On New Year’s Eve in 2009, I spent the final moments of the decade on a last-minute flight home to New York, booked in tears the day before from inside the bathroom in a hotel room in Antigua, where it had been decided by myself, the universe and, ostensibly, the innkeeper (who had seen some very nasty fights in a few short days), that my relationship with the love of my life was over.
We descended into New York in extreme wind and violent turbulence, and the elderly West Indian woman in the seat adjoining mine, who had long since abandoned her concerns about my tear-stained eyes and sullen mood, spent the whole descent gripping my hand, screaming, “LORD JESUS, SAVE US! I DO NOT WANT TO DIE!” …
The lights flickered with every dramatic dip in the air. I had run through my budget of emotions. I had no tears left to offer the world, no anxiety to release in this perfect moment where all embarrassments would be forgiven once the plane wheels set down on land. When they did, the entire airplane erupted into applause, hysterics, praises to the Lord, and the other passengers set off to greet the year 2010 with a renewed sense of self. In the background, I moped through the terminal to a taxi to clear my belongings out of the apartment I had shared with the man I had just left, totally unmoved by this new lease on life. The first day of 2010 for me did not feel like a beginning but an end.
Someone mentioned to me a few months ago that 2019 was the end of this decade, a fact that had crossed my mind exactly zero times before and instantly set me off on strolls down memory lane. Years ago, I had gradually, then very suddenly, put aside any ambitions of working on myself as I welcomed a baby into the world, immediately and unexpectedly becoming solo parent. I still made cursory resolutions each new year – a vow to pick up yoga here, a promise to save more money there – and to say that in the first six years of my daughter’s life I haven’t improved as a person would be inaccurate. But when you’re raising a child those improvements are more likely to happen to you rather than because of you, and no one likes growth or development when their wellspring consistently proves to be late night crying sessions or senseless tests of will. I’ll take superficial self-improvement any day, with its eye creams and subscription models and its feel-good cult-speak.
But in revisiting the year behind me, I thought of the resolution I made at the start of 2019. It is said that all good goals are SMART: Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely; and this goal was truly none of those things. It was as unmeasurable, as clumsy, as wandering as I could have possibly come up with, but it felt like the time to challenge myself. My 2019 resolution was to learn how to love myself.
To clarify, this was not a resolution to love myself in spite of anything. This was not a resolution to love myself even with the occasional acne breakout or cellulite or dark circles under my eyes. This was a resolution, after many years of pouring love into my romantic partners and close friends and family, to find a way to pour love into myself. I didn’t know what the desired effect would be or what I hoped to gain, but something in my gut told me this was what I needed.
The only thing to balance the elation of creating a goal that was entirely within my control was the horror and intimidation of realizing that I had absolutely no idea where to start.
I mean no idea. For the purpose of internal narratives, my love language has always been gift-giving, and speaking entirely from the point of view of my closet and beauty cabinet, I was already very apparently and deeply loved. Developing a new language for myself that wasn’t entirely dependent on possessions was daunting, and I remember starting the year’s challenge off looking at myself in my bathroom mirror, smiling feebly and saying out loud, “I love you!” and then shuddering in embarrassment at what a cliché I had become. Necessary a phrase though it may be, the simple words “I love you” have never deepened my feelings for any one person – at the point that you’re saying it out loud, it is usually just a statement of fact. So, where to go from there?
I started by thinking about what I generally did for others. I realized that to all things I love on our planet, I am gentle. When my daughter loses something, when my dog misbehaves, when my friend cancels plans last minute, I am forgiving in a way that I have never been to myself. So, after a few more misguided attempts at pumping myself up in the bathroom mirror, I looked for ways throughout the day to express this same gentleness toward myself. I loosened my expectations, and, through the haze of self-imposed perfectionism, reminded myself, I would not be letting anybody down with this new point of view.
Taking a moment to forgive yourself is a form of self-love.
The next part came easily as it had been waiting in the wings for a while, and that was to more closely protect my heart the same way I would be protective of my friends. In no real dramatic fashion, I let the people in my life that regularly caused harm or anger (even some that did this totally unaware) drift away, simply by doing less work to keep our relationships close. And rather than focusing on undoing those friendships, I focused on crowding them out with deeper, more meaningful relationships with people who regularly show up for every side of me, and, in turn, committing myself more deeply to do the same for them.
Investing energy in relationships that create joy, support, and enrichment is a form of self-love.
After this came a huge challenge for me: settings boundaries. I threw boundaries out the window when I was taking care of an infant, and honestly this act alone was an act of self-care, because if I had attempted to hold onto the majority of my pre-parenting boundaries my daily life would have been a miserable parade of let downs. The side effect was bending over backwards at the drop of a hat, and my day to day schedule was no longer under my control and was more about injection-molding my needs into a crowded framework of other people’s demands. For many years my friend Tamu has told me that if I wanted to carve out time for myself, the right thing to do was to schedule a physical activity into my day and to treat it as importantly as I would a conference call or client meeting. This summer I tried this for the first time, wedging 30 minutes of workout time in between school drop-off and early morning emails. The first few days were agony. Focusing on this moment for myself rather than letting myself become derailed and distracted by all of the other work was nearly impossible for me. It took the repetition of daily practice and constant reminders to focus on being present in my body for those moments before I stopped focusing on the work I was missing and started paying attention to the work I was doing.
Setting and respecting boundaries that support your own humanity is a form of self-love.
The most recent step was the hardest. This fall, I had the chance to learn from Daphne Javitch of Doing Well, to try for the first time in a very long time to address lifelong health issues that impact my everyday life using only holistic nutrition tools. This required me to change almost everything about my daily routine, and to know me is to know that a change to my routine is one the deepest and realest threats that can be made in my life. Letting go of this fear and keeping the intention of learning from a humble and open place became my focus, and as the weeks went on I saw so much drastic improvement – issues that I had come to assume would be lifelong and unresolvable evaporated in a matter of weeks, and my relationship with my body changed from one of the caregiver of a burden to one of love and appreciation.
Learning about your body, giving it what it needs, and making decisions that will deepen that relationship is a form of self-love.
I had to dig all of this out of a mountain. None of it was in my training, and honestly because so many of the messages we receive as women about self-care and well-being are consumer driven, I had to push away most of the ready options that were presented to me in order to deepen my relationship with myself. Any path that has to be cleared from scratch is sure to have its share of missteps, and as we are coming up on the last days of the year and I challenge myself to find new mountains to climb in the year ahead, the one I’m on is proving to be sort of a fun climbing mate, so all I can feel now is that I want to double-down and keep going.
Doubling-down on yourself in a form of self-love.
Painting by Henri Fantin-Latour. Thank you Anja!