How do you define your self-worth?
This post has been waiting to be written and published for nearly three years now.
A few weeks ago, I grabbed lunch with a friend at one of my favorite vegan restaurants. We had a great talk, as usual–about our lives, about our romances, about our attitudes toward life more broadly. About halfway through our lunch, though, my friend said something that stopped my breath short and almost made me drop my fork straight into a bed of dressing-drenched iceberg lettuce.
“When I look in the mirror these days,” she said, with a radiant smile, “I see a friend. And I say to that friend, ‘Hey girl, do you want to grab dinner? How about going to watch a movie?”
Then she added: “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
As far as I can remember, I have never said anything like that to myself. Back in the blissful days of high school, when I was utterly content with my life and self-image, and pulling out on top in most aspects of my life, I had no reason to tell myself that I loved me, and wanted to take me out for some awesome treats. I simply did it. Feel like having 3 Haagen Daas bars before dinner? Go for it! Play Final Fantasy for 14 hours today? Sure, why not? You earned it, girl. And even if you haven’t, you do it because you’re your own human being.
The first time I remember being aware of a different feeling was in my junior year of college. That year, I did two things: a) stopped taking great care of myself, body and well-being, and b) became a much harsher critic of my own value as an individual. Though I was never crazy critical of my own body, I was definitely suffering from extreme stress (in my living situation, in my extracurriculars, in my coursework), and a part of me turned instinctively to regulating the only things I felt I could still control: food, and sleep. In short, it was everything about my health and my physical body on which I felt I needed to clamp down.
To be clear: I wasn’t anorexic, I was never underweight, but I was clearly bent on depriving myself of necessities because I hadn’t “earned” them or worked to my full potential yet. Sometimes I would wake up at 6 and wouldn’t let myself leave my room until 4 in the afternoon because, damn it, I wasn’t going anywhere until I had finished writing my entire piece-de-resistance. That year, I wrote a play for a creative writing class that was later performed by students in the theater department for our class. It featured two characters: a boy journalist who was lurking in the girls’ bathroom trying to get a story about eating disorders, and the girl in the stall next door, who used bulimia as a source of maintaining some semblance of control over her life. Looking back at the story several years later, I began to realize the unconscious identification that went into writing that play, even though I didn’t see it at the time. Control was the name of the game; self-destructiveness was, sadly, incidental.
Think back to the first time you learned that generosity isn’t always reciprocated by those who receive; that perhaps kind people do get the short end of the stick sometimes, because the most deserving person you know in life was suddenly taken away from you; that fairness isn’t a rule for living, it’s a guideline and a hope. You can’t undo the experiences that have opened your eyes, and during that year I grew harshly critical of myself in every way imaginable. I hated feeling like a victim who stayed out all the time because I didn’t want to go home, nothing I did seemed good enough or grand enough to warrant praise, and I certainly did not want to eat or leave to use the bathroom or do anything but throw myself down on my bed and cry during the times when I felt compelled to keep myself locked up in my room because I didn’t want to face my roommate situation.
Life sucked. It was sucky. It all sucked, and I felt completely alone drowning in that suckiness.
I had never defined my self-worth according to my physical image because to be honest, I had always been comfortable with my athletic, petite build. Body types were incidental, not definitive. But when I started slimming down during these months of avoiding the kitchen (because then I’d have to go home) or grabbing dessert instead of real meals to last me the 0whole day because my body craved sugars, I noticed that my build shrank and started resembling something that looked (according to the fashion magazines) kind of appealing. It was at this point that I started thinking, “Huh, maybe if you pull harder on the rein, you’ll actually be able to take control over something for once!” It sounds scary now, but it felt like the only reaction to have at the time.
The same went for sleep: I began sleeping less and less, which made my body even more fatigued than it already was. I became a work-o-holic with a drive to prove that I could accomplish things. Outcomes I couldn’t control, but sleep I could. It was like somebody had pulled me aside and said to me, “See? You can make yourself do these things, no problem. You’re the head honcho here. You don’t need to do normal people things like sleep.” What had started as a desperate attempt to regain authority over my own life turned into both a physical and psychological battle. Probably the hardest part was explaining my constant exhaustion and unhappiness to the people in my life who noticed, especially my family and certainly those involved in my living situation. I wanted to scream to the latter, “It’s your fault I’m this way! If you would just stop pigeon-holing me into this spiral of helplessness, maybe I wouldn’t endure this gnawing feeling in my stomach and actually step out of my room into the kitchen again and eat something!”
But one thing I’ve always been known to do is brew. It’s a terrible, and terribly self-destructive, mindset. Sure, I was unhappy as heck. But I would rather have others notice how unhappy I was and maybe do something about it than concede and have people think I was maybe more okay with things than I really was. If you step out of your room and go to the kitchen, my depressed brain told me, you’ve lost. They’ll think you’re fine with it again. Well, maybe if you stay in your room for fourteen hours without coming out once, they’ll notice something’s wrong! Maybe they’ll actually begin to feel BAD. It was not an easy time, and it was not a happy place to be.
