The summer before my senior year of college I decided to live in a dorm at my school, and do a little bit of project work for my boss. It had been a rough year for me, but tempered with a lot of therapy and self-discovery. Therapy is great for self-discovery, but only if you don’t mind feeling like you’ve been ripped open at least once a week. It’s like losing the top layer of your skin; everything feels red and raw and it hurts if anything touches it, but it heals pretty cleanly.
One day I was working with my boss, when I made a joke to the effect of “lol I’m the worst.” You know, the kind of casual, self-deprecating humor that people use a thousand times a day. But my boss stopped me, and looked me in the eye and said “now say something nice about yourself.”
I was taken aback. Didn’t she know it was a joke? I didn’t actually think I was the worst. But I still couldn’t come up with one good thing to respond with.
I had never realized how those jokes could add up, until they became the lens in which I viewed myself. Someone who was annoying or loud, or generally the worst. The things I said in public became the thoughts that circled my mind, like vultures zeroing in on a kill. I’mtheworstI’mtheworstI’mtheworst.
I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom “no one can love you until you love yourself.” It’s been pointed out many times how harmful that line of thinking can be to someone with a mental health issues who doesn’t love themselves, to believe that then nobody can love them. But I think there is still some wisdom there. Until you learn how to appreciate the fact that you are worthy of love, it is hard to believe that anybody would truly love you.
I decided I would stop saying negative things about myself, or at the very least, I would counter it always with one good thing. I needed to break up the pattern of self-abuse, and start believing that I could be good enough.
A few months ago I was out with some of my old friends, when one of them started apologizing for being indecisive. I told her it was fine, we are all just people, and we have quirks that make us who we are. I suggested we all list one thing that we think of as a flaw about ourselves. Everyone could think of one easily. Then I said “now let’s do an exercise where we all say one nice thing about ourselves.”
Everyone got immediately uncomfortable. They fidgeted and made fun of me for being corny. Answers were tempered with “I guess I’m not that bad at….” and “maybe I’m okay at this.” Some refused to answer at first. One friend said in jest “I’m really good at tricking people into being friends with me.” This dragged out over many uncomfortable minutes because I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted everyone to find the thing in themselves that they were proud of.
These were smart, accomplished, funny, hard-working, beautiful women, some of whom I’d known and admired for most of my life. If they couldn’t think of one thing that they felt proud of, who could?
Their experiences and mine don’t exist in a void. When you spend your whole life hearing you’re not skinny enough, not pretty enough, not smart or straight or white enough, not gender conforming enough or able-bodied enough, it becomes entrenched deep within your mind, until it feels impossible to untangle. Some days it always lurks at the top of your mind, and all you can think is “I suck I suck I suck.” Other days it comes as a surprise. “I thought I was past that, I thought that was healed.”
I don’t know if it ever quite heals. But as an exercise, I try to be actively being kind to myself. I try to not compare my accomplishments to others, because there was a time when my depression was so debilitating that I couldn’t focus on much beyond “get out of bed” and “ask for help.” I do my best to feel proud of how far I have come and what I have accomplished. I try to reach out to friends who get it, so we can mutually complain or laugh or just feel understood. Community, I am learning, is an essential part of healing, and of living.
What if instead of downplaying our accomplishments, we let ourselves be proud of them? What if when we felt good about ourselves, we said it out loud? What if we told others that we are proud of them, or that they are brilliant, interesting, and beautiful?
I think love is an exercise. It’s something we have to practice, until we get it right. It’s something that takes energy and time. And it’s something we have to do for ourselves, in addition to doing it for others.
Last week I put on my favorite blue dress and went for a walk with my wonderful girlfriend. I told her “I feel so pretty today.” She said “it’s nice that you like yourself so much.” It made me smile. Maybe it’s unusual to hear people compliment themselves, but I think it’s an exercise we should do more often.