A friend was recently reflecting on her attempts at self-love, and mid-thought, sighed, rolled her eyes, and said, “Why is this shit so hard?”
Good question: Why is self-love so hard?
It definitely feels hard to me, too. But I can’t wrap my mind around why.
I love other people easily. I fall in friendship-love at the drop of a hat. And when I love people, they’re pretty much stuck with me. My heart is like a bear trap: once you’re in it, you’re not getting out without losing a limb.
That was more gruesome than I meant it. My point is, I fall in love—snap!—and have a hard time letting go.
With friends, it’s easy. But falling in love with myself feels…I was going to say “impossible,” but dangerous may be more accurate.
Self-love feels unsafe, because women and feminine-of-center folks who think they’re great get punished. The minute you acknowledge an area in which you excel, someone shows up to cut you down.
I grew up believing that if I stayed down no one would hurt me. The things that happened to other women—women who thought they were “so great,” who were “full of themselves”—wouldn’t happen to me because I would be small and powerless. I would follow all rules and heed all authority.
But it’s not true. You’re less visible on the ground.
And if people want to cut you up into itty-bitty pieces? They’re going to do it regardless of how high or low you might be.
Those are some well-worn mental grooves: stay small to stay safe.
And the dominant cultural paradigm totally supports it. Shonda Rhimes talks about this with Mother’s Day cards. Where are the Mother’s Day cards for the mother who taught you to stand your ground? Where are the cards for the mother who encouraged you to invest in your passion, or taught you to say, “Fuck their fascist beauty standards?” There aren’t those cards, because there aren’t supposed to be those mothers.
My best friend from college, E, was raised by a feminist lesbian triad, all doctors. And when I say feminist, I mean they are kind of a big deal with the National Organization for Women. E has issues with her mothers—how could you not?—but I have never known her to doubt her worth. She doesn’t appear to feel the pressure to “fit in” that so many women feel, she’s not competitive with other women, and I imagine that if I asked her if she loves herself, she’d look at me like I was asking her how many heads she has.
I don’t know this for a fact. But this is the energy that E radiates: her worthiness is not up for debate, and never was. No time for self-doubt when there’s patriarchy to smash.
I see three factors converging to shape E into the phenomenal woman I know her to be:
- who she is, deep-down on a cellular level, is amazing;
- she operates from a sense of known worthiness;
- and her mothers were perhaps less enmeshed in patriarchal culture than some other mothers are—plus, you know, being total badass feminist doctors.
What does this mean in terms of my self-love—or anyone else’s?
Well, who I am, deep-down on a cellular level is awesome. I’m borrowing intact lenses from friends—people I trust and believe, wholeheartedly—and I’m learning to see my awesome the way they see it. And I see it in them, even when they don’t, and I tell them what I see! That part of the recipe we have down: the whole “trusting each other to tell us the truth” thing.
Next is worthiness, and I don’t even want to touch this one. Not because it’s not crucial, but because I have no idea how to feel it. I think—I think—the key to feeling worthiness is living it: moving through your life in the way you would if your sense of self-worth and your belief in your right to be yourself and take up space were totally unshakable. What would that look like?
I have a few ideas:
- I would never, ever eat frantically, standing over the sink…unless it was summer and I was eating a peach, because those things are MESSY when they’re ripe!
- I would get rid of all the clothes that cut me in half and torture my belly.
- I’d be stricter with my kids, probably, because it’s rude to just drop your stinky shoes in the middle of the floor and wander away, so hey, come back here, kiddo! That’s not where those go!
That’s just off the top of my head. There are dozens of things, mostly involving boundaries and communication and care and giving zero fucks about opinions from people whose names don’t appear on my Brene-Brown-inspired one-inch square.
And that got me to thinking about mothers. Not yours and mine, but archetypal, maternal wisdom. The Mother you’d find in the highest level of the astral plane, whose energy matched yours exactly: whose giving perfectly fit your receiving.
When my babies were little, everything revolved around nap time. They needed to nap; it was non-negotiable. Because if the baby didn’t nap, then he was a miserable little asshat, and no one had a good time. Nap time was how I made most of my decisions. Nope, can’t do that thing: it interferes with nap time. Sorry, I have to turn down your invitation: it’s nap time.
Could I channel that fierce maternal energy on my own behalf? “I’m sorry, Noelle can’t volunteer for that position. It interferes with their nap time.”
That feels ridiculous. More than that. It feels selfish. Selfish.
And isn’t it interesting that “selfish” is a word that gets lobbed at women, mothers, queer folks, and feminine-of-center people who dare to be anything other than selfless?
“Self-love” cannot exist without at least a little self: self-ish.