I remember the first time someone called me fat. I wasn’t more than six or seven years old. At the time I don’t think I really even knew what it meant but I knew it was bad. That I was bad. That I wasn’t good enough.
I remember the first time I went on a diet. I was 15. As the weight dropped off, my apparent love for myself grew exponentially. Then I gained the weight back and I hated myself again. Hated myself into a dark depression
“You’re fat” became the insult of choice. Family members, girls at school, even strangers would use those words to hurt me. And it did. An arrow direct to the bulls-eye of my heart.
I don’t remember a time since when I haven’t been on a diet.
It’s not just the weight though. Over the years I’ve suffered from severe cystic acne followed closely by adult acne (and the scarring that comes with it), high-school bullying, depression, low self-worth, hormonal hair, weird skin rashes, hyper-emotional sensitivity, confusion about my sexuality, binge eating, ongoing back pain, drug and alcohol abuse, and a myriad of other stuff I’m not comfortable sharing.
Learning to love myself feels like a bloody big job.
I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and criticise everything you see.
I know what it’s like to turn your face away from people as you walk past them, ashamed of how you look and afraid they will see your ugliness.
I know what it’s like to look at photos of yourself and feel your heart sink. “Is that really me? Is that really what I look like?”
I know what it’s like to abuse yourself with food. To ban yourself from eating foods you love, only to binge yourself to sickness on those same foods days — sometimes hours — after you put the ban in place.
I know what it’s like to hide huge parts of yourself from the people you love out of fear they will judge you or reject you.
I know what it’s like to cancel on social commitments because you feel too fat or too ugly or too incapable to show your face in public.
I started my self- healing journey three years ago but, until now, I’ve only skirted around the edges of self-love.
“Fuck self-love” I’d say to myself.
I’d see the pretty, skinny girls preaching self-love and I’d think: “Well that’s fine for you. Look at you! What’s not to love?”
Or most commonly I’d say to myself: “I don’t know how to love myself. Where would I even start? It’s impossible.” And I’d never begin because it just felt all too big and overwhelming.
Just recently I had a profound realisation. These words here: “I don’t know how. I can’t. It’s too hard.” These words belong to Mr. Resistance and his best bud Fear.
If I really wanted to learn to love myself, I’d find a way. I’d read. I’d get support. I’d research. I’d take action.
If I get really honest with myself, it’s not that I don’t know how, it’s that I’m terrified to start. And I’m terrified to start because what happens if I discover that I’m not lovable? What then?
All this time, I’ve been pretending like it’s all too hard when really I’ve just been afraid.
My underlying motivation for not learning to love myself has been based solely on a fear that I won’t be able to love myself. At the crux of it, I am afraid that I am not enough.
I had to sit with this realisation for a few days. Bloody fear. Of course.
Now, if you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you’ll know my attitude towards fear — walk towards it, always. Only good stuff comes from facing your fears (I talk more about facing fears here, here and here).
Discovering that fear is the only thing stopping me, has actually made getting started a little easier. And so, after years of making excuses, my self-love adventure has finally begun. I want to share with you some of the things I’ve been doing. If, like me, you’re struggling with self-love you might find these ideas helpful.
#1: Choose your own self-love adventure!
Learning to love yourself is a very personal journey. We each battle with different inner demons. Nobody else can really show you how to love yourself. They can support you, sure. But ultimately, this journey is one we each have to walk alone. It makes sense then that what you need are self-love practices that are tailored specifically for you and where you are at.
Taking the first step can be the hardest. There’s so much information on self-love out there, it’s almost overwhelming. I’m a big fan of writing letters to the Universe whenever I need help or clarification. This is no different.
I wrote: “Dear universe, I want to learn to love myself but I have no idea where to start. Can you please help me?” Then I opened myself to the guidance.
In just a few days, like a flood gate had opened, the right books, podcasts, big epiphanies (like the stuff I’m sharing in this post) and step-by-step action items were given to me. The result: a tailored-made self-love program designed especially for me.