As it turns out, the situation didn’t begin to reverse itself until I moved out two years later and away to grad school. To say that things have healed would be an overstatement–they’ve been bandaged up very well, though, and I’m still working every day to make it work better. But remember what I said about not being able to un-know something? Since that time, the nagging perceptions about my body and my self-worth began snaking their way into my consciousness. Suddenly, I became aware that I had a figure, and it didn’t match ‘pretty.’ It didn’t say, “I’m in control of me.”Even now, as I’ve been able to embrace myself more and more, I have had to fight tooth and nail to do it. I have a lot more trouble sleeping nowadays under stressful periods (no matter how minor) than I used to have.
If I am a person who brews, though, I am also a ferocious fighter. And this past year in particular, after the end of my grueling qualifying exams and what seems like the naissance of a very happy period in my life, I have been fighting like a momma bear defending her cubs, because I only get one life, and my health and well-being are worth that. These were all of the thoughts that raced through my head when my friend said that simple phrase: “When I look in the mirror, I see a friend.” Today, as I write this post, I realize that this is the phrase I have been missing from my life for quite some time now. In addition to my Wall of Smiles, I’m making an effort to tell myself every single day, “Girlfriend, how’s it going? Let’s go sit down and have a meal!”
Though I know some people cope in different ways, I haven’t stood in front of the mirror to tell myself that I’m beautiful as many do as they begin to heal. That’s because deep down, I don’t think my friend–that is, myself–needs to be told that, just like I don’t need my friends in general to tell me what they think of my physical looks in order to have a blast or just relax. Like any friendship, I simply want to take me as I am, move on, and do something fun because I know I deserve it. I want to be concerned for my own health and for my well-being, which both suffered incredibly during those years and are paying the price even now (though hopefully less so), in sicknesses, in anxiety, in a weakened body, in inadvertently damaged relationships.
But it’s worth noting that today, I really am at one of the happiest and most confident points in my life that I remember being, period. Maybe as great as (or even better than) my happy high school days, which I was lucky enough to experience so positively. I try very hard not to inflict physiological damage on myself by depriving myself of things in favor of being the “best”–I’ll catch those hours of sleep and wake up to keep working again. Sure, I am still prone to lots of anxiety I didn’t feel before my drastic experience, but I think the body image part of the equation has improved significantly since I started thinking of it as an incidental part of my existing lifestyle (as I had in and before college), not a ruling force of self-worth and self-control.
One thing I did notice was that after I bought my own web domain for Wallflour Girl and really began taking over it as my own project, whose every aspect I could tweak and tinker with–and as I began bouncing back from the post-exam haul with more energy than I remember having in a long time–I began feeling liberated. I started getting in touch with a group of beautiful, amazing bloggers from around the world. I began reaching out to companies and earning their recognition–and trust–in return. In spite of the stress and in spite of the uncertainty, I felt great.
I felt, in the words of a spider named Charlotte who wrote about a humble pig: Radiant.
And that’s where I’m at right now, ironically penning this post into the wee hours of the night (but this time because I wanted to, not because I’m trying to prove a point to myself). I am eternally grateful to my friend for our conversation, which got me thinking in a way I never thought I’d express in my blogging until now. This post only scrapes the very tip of an entire life story and history that (trust me) has many more details and less angelic commentary on my part, but I’m glad to have written it.I’m posting it in the hopes that anyone else reading who feels like their life is out of their hands or lonely or too much to handle can hear what I should have heard a long time ago, and what I’m so happy I’ve learned now: When you look in the mirror, look for a friend.
Thank you, friends and family, for all your support–and thank you, dear readers, for all of your thoughts: please know that I’m doing a silly little thing like beaming at my computer screen as I push the Publish button right now, thinking of you all. <3 Things really have come a long way since then.
I’m leaving you today with these Salty and Sweet Compost Cookies–filled with the usual sweet things like chocolate chips and Oreos, but some pleasant surprises like potato chips and pretzels–because that’s what life is about; a mix of things the most hodge-podge things that might not seem to belong together. But often you have to take the salty with the sweet, and most of the time, it will turn out beautifully. For all those other times, know that you still have one heck of a batch of cookies waiting in the wings for you, cheering you on one bite at a time.
PS I contemplated cutting my face out of this gif because I was wearing my grubby, have-not-showered-all-day hair and clothes, but decided it would be against the spirit of this post to do so. So here I am, grubbily shown and all I promise I wasn’t trying to look grumpy, I was just concentrating really hard on not getting my lens smattered with bits of flying food.
PPS I ultimately learned the hard way that throwing greasy potato chips at the lens of your expensive camera is not a very bright idea…
As an exercise after writing this post, I wanted to try reflecting on my own principles about self-worth so I can work on diversifying and really recognizing what matters to me about myself, and I wanted to be completely honest doing it. So here is my honest breakdown, as of June 2014:
My Current Standards for Defining My Self-Worth:
Academic success: 25%
Professional/career-oriented success: 20%
Social and/or extracurricular affirmation: 15%
Body image: 15%
Relationship status: 5%
How do you define your self-worth? I’d love to hear your thoughts and your stories in the comments!