For a long time, I didn’t know how to love myself.
I wasn’t necessarily mean the way some people are; I didn’t call myself stupid or ugly. I didn’t say I hated myself.
But I didn’t understand self-love either.
Growing up, I believed that if you wanted to be a good person, if you wanted to be loved, you had to deny yourself completely and become a martyr. Anything less than perfect selflessness wasn’t good enough. The ideal life was one where you spent all of your time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears on anyone but yourself, where you made yourself as agreeable and unobtrusive as possible.
This is how I was raised, purposefully or not. Rewarded for forgetting myself, for being agreeable, for serving. And shamed with words like “disappointment” and “selfish” when I focused on me.
Selfish in our household was kind of like the b-word. It was the worst thing you could be.
So, for me, when my therapist asked me to work on self-love, it wasn’t just completely out of my repertoire…it was the antithesis of everything I’d been trained to believe in.
And, yet, I liked the idea that a person could love themselves and still love others. I’ve always been drawn to balance, and this seemed like a much more balanced way to live. And in my gut, I felt that I should love myself. That perhaps I should stop pouring all my energy into others and maybe save just a little bit for me. Perhaps that would help with my ongoing battles with depression and anxiety.
I had no idea where to start.
How do you change your internal makeup? How do you understand something so far outside your experience?
I asked my therapist what she meant about self-love…how would one go about loving themselves?
She told me that if was too weird to look in the mirror and say I love you to myself, I could start by loving my younger self. She encouraged me to write a letter to Younger Me.
If you’ve been reading along for a few years, you already know that when I was in Denver I changed my name. I grew up as Amanda Griffis. The nickname Gigi started after college and stuck. I loved it for a lot of reasons. And one of them was that it felt like a new beginning. Like I could re-invent myself.
Now that I was on this quest for self-love, it came in handy. Instead of writing to Gigi, I wrote to Amanda–to the girl I was before.
At first it felt awkward, but by the time I finished the letter, I was in tears.
I told younger me that I loved her and that she was going to be totally fine and that she didn’t have to struggle so hard or do so much. That I loved her even if she failed by everyone else’s standards. That I loved her simply because she was lovable. And that she never needed to prove to me that she was worth loving. Because I already knew.
I wrote a few of these letters to young me. I talked about specific things that had happened in my life, that had been hard for me. One by one, I offered up understanding and forgiveness to both myself and those who had hurt me.
Then, very slowly, young me started to become just…me.
Me from yesterday. Me from today.
The more comfortable I got with forgiving my younger self, the more natural it felt to forgive myself on a daily basis. And as I forgave myself for my blunders and for not being as perfect as I always thought I was supposed to be, I started to feel a little more at ease, a little more comfortable in my own skin.
Some of this happened in Denver, but as I sold my things, packed my bags, and took off for Scotland with Luna in tow, something really clicked. I think this happened for two reasons: the first, that by leaving for a life of indefinite travel and possibilities, I gave myself permission to do what I wanted, to do something just for me. Indefinitely.
The second: that traveling alone meant I spent a lot of time alone, especially my first month on the road, and I learned that I really liked being alone with myself.
I think one of the reasons people are afraid to travel solo is this: we aren’t sure we’ll like ourselves. We’re always moving, going, busy. We’re always thinking about the next thing we have to do. And, so, how many of us truly take the time to slow down and just be with ourselves? With our thoughts and hopes and dreams and disappointments and flaws and deep sadnesses?
I think we’re a little afraid that if we’re left alone with ourselves, we’ll be lonely or depressed or discover that we aren’t very likable.
But instead of finding myself in any of those states, I felt suddenly free. I was suddenly allowed to stop worrying about everything going on around me. I was allowed to drop a few of the balls I’d been juggling my whole life. I was allowed to sit in my sunny attic room in Scotland, eat a bowl of cereal, and just exist.
I barely did anything in Scotland. Just walked and thought and ate and read. I did exactly what I wanted to do each day. I still had my clients and I never missed a deadline, but I spent extravagant amounts of time on myself, too.
This was one of the most healing moments of my life.
I found that I was not only a capable problem solver when it came to my career and helping those around me, but that I was also very capable of taking care of myself, solving my problems, and making real, difficult changes in my life and my perspective.
I started to trust myself a little more.