I believe this has fast-tracked my journey because, instead of looking externally and relying on other people to tell me how to love myself, I’ve trusted in my own intuition and internal wisdom to guide the way.
#2: Affirm: “I am willing to learn to love myself.”
At this present time, saying “I love you, Alana” sends my body into a state of stress. That’s too much for me right now and I will not force this.
On the contrary, “I am willing to learn to love myself” feels soft and gentle yet expansive. It opens my awareness to the opportunities, resources and people that can help me progress on this self-love path. I hope in a short while “I love you, Alana” will become easier to say. But for now having a willingness to learn to love is enough.
#3: Hand-over-heart check-in
Each morning when I wake, I place my hands over my heart and I ask “What do you need from me today, beautiful?” And then I wait.
Sometimes the answer is quick and simple. Other times I hear nothing and have to come back later in the day. Sometimes unprocessed anger, sadness or other emotions will bubble up and I know I need to sit with those. Each day is different.
Over time and with daily practice, I hope to strengthen this communication pathway so that there comes a point when I can check-in with my heart at any given moment and know, almost instantly, what is true and right for me.
#4: You always have a choice
I see that I can choose to either spend my time hating on myself or I can practice self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance requires me to look critically at my thought patterns. It requires me to question society’s values and pressures. It suggests that perhaps it’s not me that’s flawed but rather my individual — and the collective’s — belief systems. Self-loathing, on the other hand, requires nothing of me. No growth, no exploration. It keeps me stuck in my self-made prison of self-hatred and torture, forever an obedient, conforming member of society.
In some ways, even though I don’t want to admit it, I’m addicted to the self-hatred. It’s all I’ve ever known. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It’s safe. To break out of this struggle cycle, I have to change and change feels scary. My ego says “Don’t change. It’s safe and warm and fine just the way we are.” To break out of this struggle cycle, I also have to go against societal obsessions and conformity. The primitive part of my mind says “Conform, conform, conform. Or you’ll be kicked out of the pack and eaten by wolves.”
There are layers and layers of fear here. But that’s okay, we know what to do with fear now.
I’ve started bringing awareness to my thoughts. I notice how they make me feel and behave. I ask myself “What is hating this part of me really achieving? How does it make me feel? How does it make me behave?” The response is: I feel heavy, drained, sad, angry. I want to hideaway, cry, and — on rare occasions — I’ve even considered not wanting to live anymore. I then ask “What would accepting this part of me achieve? How would that feel? How would I behave?” The response is: I feel light, happy, confident. I want to smile, laugh, jump around.
Just like in any relationship, some days this is easier than others. And some parts of myself are much easier to accept than other parts. I just work with that. Approaching this process with curiosity and ending with compassion. Always meeting myself where I’m at.
I’m careful not to make this process heavy. It doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming (if it feels that way, that’s resistance sneaking in again). This practice is simple and takes two seconds, almost as quick as the thought itself.
#5: Your external world is a thermometer for your internal world
Not so long ago, I lived continuously with a wailing heart. A heart that was crying out for love. With my limited knowledge of how the world worked, I searched externally for something to soothe my heart. I did anything, traded anything, for a scrap, a tiny morsel of love from anyone. No matter how pathetic I became. No matter how wrong that person was for me. No matter how shallow or how short-lived that love was. No matter how terribly that person treated me. And, man, I got treated like shit.
These days I understand that the extent to which I search for love and acceptance externally is inversely proportional to how much I love and accept myself internally.
If I’m going all crazy looking for approval from an external source, I use this as an indicator that something is not right on the inside. If I’m craving approval, love or acceptance from anyone or anything outside of me, I know it’s time to turn inwards, hand over heart and ask: “What is it you need, beautiful?”
[Image source: Nicole Mathieson]
#6: Self-pleasure as an act of self-love
Many years of falling into bed with the wrong types of men, the guilt and pressure when I’ve chosen not to have sex with someone, and the fear around standing in the fullness of my own sexuality means that my vagina has suffered probably more so than any other part of my body.
