Sunday, February 7, 2021

Loving Myself Radically and Intentionally

Throughout my life, I have had a love/hate relationship with myself. Early on, it was almost always hate and most of it was physical. I hated my curly hair that set me apart from the beauty standards I saw. I hated my nose and the beauty mark under my lip, and I especially loathed my weight and being called gordita. While it was said as a nickname and with cariƱo, being “the little fat girl” led to some of the darkest moments of self-hatred of my life.

I even hated things about myself that would be considered good, like having 20/20 vision. For some reason, I wanted glasses SO badly as a child. Maybe it coincided with my feeling of being a nerd, but glasses somehow fit how I saw myself and I hated that I didn’t need them. I was ecstatic when my cousin gave me a pair of non-prescription glasses from her job at Pearle Vision. They were extremely hideous and unflattering on my round, chubby face but I didn’t care. I was so excited to finally have glasses that I wore them to school. I was in third grade and not particularly popular so I don’t recall any of my classmates noticing my new look, even though I was bursting with excitement. My teacher must have acknowledged them in some positive way because I remember feeling guilty, like a fraud because the glasses were not for improving my vision. I was so wracked with guilt that I asked to speak to her privately. I wrung my hands together, stumbled over my words and took deep breaths to keep from puking as I confessed that the glasses were fake. This was before fashion glasses were a common accessory and I felt as though wearing them was somehow tricking my teacher into thinking I was someone I wasn’t. While I don’t recall what made my eight-year-old brain jump to that conclusion, the feeling of regret is still clear and I never wore those glasses to school again.

Instances like that made me feel ugly on the inside as well. I attended a religious school and my family went to church regularly where I was told that my thoughts should be positive and pure. Mine were far from that. I was judgmental and jealous as a child and my thoughts reflected it. Therefore, I concluded that I was as ugly on the inside as I was on the outside. Without realizing it, those feelings manifested into one of unworthiness, not feeling deserving of love; interpreting kindness towards me as pity and fearing that one day all the positives in my life would be driven away by my ugliness.

I don’t recall loving anything about myself except my academic prowess. In school I excelled and it led to positive attention from the people I loved most. While doing well academically is a good thing, I took it to the extreme. I felt like it was the only constructive thing about me so I overcompensated in that area of my life. I felt sick to my stomach thinking that I might get anything lower than a B, no matter the subject. I spent hours memorizing materials, making sure my assignments were as close to perfect as possible and stressing about my grades and academic performance. This persisted from elementary school through high school. While it opened doors for me, it was also an obsession. I gave myself zero grace for failures, and had to be top of my class every year, no matter what. I attended a highly competitive college prep high school so my feelings of inferiority intensified in that environment of wealth and microaggressions.

Thankfully, college turned things around for me. For so many years I had such razor-sharp focus on getting into college that achieving it felt like I had conquered a mountain. For the first time that I could recall, I felt like I had earned a place in the world. It carried over into my self-esteem in many ways, allowing me to make lots of friends and a ton of wonderful memories. But I was far from loving myself. In fact, it was when I struggled the most with my looks. During my undergrad years my eating disorder spiraled out of control and even at a size 4 and dating “popular” athletes, I didn’t feel pretty. The hate still outweighed the love and I fed and purged it in secret for years.

College graduation was another milestone that gave me more of a sense of purpose and worthiness. It was the end game to what I had been working towards. It helped me see myself as a go-getter who didn’t give up and I loved that in others and began to love that about myself. But loving oneself is so much more than warm baths and indulging in decadent desserts as a treat. It meant getting help for my eating disorder, one of the scariest things I had faced in my young adulthood. It was ugly and painful but I needed that tough love from within to really turn my life around or I was going to have serious, life-long consequences.

As I worked on my health, I met a man who loved me in a way no one had ever loved me. It was whole and genuine and I felt completely undeserving. His love was also relentless and I had no choice but to take notice. I admired and respected him so much that I began to believe what he loved about me. He saw so much more in me than I had ever seen in myself. I learned so much about being loved that it influenced the way I love myself. How could I love myself less than he did? That didn’t make sense to me.

Healthy self love didn’t happen overnight or in the course of our courtship. It has taken decades and continues to evolve. Knowing that I could be loved so fiercely and unconditionally changed how I viewed myself. Paired with the tough love I had practiced in order to move away from my eating disorder, I began to love myself deliberately. It was a conscious effort to let go of guilt I had no business carrying. It allowed me to create space for myself in places I had formerly felt undeserving to occupy. I began apologizing less for things that truly didn’t call for an apology, and I took steps towards finding true joy in the things I pursued.

Prioritizing myself is way out of my comfort zone so it often feels uncomfortable, as though I am rebelling against my nature.

For so many years I spun my wheels trying to be the person everyone wanted me to be and never feeling accomplished in that. Yet, being myself had attracted an extraordinary person into my life when I least expected it. Little by little I learned to accept myself as he did and realized the value I brought to his life. That realization was empowering. It set the stage for a gentler form of self love that began to form inside me. Just because it was gentle, doesn’t mean that it’s easy or painless. In fact, it is the complete opposite. Prioritizing myself is way out of my comfort zone so it often feels uncomfortable, as though I am rebelling against my nature. It hurts, but the pain is temporary and the gains are immense and timeless.

