Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
I've never been a fan of self-love. For one thing, I'm wired in the exact opposite way—to self-hate—so I've thought it impossible to ever love myself. Secondly, and perhaps as a result of its seeming-impossibility, I've always viewed the conception of self-love as a fluffy indulgence, ultimately unnecessary to survival. It's more comfortable to reframe that which we think we'll never have as something we wouldn't want anyway, so as not to be sad about its absence.
Also, there's a lot of silly commercialization around the idea of self-love that makes it easy to dismiss. From Soul Cycle to the Ted Talk–industrial complex, Juice Press to a 23-year-old yoga teacher in $200 pants trying to tell me the meaning of life, it's easy to proclaim the concept as a marketing gimmick.
I have a friend here in Los Angeles—the sprawling uterus from which all the world's green-juice culture bursts forth—who is always attending "opening the heart" workshops. Like, this woman is never not going to an "opening the heart" workshop.
I've actually come to resent this friend for all her opening. I think it's because I know, and can very easily see, that deep down she still hates herself. When I see her self-hatred, underneath all the talk of healing the inner child and how much progress is being made, it annoys me. Why is she trying to dupe herself? Why can't she just be honest about her self-hatred? Openly self-hating people are just better than closeted self-hating people. We're way more fun to hang out with.
This is not to say I revel in my self-hatred. Recently, after publishing a book largely about myself that's not an instant failure (and that a number of people seem to actually like), the deficit between my own self-esteem and the way that others see me has become shockingly apparent. I know from past attempts at feeling good about myself based on external achievement that any validation I might receive is but a temporary dopamine shot and does not, ultimately, create any real peace of mind. Yet lately, it's like some of this positive feedback is somehow working its way into my psyche. As a result I've been having some very disturbing thoughts. What if I don't totally suck? What if I'm not the worst person on the planet? What if I do, God forbid, deserve happiness?
Of course, having these suspicions is entirely different from actually believing them. To really believe that I might be kind of OK, maybe even deserving of happiness, seems terrifying. It's as though to believe I am not so bad is dangerous and will rob me of an important protection. What if I believe that I am not that bad and then I only get worse? What if things get worse and someone else discovers that my sucking is a factual truth? I'll no longer be prepared to accept that.
To be honest, I don't even have a specific definition of what my cosmic badness is all about. Is it my poor stewardship of the Earth? Insecurities about physical appearance? Self-centeredness? Feelings of artistic and spiritual fraudulence? Participation in American capitalism? All of it? When parsed, I can intellectually negate each of these self-judgments. I'm not the very shittiest person in any of these areas. But when taken as an overarching feeling of deficiency, it's very difficult to believe the possibility that I'm not the shittiest person. This is what I have believed about myself my whole life.
Yet the idea that I might be worth something, that I might even deserve happiness, continues to sneak its way into my existence. In an odd way, it's like these thoughts are just happening on their own. If you want to call this "healing," I will tell you that there is no way I could have forced this healing to occur. I've always been in therapy, doing "the work" and shit. It's not like I've just started trying. It seems as though a strange alchemy is occurring where everything is starting to congeal. They say a miracle is a shift in perception. But I don't think I could have made this happen any sooner.
I also seem to be taking some actions that one might define as acts of self-love even before I really believe I'm worthy. It's as though the actions are the head of the train and the feelings are the caboose. I can't feel my way to acting differently, but through these actions, I feel different. I've found myself setting boundaries with people. When there is temptation or conflict, I've been asking, Whose shit is this? In the past, I've always assumed the shit is mine, or at least that I've had a hand in it. I felt that assuming the guilt made me a nicer, more responsible person. But I think it's OK for a person who has always destructed inwardly to sometimes say that the shit is totally someone else's.
Setting boundaries and maintaining them is new and weird. I always imagined that people who set boundaries were, like, graceful. That if I were to set boundaries I would be drinking green tea and have a Buddhist daily calendar. But for me, it appears to be the opposite. Most recently, I found myself screaming at midnight with a packed suitcase in my parents' suburban driveway. I didn't know that screaming could be an act of self-love. But it made me wonder, what if self-love can be messy, dark, loud, and even mischievous? Maybe you don't need fucking Lululemon to do it. Can self-love be kind of punk? Can it be simultaneously satanic and also good?
I don't know the answer to these questions. I'm definitely not delivering a lecture on what self-love is or isn't, or how to get it. I'm simply saying, "What if"? I'm saying it here, because it feels shocking to me, and perhaps others have felt as pleasantly shocked. But mostly, I'm saying it to myself.
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