tremendously arduous endeavor.
In lonely times, we are casually delivered sentiments like, “You have to love yourself before someone else will be able to love you,” which, in my experience, are saved predominantly for women and only reinforce the felt-truth that we are not worthy of love just as we are, or with the needs we have in this very moment.
Five years ago, I began therapy with a wonderful, nurturing clinician who began telling me to develop my own internal caretaker, and for quite a while (years, really), I nodded along, but inside I hadn’t a clue how to make myself believe that I deserved my own love, regardless of whether I was slogging through the mud or soaring through the clouds.
Through various kinds of heartbreak, loss, and uncertainty over the years, I started saying hollow words to myself. I would look in the mirror and tell myself, “you matter”, and feel nothing. When I was scared, I would imagine hugging my inner child and say to myself, “I’ve got you,” but I would feel no comfort. I kept going, however, and slowly the words have developed grit and I’ve started to believe them.
Last night I finally believed that I would take care of myself no matter what, and I finally understood why it’s so important that I do that, first and foremost.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons from all of this is to trust the messy process.
You are valuable, lovable, and worthy of your own care no matter what your journey looks like.
My hope for you is that you look in the mirror today and tell yourself something that you need to hear, whether you believe it right now or not. Someday, you will.