I recently reread Cheryl Richardson’s “The Art of Extreme Selfcare”. I bought it a couple of years ago and read it cover to cover, taking notes, highlighting important passages, and implementing nothing. Change, even positive change, is hard and can be challenging to implement. We cling to our default settings with our dying grasp, even when they’re harmful.
I’ve been dissatisfied with my life of late. I’m frustrated and so went looking for something to give me a kick-start change. I scanned the self-help titles that litter my bookshelves for inspiration and Ms. Richardson’s jumped out. Probably because it’s slightly oversized. I grabbed it, thinking that maybe this time, I’d adopt some of the recommendations.
One of the first topics is self-acceptance and self-love. That was less than thrilling: I’d hoped to start with small and easy. “Make the bed” or something like that. Ms. Richardson suggests that a lack of self-love is something we need to fix sooner rather than later. She suggests a simple exercise: pause and say, “I love you, Em (or whatever your name is)” to your reflection every time you catch sight of it. In the morning when you’re brushing your teeth. When you pass by the mirror in the hall. At the kiosk at the mall. You might want to do that last one in your head.
It’s a good suggestion that made me cringe. Loving myself is not my default setting. I’m more comfortable with the ugly language. Things like ugly, stupid, moronic, pathetic, and fat are more comfortably familiar.
I decided to go ahead despite my resistance. Leaning into the discomfort will make my therapists proud. What’s the worst that could happen? Perhaps not the best attitude to hold while approaching change, but whatever. After all, beyond making me feel foolish, how hard could it be?
As it turns out, saying, “I love you” to myself is difficult indeed.
The procedure is this: face the mirror, look myself in the eye (you can’t look at yourself in both of your eyes), and say the words. I love you. I felt ridiculous and very much the liar.
The mirror makes it particularly hard. It occurred to me as I stood there, absorbing my uncomfortable response, that notwithstanding the work I’ve done in recovery, I still don’t look at myself very much. I don’t like what I see. I glance, but only long enough to check for facial imperfections and added fat. That’s still what mirrors are to me; a verification system for my neuroses. Mirrors exist to point out all the ways I’m wrong. I rarely look at myself in a kind, supportive, and loving way.
Doing it felt utterly wrong.
Which made me sad and not just for myself: where I go, so do a great many others. Although we’re unique, we’re not that unique. True for me is true for a great many.
How awful that so many of us don’t love ourselves? Or even like. We don’t give ourselves props and we don’t prop ourselves up. The lucky among us feel warmly tolerant. Affection for the self in the developed world has become a rare trait. That’s not good enough.
Why isn’t the art of loving ourselves taught along the way? Why isn’t there a “Like Yourself” unit every year at school or children’s club merit badge on developing a good view of oneself?
Nevertheless, in the spirit of Elizabeth Warren and despite feeling icky, I persist.
I love you, Em.
I love you, Em.
I love you, Em.
I hate it when people are right. It’s perverse, I know, but part of me would be okay if the dark, dreary, and negative voices were correct. It’s nice to be right, even if it’s about the wrong thing.
As it turns out, Ms. Richardson was correct. It does get easier. I feel a little less ridiculous every time. It’s started to make me smile. I feel a slight easing in my chest when I hear myself speak.
It’s not universal. I’m not full of love for myself and my body all the time just yet. But there’s liking and acceptance on the horizon and I can say, “I love you” to myself without curling my lip.
And if I don’t always mean it yet, I also don’t not mean it. So, I might as well keep doing it. What’s the worst that could happen?