Almost a year ago now, I wrote this post on Defining Your Self-Worth, which received tons of amazing, thought-provoking, vulnerable, and deeply genuine comments from all of you readers out there. Today, in the midst of one of the craziest and most turbulent but also “happiest” periods of my life, I want to continue the discussion by bringing up another related topic: the Difficulty of Loving Yourself.
This is going to be a long post, so if you’re here for the S’mores Bars recipe (which is phenomenal BTW), go ahead and skip to the bottom of this post. I promise I won’t be offended!
“We accept the love we think we deserve.” This is the catchphrase of that wonderful coming-of-age book-turned-film that I’m watching alone tonight, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Having always identified as a Wallflour/Wallflower myself, that line always resonated with me. We accept the love we think we deserve. Fine. But what if there was no love to accept? What if, at the heart of it all, the problem wasn’t that I wasn’t accepting love, but that I didn’t deserve to be loved in the first place?
At my lowest moments, these are the thoughts that hang over my mind like an invisible but palpable cloud that blocks out all sunlight. Despite considering myself to be a fairly cheerful and positive person, the difficulty of loving myself has been something with which I have always struggled, but exponentially more so in the past six or seven years since all this crappiness happened. What makes the whole experience even more trying is–or at least was, as I’ll explain in a moment–what I perceived as a lack of stable support systems on which I could rely to actually talk about my problems. My blog has provided a surrogate version of that outlet for the past three years, but at some point the irreplaceability of face-to-face human warmth and contact just hits you, and suddenly the whole illusion of knowing what you’re doing and being the person the world thinks you are crumbles, leaving you to reconstruct some semblance of order from out of the rubble.
I know I’m not alone in the feeling–I’m sure all of us have felt it at one time or another in our lives–but there is also something irrationally and pertinaciously isolating about feeling like you’re not worth a shred of the esteem that the world holds for you. Sometimes, when I hear my friends’ reassurances that I “do great things,” have “achieved so much,” will “go far in life,” part of me wants to put my hands on either side of their face and make them see that it’s not what they think it is–that it’s not all as “great” or “wonderful” or “perfect” as they make it out to be, and that by reinforcing the idea that they think my life is great, they’re only doing greater damage. Because one day the illusion will crack and I’ll be left there standing alone, abandoned, unloved.
There is no self-love where the shadow of self-doubt prevails.
It’s not so much the act of sharing that scares me: it’s what happens next–a day, a week, a month, a year later. I’ve never been great shakes at forming lasting bonds with anyone–which isn’t to say that I don’t have close longtime friends, but rather that I have never had to work to form a relationship (I’m not just talking about romantic ones) that is predicated on someone being completely okay with my sustained vulnerability. Even among my friends, I have a tendency to share only a certain set of facts about myself: there’s a friend for relationship troubles, a friend for academic anxiety, yet another for health-related concerns, and so forth. I guess I figure that if I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket, I don’t have to worry about dropping it somewhere along the long road and cracking all of them at once. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure I would be able to recover from a blow like that.
For the past few months, I have drifted by in a state of constant loneliness, anxiety, and terror: loneliness despite the support of some of the best people in the world, anxiety that I would fail to meet their expectations, terror that I would wake up the next day and realize that everyone around me has seen the truth about my phantom insecurities, and left. None of these preoccupations affected my day-to-day life, and sometimes I would go weeks at a time completely happy with life, until one night I would go home and look around me and realize what a lie I felt that I was living. It took me the better part of this year to acknowledge that this was not okay: and when I did, it took several more months before I was willing to accept–or risk–the idea that talking about it, and sharing these experiences with somebody else who knew what I was going through, might not be the worst mistake I had ever made in my life. That, in fact, it might be one of the best.
This is the thought that emerged in one of moments of clarity, one of those rare moments when I could stow away the dark thoughts in a small drawer long enough to sneak away and examine them from a distance, and see the doubts for what they are: specters.
