I spend a lot of time in the self-help world. Over the years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend that I want to address around using self-help tools with disdain or hatred for yourself. The “I’m fucked up and broken and I need to be fixed” attitude that happens in pursuit of a better life.
I drank the “better life” kool-aid when I was a young girl. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Reviving Ophelia. Ophelia Speaks. All these books were beacons of a better tomorrow, a world where I could find hope in the midst of raging chaos.
I desperately wanted to get out of the suffering around me and within me. I felt so different from other people. I saw them living normal lives, doing normal people things. Why couldn’t I be more like them?
There was this girl named Peyton. She always had the best lunches packed by her parents who were both runners and lived in a funky happy house. They were a healthy happy bunch. She got the best grades in the class, managed to balance going back and forth between mom & pop, soccer practice and doing her homework every night.
Peyton was perfect. She had it all. And I secretly hated her and wanted to be her.
I felt from a young age that I was messed up because of the stuff that happened in my family. All the fights, the conflicts, the abuse… It was like I walked around with this dark cloud over my head, and no matter where I went, there it was. I identified with brokenness and dysfunction.
“If only I could just be better”, I thought. “If ONLY I could be washed clean, and be free.”
The aspirations to be better started with school. I would stay up really late and finish projects because I needed a few hours when I got home from school to let the day fade away. I attempted to focus for hours in between my favorite TV shows, and then when I was pressed up against bedtimes, I haggled for “just a few more minutes”. I would fight to stay awake, pop caffeine pills, and push through. I was 11.
It was a never-ending game of catch-up for me. Life sped up so fast, and it just kept coming at me. All of a sudden, I’m in middle school, and on top of this pressure to be an overachieving perfectionist, there now was this thought form floating around that I am fat. It was like a virus in my mind that I caught and spread.
My sister and I criticized our fat. We agonized “if only we were thinner like the models!” We made collages to our body betterment, and called them “thinspiration boards”. We measured our portions in tiny bowls with tiny forks. We aspired to smallness. She tried to get into my swimsuits, and her pubescent flesh spilled over the sides. She really was lovely, it just didn’t fit her because I was 9 and she was 12.
This body betterment obsession lasted for years. My body was this object that belonged to me and it had to be pretty to be loved. After all, I saw what Peyton had, and it had to be because she was thin and athletic, right? That’s what anyone ever wants from a woman, right?
Age 16 knocked on my door and I found myself in a relationship with a shallow asshole who told me I was fat on prom night. The resolve to improve my body kicked into overdrive. I lived on packaged protein shakes my mom sold, and regularly only ate about 400 calories a day. Some nights I’d cave and have a bowl of cereal too, but I’d be bloated the next morning. I would get ready for school while scowling at myself in the mirror, and give myself an inner lashing for my weakness.
Who needs enemies with an inner monolog like that?
The war raged on, my flesh and my spirit. All this while, I was in a hot war with God. He was this vindictive asshole that was on a warpath to single-handedly destroy me, and I knew it. He was not some loving God who loved me and wanted my happiness.
It’s no wonder that in the balancing act of crazy spinning plates, I collapsed into a nervous breakdown. My health was failing. The inner pressure was suffocating my spirit and wrecking my body and stressing my mind. I had one year left to graduate, and I said fuck it.
And I started letting go. I began letting go of my school’s expectations for me. I began letting go of the obsessive need I had to be thin. I began letting go of what my family expected of me. I began going within and withdrawing from society. I knew that I was face to face with a really messed up situation and that I would need to stop or I was going to die… or at least live a really miserable existence.
No matter where it starts, self-love is a process. Self-help can’t help but come from a place of self-hate sometimes. Sometimes that’s all we really know. Sometimes we don’t even know why we are so messed up, and it seems logical that WE are the problem… Not what we believe about ourselves, not our shame-based upbringing, not our culture.
Self-love is taught and learned, and sometimes we don’t have that around us growing up, so we can’t help but be hateful towards our actions and thoughts.
But we don’t need to live our lives in the soup of self-hate. Over time, I began recognizing that my desire to be better was really coming from a place of anger towards myself for not “having it together”, and in general not accepting myself still.
(Being clean of self-harming behavior does not automatically mean that you’ve had a change of heart and now you love yourself; it just means that you show good restraint.)
Self-love is an ever present way that I experience my life now, though once in awhile a wave of the hate will wash over me, hand in hand with shame. It’s information now, not my absolute reality. I know the difference between what is imagined and what is real.
Those experiences of that love though…. they are breathtakingly beautiful. They mean everything to me. I live for those moments of being in such acceptance of myself and alignment with God.