It’s a sad truth: people have a hard time loving themselves. I think we all have moments.
I was in a therapy group in college that talked about women’s issues, such as: body image, women in society, sexuality, relationships (familial and friendly included), and health (mental and physical). It was life-changing for many reasons, but one activity that I remember in particular was as follows:
Choose a part of your body (or yourself) that you tend to be very negative about. Maybe you think your stomach has an extra roll or two. Maybe it’s your skin, which breaks out (with acne? with eczema?) at the worst times. Maybe it’s a personality trait (too bossy? too needy? too sensitive?).
Write a letter to yourself, from its perspective. Here’s an example.
When you look at me in disgust and wish I went away, it makes me more angry. I can feel your wrath about me in the stress hormones which elevate in your bloodstream. I can’t really help that I show up; I just follow what your body tells me to do. If you really want to help me, you can do it by taking care of yourself. Make sure that what you eat isn’t triggering an immune response. If you do trigger me once in a while, it’s okay – I’ll always forgive you and calm down again. But really, I am happiest when you are happiest, because that’s when you make the best choices for yourself (and for me).
I think that sometimes I get this idea in my head that making a change involves criticizing the status quo. It’s the idea that in order to move forward, I have to be dissatisfied with something in my present situation. It’s true that dissatisfaction is really worth listening to – but listening to it must be done lovingly.
Think about the language we use, particularly when it comes to exercise and eating. Some of us aren’t satisfied unless we’ve beat ourselves up at the gym, unless we’re in pain by the time the workout is over – unless we punish ourselves by not giving in and eating that cupcake, because we haven’t earned it. We beat our muscles into existence and our fat into submission. Our bodies become outlets for our angst and the objects of our discontent.
Melissa Hartwig, in Food Freedom Forever, wrote the following (I may be paraphrasing):
“What if food is just food, and our choices are just our choices?”
This struck a huge chord with me. Even if I’ve never personally had disordered eating habits (a real danger in this toxic food culture), I realized that I have always been low-key angsty about my food and exercise. If I wanted a cookie, I did think about how I hadn’t exercised enough that day. When I exercised, I could eat more. When I felt bloated or frustrated with my appearance, it was my fault for not exercising and eating too much.
Making these lifestyle changes has introduced a new way of thinking about all of this.
When you’re listening to your body – eating the right food for you, moving at the right times, and otherwise nourishing your body with whatever it needs – there’s just simply nothing to worry about.
I don’t habitually think about how much I’m eating, how much I’m exercising, or whether my body is adequate or inadequate in appearance anymore. All that matters is how it is functioning.
Do I get hungry too often? I need to eat more protein. Do I feel bloated or icky? Maybe what I ate wasn’t the right thing for that moment. Does it feel stiff or sore? Maybe I need a walk, or gentle stretching. Is it buzzing and jittery? Maybe I have lots of energy to burn, and I need to do a barre class or a run.
In short, taking care of myself means giving myself what I need, when I need it. Sometimes I mess up, and that’s fine – it’s not so hard to get back on track when there’s not a ton of pressure or really high stakes. Nothing is “failure,” or “success.” There are only things that work for me at that time, and things that don’t happen to work then, but might eventually. This listening and responding takes daily practice, and is hard to figure out sometimes.
But, this is the freedom that Melissa refers to: freedom from all the pressure and anxiety that often plagues our minds and bodies.
Some people probably naturally respond to themselves in this way. It took a long time for me to learn it. It started with my first Whole30, when I realized what an impact I could have on myself by feeding me properly. Physical changes made mental changes, and vice versa, in a lovely circle.
Now I am convinced that in order to be healthy, I must try to love myself. If I love myself, I care for myself as I would care for someone I love. And it’s important, because it makes it much easier to feel secure, and happy, and to care for others as well.
My personal challenge, and yours too if you want: next time I find myself frustrated or angsty about something in my body or mind that’s not right, I will ask myself: what do I really need right now to feel loved?
And if it’s a cupcake, absolutely go for it. 🙂