I hear the same well-intentioned advice from friends all the time: “Just try it!” “Give it a go, who knows what might happen?” Here’s the bit that nobody ever talks about: there is no easy way to accept someone else’s love, much less your own, when the specters glide silently into your life. I thought I had cracked the secret when I went to bed every night writing down one thing for which I was grateful on my Wall of Smiles–and then, I thought that reminding myself that I’m worth caring for every single day would be the key. And that’s when I realized that the facts had been staring me in the face the whole time: there is no easy way, yes, but there is a way, and it starts with the simplest of gestures.
Accepting the possibility of acceptance.
At an emotional level, acceptance is scary because it means putting your faith in something that is fundamentally beyond your control and trusting that it won’t turn around or run away when you look the other way. To accept someone’s compliment means to acknowledge its truth value and allow their thoughts to shape how you think about yourself. To accept a new member into the family means to embrace them and pray with your whole heart that they can do the same. To accept someone’s admiration, caring, or even love means to place a piece of your identity in somebody else’s hands and believe that they will keep it safe from harm.
The funny thing about all of these fears is that they are never, ever contingent on the other person in question. I have met individuals who are surely some of the best, kindest, brightest people in the world, and when the opportunity arose, I have held up my hands quietly and walked away with a smile. I can’t tell how many wonderful, dear people I may have unintentionally hurt as a result of my defenses, largely because it requires a certain level of belief in one’s self-worth to even entertain the possibility that somebody could be hurt by my refusal to accept their love. They’ll see that they’re better off, the little voice would whisper without fail. Don’t worry, you’re not worth dwelling over.
If all of this sounds a bit melodramatic, I’ll be the first to admit that I have an unfortunate flair for melodrama. But I am also in earnest as I type this long overdue confession–because once I was baldly confronted with the fact that the road to acceptance is one that cannot be traveled alone, it was almost astonishing to realize just how many open doors had passed me by in the process of self-doubting. Recently, I allowed myself to really look into someone’s eyes and, for the first time in my life, saw someone else not only looking back, but seeing me for who I was.
The experience was scary, comforting, exhilarating, and completely new. I can’t say I’m any less scared now–if anything, I’m more afraid than ever of losing something I never thought I deserved in the first place–but knowing that that fear is not only valid but worth accepting has, I think and hope, made all the difference.
I have no good answer to the question of how we learn to accept ourselves or others’ conceptions of ourselves. Sometimes, when I think back to that 17-year old girl who beamed as her prom date slipped a corsage onto her chlorine-scented wrist (they had both just finished winning their respective events at the regional swim meet), I grow a bit wistful and even envious of her evident lack of self-consciousness. If there’s one thing I hope I’ve begun to learn since then, however, it’s that accepting the idea of acceptance is the first step to really believing it. The second is to accept someone else’s help in the hopes of sustaining that belief.
By writing all of this out in the most open way I know how to do, I hope that I’m also opening up a space and dialogue for being able to talk about these issues more freely, without fear of being judged, rejected, or disappointed. Whether it’s with my friends, family, or loved ones, I am by no means an expert in what it means to learn to love yourself–but I value all of your thoughts and experiences, which stretch far beyond what I could even begin to imagine sitting here in my dark corner typing away.
So what I’m asking is for you to share a piece of insight you have learned in your own way, whether it is a mistake or a state of mind or simply a brilliant moment that helped you realize what it means to overcome the difficulty of loving yourself. Finally, I’ll ask that you look through and see what everyone else has to say as well–because you never know where you might find that much-needed inspiration to keep up the journey of self-exploration on which we have all already embarked.
As suspicious as this may sound, I actually chose to share this post alongside these s’mores bars for a good reason, because a) in the midst of deep (and sometimes tough) reflections we all need the most beautiful thing imaginable to help keep our chins up, and these s’mores bars are exactly that, and b) we’re always so busy looking for “some more” out of ourselves, it’s hard to see what’s right in front of us sometimes. Well, that “s’more” is sitting right in front of you, at your disposal. And let me say that if you are willing to accept it, there will be no question of it accepting you for exactly who you are, right now, reading, here…perfection.
What are your thoughts on accepting love, especially self-love? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!