By Gemma Garner
Content note: Mental health, references to anxiety and body shaming
If you were to ask me if I loved myself, I would immediately say yes. My yes would be firm, honest and from deep in my heart. I love each and every part of myself, I’d say. Every lump and bump, every scar and freckle. I’ve learned to love my squeaky voice and the chips on my front teeth where I’ve been hit by a beer bottle or a karaoke microphone (I go pretty hard). On most nights, I take a moment to pat my belly and say thank you. Thank you for keeping me alive. When I see my naked face, my spotty chin and my dark circles in the mirror, I feel immense gratitude, and my heart fills up. What a beautiful face, I say.
This immense love, however, seems to retreat into darkness on my bad days. On the days where I wake up with intense nausea resulting in panic attacks, I hate myself. I hate the fact that I can’t deal with nausea like a ‘sane’ person. I hate my stomach. I hate my inability to eat well. I look in the mirror with a scowl and curse my existence. On the days I can’t stop crying and seeking validation, I cannot find the beauty I usually see. I don’t even try to. I look in the mirror and curse every lump and bump, every scar and freckle. I detest my squeaky voice and the chips on my front teeth, a constant reminder of my reliance on alcohol after a breakup years ago. I hate my mental instability. How can anyone love me? How can anybody find me beautiful?
With this in mind, can I really say I love myself? Sure, we all have bad days, but when you can only love yourself on a good day, is that love real, and honest?
It’s important to note that many years ago, my bad days were not bad days. They were every day. Like many people still, my existence was painful. I didn’t believe there was such a thing as true self love. ‘How can I possibly be OK with this?’ I’d ask, looking in the mirror. ‘Who in their right mind could love this?’
Perhaps the reason I love myself with such intensity, is because I want the love to bleed into the cracks that become craters on my bad days. When I love my flawed, naked face with such a burning passion, perhaps I think that I’m looking at a different self. A self that is still debilitated by self-hatred and misery. I’m protecting her, cradling her.
I’d like to believe that these cracks, a reminder of my teenage self-hatred, are still waiting to be filled. They aren’t a permanent fixture in my journey, nor are they a recent instalment. However, I don’t believe this is the case.
Despite having come so far on my journey to self-love and acceptance, my techniques haven’t aged along with my growing body and mind. My idea of self-love that I’ve carried with me for many years; could it have become self-destructive?
Years ago, the idea of eating whatever I wanted was revolutionary. Although my relationship with food has never been too toxic to the point of an eating disorder, at one point in my life, when I was responsible for my own food preparation, I would starve myself at school, only taking 4 crackers with me for lunch. Then, I’d come home, and eat 6 Kit Kat’s before anyone could see. When starting my self-love journey, I adopted the idea that I could eat what I wanted, when I wanted, meaning I didn’t have to binge, and I certainly didn’t have to feel bad about my often strange cravings. This was wonderful, and changed my life. Gone were the diets that made me miserable.
Today, this self-love technique has become toxic. As I’ve developed an incredibly sensitive stomach, meaning I feel sick constantly, the act of eating whatever I fancy has become deadly. Not for vanity, but for my physical health. My diet has taken a toll on my stomach, bringing on incredible mental struggles that I would not wish upon any other person.
Years ago, the idea of doing whatever I wanted, despite the social implications, was revolutionary. I learned to make decisions regardless of how I would be perceived. I was debilitated by a fear of being disliked or unloved, meaning the decisions I made did not reflect how I truly felt, only how I wanted to be seen. I vowed to pretend I didn’t care, and do what I wanted. This became one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. My lack of care became real. Now I can honestly say that I do not care about the implications of what I do on how I am perceived. I will stand in the middle of the street and sing at the top of my lungs (badly), without any fear. I speak to anyone and everyone that I feel like speaking to. It feels incredible. I became free.
Today, however, this no longer benefits me. Considering my lack of self-discipline, the idea of doing whatever I want is actually incredibly destructive to my motivation. On my days off, if I fancy getting an ice cream on my own instead of doing incredibly important work, I’ll choose the ice cream. For self-love. In the moment, the ice cream is great. Then I come home, and slowly start to resent myself for being incapable of making appropriate decisions. Or, say, if I want to seek validation in the middle of an important conversation, I will. Yeah, sure I care about your dead dog, but do you think I’d suit a bob haircut?
All of the self-love techniques that I have adopted through the years have once been crucial and essential to my growth. Now that I’ve grown, however, they restrict me from going any further. They widen the cracks in my perception of myself, causing me to regress back into an aggressive state of self-hatred.
I’m learning that self-love isn’t something simple, nor is the same thing for each and every person. To another person, getting an ice cream alone instead of doing work could be a step in the right direction. Self-love also isn’t the same thing every day. That’s why I think it’s time for me to change my self-love routine. It’s time to look in the mirror and say, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done so far, Gemma. It’s changed my life. Now, it’s time to do some new things.’ Also, ‘Why are you talking to yourself as if your reflection in the mirror was another person?’
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MY NEW SELF LOVE TECHNIQUES:
-Do the work you need to do every week, even if you don’t feel like it. Find a day that suits you. Sure, you want to catch Pokémon, but surely it can wait until after you’ve sorted your Student Finance out?
-Give yourself the space to have bad days. Just because you think you’re fat today, doesn’t mean you’re incapable of being loved forever. See things as they are, rather than catastrophizing it, even if you just pretend to at first.
-Remember that almost everybody suffers with some kind of mental health problem, and that doesn’t make them bad, merely human. That panic attack was just a panic attack, not a reflection of your instability. Give yourself a pat on the back for getting through it, instead of panic about the next one.
-Try and give your stomach a break, and eat a little better. Eating better does not constitute as dieting for vanity, so don’t beat yourself up for going against your beliefs. You can still eat what you want, as long as you look after yourself.
-Remember that self love is different every time. Sometimes, it’s right to cancel those plans and spend the evening with a hot water bottle and shitty Hillary Duff movies. At other times, for example, if you’re invited to the pub, but you’re scared to drink; just go. You’ll be OK, and your brain will learn new, wonderful things about drinking.