What Does Self-Love Feel Like?

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.

Dear Anne,

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).

Love, eczema.

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. 🙂

 

 

 

What Does Self-Love Feel Like?

An Ode to the Body

Why are so many of us so ashamed of and negative about our bodies?

Earlier this month I was sick, unable to leave my bed, for about twelve days. I had to cancel a trip to Central Europe with friends because I wouldn’t have been able to rough it to the necessary extent. I was disappointed and frustrated, and for a while I was angry at my body for not allowing me to go.

Being sick does something to my mentality: I become totally apathetic about how I look, because all that really matters is how I feel. The sick days were a blur: hours and hours of Mad Men, sick episodes and intense pain, the dire need to take care of myself and get better, and treat my body well to do so.

The weirdest thing about inhabiting a body is that nobody really knows how it feels to be in that body. In that way, emotions are easier: we can imagine similar situations, we can conjure up and remember and articulate similar feelings to someone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, we can’t ever know how someone feels, either. But I think there’s a better chance of approximation.

Even more relevantly, emotions are totally internal. It’s a choice to externalize them, and we choose what to externalize. Bodies are external whether we like it or not. We can’t erase or change or manipulate or re-articulate them like we like to think we can do with feelings. We can’t filter them, and we can’t hide them. We try.

We look at skinny, beautiful supermodels and think they must feel skinny and slender. We look at fat and ugly people and think they must feel fat and ugly. But these are not feelings. These are labels. Labels are cultural constructs, imposed by a long tradition of thinking that fat = ugly and skinny = beautiful. Guess what! In the middle ages, fat = beautiful and skinny = ugly. Pale = beautiful and tan = ugly. Tan & skinny used to mean poor and working class, now it means beach babe. Labels are what “other people” (who have been influenced by these cultural constructs) think. We have also been influenced by these same cultural constructs, and we have been influenced by what people think and say about us. Double whammy.

But here’s what I think: What other people think means nothing about how someone actually feels in their own skin. 

I have had beautiful friends tell me that they feel: bloated, pale, insecure about such and such body part, like every day is a bad hair day, that they wish they had this instead of that body type, etc. etc. etc. I have friends with chronic illnesses, with sensitive stomachs, with other health issues that affect everyday life in their body. I have had all of the above, and my concept of myself changes all the time.

My new personal rules for my treatment of my body are these:

1) Do what feels good. If it feels good to stretch, do it. If it feels good to go outside and run around, do it. If it feels like something hurts, don’t irritate it more. If it feels hungry, feed it. If it feels tired, rest it. And the most important first step to this is to pay attention to what it wants in the first place!

2) Respect and appreciate it for what is special about it, and what it can do. My personal challenge to myself is to notice one thing I love about my body every day. I write it down, as often as I can. Some days, I like my freckles. Some days, I love the way my freshly-polished fingernails look on my keyboard. Other days I appreciate my soft stomach, on still others it’s my red hair and the way it’s nearly orange in the sunlight. Every person’s body deserves a whole lot of respect for what it can do and is, not negativity for what it can’t do or isn’t.

3) Even if you push it, push it lovingly. Parents love you and want you to be your best self because they care so much, so they push you out of your comfort zone sometimes; be a loving parent to your body. When I push my body, it’s because I want it to feel like it is its best self. Exercise is a privilege, not a punishment. When it does something awesome that exceeds expectations, take a moment and appreciate that!

Paying attention to all of the negative thoughts and feelings is the first step. Learning to transform them is the second. Cultivating unconditional love for my body will be a process that will have its ups and downs for my entire life, because it will constantly be changing. But I think loving it unconditionally is the most important way to improve my quality of life; life is best when I feel super awesome in my own skin. And, since having a body is one of the most basic things we all have in common, everyone can help each other have less shame instead of more!

An Ode to the Body