Then, I came back from Europe and spent three months in the states…and my anxiety started rising again. By the time I returned to Italy around New Year’s Eve, I felt that I had lost something. (Which just goes to show how much this self-love thing is an ongoing process with all the ups and downs that come with that.)
My therapist pointed out that most of that anxiety was coming from one particular belief I’d held since I was a child: that life is all or nothing. I must get the A+ or fail completely. I must be perfect or be bad. There was no sliding scale.
She asked me what I could say to myself to break that mindset when it reared its ugly head…and my mantra became life isn’t pass-fail. It reminded me that I was smart and capable, that I always had a plan B, and that life was a big, open book, not a test.
I started to allow myself to take the pressure off. I started to let go of the things I was trying to control: If that client got upset because my internet connection went berzerk, so be it. If that handsome, adventurous man doesn’t want to be with me when I put myself on the line, so be it. None of this makes me any less worthwhile as a human being. None of this is failure.
The more I said it to myself, the more I believed it. The more I believed it, the more I said it. And the less tolerance I had for my negative self-talk. When it came up, I found myself saying, sometimes out loud, “well, that’s not true.”
And while all this was going on and I was exploring the cobbled backstreets of Perugia, Italy, I also quietly gave myself a love song. Because here’s the truth about self-love:
To practice it, you have to treat yourself exactly like you would treat someone you loved. Your sister. Your daughter. Your best friend.
In other words, self-love is, in part, being your own mother, father, sister, friend, lover, and advocate. It’s about not waiting for someone else to stand up for you, to comfort you, to love you unconditionally…but, instead, doing those things for yourself first.
That doesn’t mean we don’t need other people, but it does mean having different expectations from those other people–and from yourself.
And, so, I thought: when I love someone (be it a man, a friend, or even my dog), I often give them a song. Something that reminds me of them. Something that I could (and sometimes do) sing to them and mean every word.
This is what I did for myself in Italy.
I’d walk down the streets with my love song on repeat, speaking the words to myself silently. Reminding myself that I am loved and lovable.
I didn’t tell anyone about it for months. Because I was a little embarrassed. I mean, who gives themselves a love song?
Me. That’s who.
And, dear god, it worked.
I started to feel this ever-present, beautiful gratitude. This slowly growing store of joy.
I was loved.
I am loved.
And I have everything I need.
I’m waiting for nothing.
A few months passed, still full of my love song, sometimes letters to myself, and more and more grace and forgiveness for my imperfections. Until one day, when I was in Sayulita, Mexico, I walked into my bathroom.
Up ’til then, it was just like any other day. I probably took a walk, went to the beach, worked, and ate some sushi.
But then I walked into that bathroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. And seeing myself staring back, I felt a rush of affection. The kind of affection I feel for my little sister or my best friend. The kind of affection that makes you want to run over and embrace someone.
It took my breath away.
Suddenly, my self-worth had nothing to do with how much I could forget and deny and lose my self.
Suddenly and beautifully, my self-worth existed because I existed. I was worth something because I am me. I was my own best friend, a person I cared deeply for, a person I protected and stood up for, a person I cheered on and rooted for, a person who was beautiful and lovable and worth feeling affectionate toward.
And so I finally understood what my therapist said to me so many years ago. And I discovered that self-love doesn’t make us selfish. It makes us joyful, grateful, energized, and humbled. It makes us infinitely more understanding and loving, infinitely less judgmental and disapproving to everyone else.
And the journey to get here?
It’s just like C.S. Lewis says when he’s talking about learning to love our enemies: when you behave as though you love someone, you will eventually come to love them. Our actions lead our hearts. Our choices, our words, the stories we tell about and to ourselves…they all dictate how we feel about ourselves.
And so this is one of the greatest stories of my first year of travel: the story of a girl who used to be depressed and anxious, but now feels overwhelmingly grateful and joyful. The story of a girl who struggled to feel beautiful for the longest time, but now feels happy to see herself in the mirror. The story of a girl who still struggles with anxiety sometimes, but who can forgive herself for it.
And, most importantly, the story of a girl who trusted herself when it was really hard, who stopped the negative self-talk in its tracks, and who stood in front of a bathroom mirror on an ordinary day and realized that she loved herself. Flaws, successes, sorrows, wrinkles, and all.