Loving myself doesn’t mean that I feel like the best or better than anyone else. It means that I know I am better than the person I was yesterday and that is my reward. It’s a work in progress every day to be as kind to myself as I am to others and to give myself the same grace I am quick to extend to those I love. It is radical way of thinking that has come with age, experience and awareness. Loving myself means constantly reminding myself that I can love myself enough so that I don’t need anyone else to love me, but that when I love myself with abandon I also attract love. Being conscious of the people who show love and seeing it for what it is has been one of the biggest gifts I’ve gotten from loving myself. It has highlighted the many ways one can be loved that has nothing to do with romance or sex, relationships or bloodlines, but is just as fulfilling and validating.

Years ago, when someone told me they loved me my first thought was to wonder why and brush it off in incredulousness. Today, I embrace it and think, “Yea, I love me, too.”

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Outgrowing My Life's Vision

At some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.As a child, when I pictured my future, I was a teacher; a flight attendant; a businesswoman with a corner office among the clouds, far above the streets of New York. I wore heels and the latest fashions and owned a modern, minimalist condo that I shared with my husband and cute little dog. My weekends were full of cocktails, dining out and the latest Broadway shows. 


My life looks nothing like that and it has taken me over two decades to come to terms with how my life has turned out. 

Part of the problem is that I didn’t update my vision of my life as it unfolded. Since I thought I had done everything to lead towards what I wanted - I had the business degree, savings, a strong network and a businessman husband. I figured that the rest was coming because I had been aligning everything just so. What I hadn’t accounted for was all the other elements of life that were working against that vision. I kept trying to re-shape my life into what I thought it should be but life had other plans. Have you ever tried to control the direction of a sled as it glides over the snow down a hill? That’s what it felt like. I was trying to control the sled but the sled was going where the snow allowed. It wasn’t a crazy ride, but it definitely had its own path that I could see but was unwilling to trust as the best path for me.    

Rather than enjoying the life that was right in front of me, I kept looking past it to what wasn’t.

I had more than I had envisioned but I couldn’t see that because I only focused on what was missing. By constantly doing that, I was robbing myself of happiness for no good reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a good life, it just doesn’t look like what I convinced myself it would look like since I was a child. For starters, my career took me all over the Midwest but not to the Big Apple. Sure, I could have applied for positions in New York but it would have required me to give up homeownership and the comfortable lifestyle I was accustomed to - void of subway trains and long commutes; high prices and small living spaces. While I held on to the thought that was the life I wanted, it was only an illusion because in truth, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice what I had for what it would take to make it look like what I envisioned.

While I had many offices, none were corner offices with huge windows that looked down on a bustling city that never sleeps. In fact, my time in Corporate America was nothing like I expected and I was much happier when I left that grind behind. When I pictured myself as a business tycoon, I failed to consider that I was a young woman of color and how that would impact the professional ladder I needed to climb. And the clothes and high heels I thought I’d wear to climb that ladder? No way! I grew to prefer comfort over stuffy pantsuits and shoes that contort my feet. Even while I accepted this about myself, I mourned for the life that had stamped itself in my head so many decades ago.

As the pieces of my life came together, I resisted. I failed to appreciate what I had in hopes that it would morph into what I thought I wanted. That left me feeling empty inside; like a failure to myself and therefore, a failure to everyone. It led to bouts of depression, dissatisfaction and daily negative self-talk. I was never good enough. Never enough. My accomplishments felt minor and I didn’t take pride in what I achieved, no matter how much blood, sweat and tears it took to get it done. For years, this was a shadow over my life. In the midst of everything else, it loomed, like a storm cloud.  

When the pandemic came, I spent a lot of time at home. Like many, I made improvements to my home and transformed certain spaces into places I wanted to be. I also formed a pod of people I trusted enough to spend time with on a regular basis. In the midst of millions losing their jobs and homes, it opened my eyes to what I had actually built for myself, and how easily it could have had a negative outcome. Several events highlighted how fortunate I was for the life I live. It dawned on me that what was keeping me from reaching a genuine level of happiness and gratitude for my life was the outdated vision I held on to about how my life should look. While it still held the glamor and wonder from when I first conjured the thought, I realized that I had outgrown that scene. There was no way that I would willingly give up the life I had for the one I thought I wanted. It took deliberate acceptance to get to that realization and it wasn’t easy to embrace.

First, I had to let go. But that isn’t easy when you’ve engrained it into your psyche that your life can only be successful if it looks a certain way and that everything else is either a step in that direction or a roadblock. As much as I realized that I had created an even better life for myself than the one I imagined, it was a sad realization. It felt unfamiliar and like a cop out to accept things as they are.

If I was no longer working towards what I thought my life should be, then what was I doing with my life? 

To be honest, I don’t have an answer. All I know is that what I have is good. The most glaring omission from the life I envisioned all those years ago was the people in it. Aside from a husband, I hadn’t thought about friends or any kind of support system. Yet, that is what helped me realize how good I have it. Looking at all the people in my life who were checking on me; inviting me to socially distanced get togethers in parking lots and in parks; including me in group chats and virtual game nights; those with whom I explored Zoom and got re-connected. They are the substance in my life, they make up the pieces I hadn’t counted on that are more valuable to me than all the corner offices overlooking all the cities in the world. Through those relationships I am embracing what is and seeing it for the gift it is, rather than all the ways it doesn’t resemble what I thought I wanted. Remembering how those relationships have been the glue that held my soul together during this dark and uncertain time has been the jolt I need to re-evaluate and allow myself to accept what is and the peace to release what wasn’t meant for me.

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