The hardest person for me to love is not my soon-to-be ex-husband or my work supervisor who punished me because I knew things she didn’t or my mom, who accused me of moving away just to take her grandchildren away from her and ruin her life. The hardest person in this world to love is someone much closer: me.
I haven’t done anything extraordinarily evil; I’m a caring, loving mother; I work hard and get things done and do all of my jobs well; I even try to do good things. My friends seem to care about me and my kids to love me. Clearly, I am loveable. So why do I struggle so much to love myself?
This is a question I’ve been struggling with for years, and as one might expect, I’ve learned there are many parts to the answer, most of which I have yet to explore and understand. I know now I carry a lot of shame and make a great number of accusations against myself: How could I have been so stupid? Why did I do that? I always do things wrong. How could I have fallen for that? This mistake makes me a terrible person. This decision makes me even worse. My behavior in this situation should be punished.
When a situation goes awry, I instinctively take the blame and feel ashamed for the damage I’ve done. I say “instinctively,” but shame isn’t an inherent emotion. It is learned and reinforced. It is a weight taken when it doesn’t need to be. And it is a punishment. Whether it is taken on yourself after years of molding or put upon you by another, it is meant to scold and degrade you, to make you feel like less than you are, to feel unlovable and worthless.
It is the feeling of worthlessness, I think, that is my greatest barrier to loving myself. Or, rather, the sense that I have to meet certain criteria to be worthy. This belief is a setup for disaster. My standards for myself are high, perfectionism rampant in my blood. I must learn and accept that this is an unreasonable expectation, that perfection is impossible for everyone, that I am worthy merely by being alive, and that nothing makes me unworthy to be loved. I am a slow learner.
I discovered shame was at the core of many of my emotional and social struggles three years and three months ago. I didn’t admit it to myself until about a year ago. I didn’t admit it out loud or to anyone else until I learned how deep it ran, just three months ago now, when a friend told me I had the right to feel completely comfortable and safe and to speak up if I wasn’t, that it was his responsibility to make sure I was okay and that he was at fault for not being sure, not me. He told me I was loved and deserved to be okay and that I was worthy.
I am worthy. I had never believed those words until he said them. And once I did, I recognized times in my past when I hadn’t felt worthy to be respected, when I’d taken the blame for someone else’s disrespect, when I’d felt ashamed for someone else’s violation of my rights or body. Understanding the reasons why I’d felt this way came later, but most importantly, for the first time, I recognized that what had happened to me in the past wasn’t my fault, and that believing it was had shaped both my perspective of the world and my perspective of myself. Warped my perspective, I should say. Because seeing myself as worthless to everyone and everything, including myself, is not in any way seeing the truth.
This conversation was my breakthrough, but a breakthrough doesn’t mean you’ve healed—and by healed, I also mean having learned to love myself—or even that you’re well on your way to healing. It means you’ve managed to crawl on bloody hands and knees a little farther along the path of healing. I still have a long way to go.
A few weeks ago I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and used a pen to spell out the word “Worthless” on my stomach, backwards, so I could read it when I looked at myself. That night I thought of all the things I’d done wrong and all the things for which I was to blame, of the little use I was to anyone or -thing. I wrote about it and then cried at how terrible I thought I was and then punished myself with emotional pain that went straight through my defenses.
One of the things I have learned is that shame feeds on secrets and lies. So I reached out that night. I messaged a close friend a while later and told him what I’d done and what I was feeling. He told me I was none of the things I thought I was, but instead important and worthy and loved. He told me to wash the ink off, and with the erasing of the word, I felt a weight lift off me and peace settle. I hope some day I’ll love myself enough to be able to take that step on my own, or better yet, to not feel that deserving of punishment for things that aren’t true.
You may question how I could see so little worthwhile in myself. It’s a long story and I don’t know the entirety of it yet. That is the purpose of this record of my journey, to learn in my heart what know rationally: it doesn’t have to be like this. I am lovable.
As you read this, some of you might feel as if you know exactly what I mean, maybe feel my pain or know what it’s like to discover something good about yourself when you thought there was none. Some of you might not get this far because you hurt so much from your own struggle with worth and shame. I know seeing another’s shame can make my own feel more acute.
But I hope you have read this far, and I hope you’ll read more, today and next week and beyond. I hope you’ll come with me and heal with me as I look at shame and worthiness, as I learn more about how they playout in my life, and beyond, to find what it takes to love yourself.
I can’t promise you an easy journey, nor can I promise you mine will be flawless. I’ll have bad days. I can promise you honesty, though. No smoke screens or rose-colored glasses, just truth, even when it hurts.