As a single lady it’s pretty easy for me to just ignore my sexual needs. But just like any other part of my body — thighs, stomach, face, breasts — the way that I treat my vagina and think about my vagina, influences how I show up in the world. It influences my confidence. It influences the value I place on this sacred area of my body and thereby the choices I make around sex and being sexual.
Self-pleasure is an act of self-love. One which I have been ignoring for a very long time.
I’ve recently purchased a Jade egg, which I’ve been using on a regular basis. The shame, guilt and resistance that has come up for me as I work with my Jade egg — engaging in an act that is actually really enjoyable and takes no time at all — is a sure sign that this is one area I need to explore further.
#7: When food is love
Me and food… hmmmm. We don’t have such a great relationship. Fifteen years of deprivation, starvation, bingeing and dieting will do that.
Interestingly, two days after I asked the Universe for help in the self-love department, my girlfriend found Geneen Roth’s “When Food is Love” in an op shop and bought it for me. Geneen explores the link between childhood trauma and binge eating. She suggests that compulsive eating is a form of protection against becoming intimate with ourselves and others.
Geneen says: “Rather than experience the loss of control that loving brings, many of us choose to feel out of control about something that is within our control: the food we eat — or don’t eat… When we allow our bodies or our weight to interfere with the quality of intimacy in our lives, when we feel too fat to have our thighs or bellies stroked, when we feel to ugly to be seen with the lights on, we are trying to protect ourselves from being hurt. Again. But the hurt we are protecting ourselves from is not in the present. Nor is it in the future. We are trying to protect ourselves from feeling a hurt that has nothing to do with our lives now; over and over, for the rest of our lives, we try to protect ourselves from feeling our past, and in doing so we never allow ourselves to claim the present.”
Never have I heard anyone speak so clearly on emotional eating. Finally someone who understands what I’ve been struggling with for so many years of my life. As I read this book, I felt an instant shift, which I can only put down to finally seeing the truth of why I eat the way that I do and, in doing so, I now feel compassion for myself, rather than self-loathing and disgust.
I still have a long way to go with this part of the journey, but I’m moving forward now. And that’s a good thing.
#8: The beauty of balance (and having fun!)
It’s funny how life goes. I’ve been working on this post for quite a while, getting it ready to go out this week. Then, on Friday night, I found myself out at a bar, unconsciously chugging back glasses of wine and even smoking a cigarette!
In the morning I woke up with a hellish hangover and thought to myself: “What the hell, Alana? You’re a fraud!” And I seriously thought about not hitting publish on this. Instead, I decided to explore what this all means.
Self-love is about balance, gentleness and adapting to what is right for us from moment to moment. When we place too many restrictions around what we can and cannot do, eat, drink, say, be, then we are no longer practicing self-love, instead we have moved into martyrdom territory.
I know over the last year, practices that, for me, were originally all about being kind to myself — meditation every day, a strict vegan diet, no alcohol — became less and less enjoyable because I was doing them out of desire to ‘be perfect’ rather than consciously checking in with myself in each moment and asking “What is it you need right now?”
I’d placed so much pressure on myself and, as a result, I ended up wanting to break out and rebel — hence the binge drinking, binge eating and cigarette smoking. Now, I’m not promoting getting drunk or smoking cigarettes, but what I am saying is that our needs and desires change from moment to moment. What worked last year, last month, last week might not necessarily work today and that’s why we need to regularly check-in with ourselves and choose balance over perfectionism.
It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that, because loving yourself feels like such an overwhelming task, the solution needs to be just as monumental, burdensome and heavy. But this is simply not true. Falling in love with yourself should be a gentle process of allowing, with a good dose of pleasure and fun thrown in. Just like any other act of falling in love.
Share with me in the comments, where are you on your self-love journey and what self-love practices are working for you right now?