Wrestling With Self Love
BY A.K. CARROLL
It was a Tuesday morning early in October and I was texting a friend two time zones away. I had just been through something that felt a lot like a breakup but technically wasn’t, because we weren’t actually dating, as he repeatedly told me. Still, I was wounded and confused. And surprisingly alert for having slept only four hours the night before.
I processed my reactions faster than my fingers could type them, while my friend on the other end waited. I spilled out shock and frustration, replayed conversations I had thought were earnest, and confessed to affections that made me feel stupid in hindsight. I asked a lot of questions to which no one had answers and ended with a string of accusations. After a pause — a good long one — she offered her honest opinion.
"I think, and you are welcome to disagree, that your best course of action is to be mad and take care of yourself as long as you need. Then if you need to write him a damn-honest letter, do it."
Waiting isn’t really my style. I’m always afraid I’ll miss my chance if I don’t jump in right away and say what I think, especially when it’s something I believe needs to be said and I sense no one else has the courage to do so.
But waiting wasn’t really what she’d asked me to do.
"Take care of yourself for as long as you need,"she said.
They are words that only a friend would say. Words that I wouldn’t have said to myself.
Despite the fact that I have been looking after myself for the better part of a decade, care hasn’t always been a part of that equation. Gentle isn’t really what I offer me. I meet my needs. I make sure I’m fed and housed and in contact with other humans. But I’m not really in the habit of loving me well.
As someone who internalized at a young age that she was a sinner before she was anything else, I struggle when it comes to discerning my needs or trusting my instincts. Though I admittedly do it more often than not, I don’t think it’s right to put myself first.
Sinful from birth means selfish by nature. It means naturally thinking that the world should revolve around me. What I ought to do is forget my needs and extend myself in the service of others, not spiral inward and into my own self-indulgence.
Where is the virtue in focusing on yourself? I’m confronted with that question every time I read a blogpost about self-affirmation or get caught in a discussion about self-care and healing. Do I really need more encouragement to treat myself to almond-milk lattes and deep-tissue massages?
Actually, I probably do.
Care is the habit of someone who loves. I am a good and generous lover of others. I delight in their stories, encourage their growth, help meet their needs, and walk beside them through good times and bad. In short, I care for them. But I do not always offer such care to myself. I do not always act as my own friend.
Sometimes I treat myself with indifference. I treat myself as disposable. I act as if I am not worthy of my own kind attention. Then I don’t expect others to treat me any differently.
I let them ignore and abuse and damage and dismiss me. I let them treat me in ways I would not treat a friend. I accept this as normal because I do it myself. I drop my needs and forget me, and I do not bother to come back and apologize.
But I never stop wanting to be cared for.
I have spent most of my life looking for love, sometimes secretly, sometimes subconsciously, and sometimes desperately with all that I am. I cannot wait for the next person to remind me of how daring and honest and resilient I am; how kind and playful and exceptionally different. All of the things I forget about myself. All of the things I need most to recall. Affirmation from another does not change who I am, but it changes what I think about myself.
When I stop loving myself, I stop living from my heart. I stop wandering. I stop exploring. I stop trying. I stop walking the shoreline and pouring over books. Sometimes I even stop writing, which is the one thing that always brings me back to my heart. Instead, I network, I research, I flirt, I play games. I fight for headlines and promotions and jobs that I think will gain me recognition, but I don’t really do it for me. I do it because I want to be loved, not because I know that I already am.
What I am learning, though, is that even when my actions do earn affection, I cannot really experience the love that I’m offered until I’m willing to offer it myself.
"I cannot really experience the love that I’m offered until I’m willing to offer it myself."
My inability to do so may be the result of some misguided theology as much as it is a sign of inadequate self-worth. I am of the belief that the body is finite, but the soul is eternal and the image of God is in all God has made, including me. I was created as good. I was created with joy. I was recklessly loved before I was selfish or broken or anything else. I am specifically known and deeply desired by the Force that formed the stars and the seas. I am worthy of love, even and especially when I struggle to believe it.
It is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn. I think it is going to take practice.
That day in October, I took my friend’s advice. I did not defend myself, explain myself, or offer myself to the person who’d hurt me. I got mad in a way I should have a long time ago, and the people who loved me got mad alongside me, which reassured me that this was okay.
I got mad at the man and at God and the whole situation. Then I got mad at myself. And this too was something that needed to happen, because I did me a disservice by letting it play out like it did, sharing pieces of my heart he had no right to access, and believing he would treat me the way I deserved.
I sat in the disappointment of letting myself down.
Then I apologized, because I was the one who was hurt by my choices. This gave me an opportunity to try something new — forgiving myself the way I would forgive a friend. I comforted me and soothed myself, and somewhere in that process I reminded myself of how much I am worth.
After the anger, apology, and reconciliation, it no longer seemed wrong to care for myself. It seemed like just the right thing to begin rebuilding a relationship that hasn’t always been bad, but hasn’t always been good either.
I ordered an autumn spice latte and an almond croissant because I knew that those things would make me feel special. I sat outside on a terrace and I thanked me for being there, for being the sort of person who wants to make things right, who values reconciliation and is willing to give someone a second chance. Even when that person has hurt her. Even when that person is herself.