In all honesty it’s been a 42-year journey to be able to say, without cringing, that yes, I do love myself. But it’s not an Instagramable rainbows-and-unicorns love. I love myself very quietly, very gently — and occasionally, when it’s needed, I love myself like a lioness protecting her cubs. I’ve learned that I am responsible for my own happiness and my own sense of worth and that everything I value is built upon the foundation of how I look after myself. Because no one else is going to do it for me — it’s not their job, it’s mine.
I grew up with low self-esteem. An absent father and a troubled teenage resulted in the search for love outside myself, yet even when I found a sweet devoted boyfriend, I couldn’t really accept that I was loveable — it was like sticking a Band Aid over a festering wound.
Somehow I made it though my 20s intact. I worked hard at building my career and did my best to maintain a relationship. Looking back through my journals I see everything was focussed on the external — achievement, status, love from another. I knew something was missing but there was no way I’d stop striving to figure out what it was…
… And then, at age 32, I experienced a devastating bereavement that rewrote everything I knew about life.
Painstakingly, and with help, I pieced myself back together. I had to learn how to exist on my own, to unravel the past and find meaning in my new life — perhaps for the first time ever. Those first few years of grief and healing changed everything for me. It was like being given another chance to have the relationship I’d always wanted, but this time with MYSELF.
The by-product of all that inner excavation was the blossoming of self-worth, which I feel is the precursor to self-love. It’s almost impossible to love yourself if you can’t see your own worth. When I realised I could say no to the things I didn’t want to do and could extricate myself from friendships that were causing me pain, I was signalling to my self that YES, you are worth more than this. The more time I spent with myself the more I had my own back and it’s amazing how fiercely you advocate on your own behalf when you only have yourself to rely on.
The most challenging piece of all this was the conscious dance with my shadows. It’s easy to accept the nice bits of ourselves but harder to hang out with the murkier stuff. I’ve sat with my obsessiveness, my cynicism, my envy, and rather than disown it I do my best to embrace it all — it’s as much a part of who I am as any of the “good” stuff. I am obsessive and I am creative. I’m cynical and I am hopeful. I am envious and I am a warrior. The door to self-love opens wider when you can hold the wonderful things in the same hand as the stuff you’re ashamed of.
All of this is a daily practice for me. Radical kindness seems to be the key whenever I come up against the temptation to put myself down. Self-love doesn’t require us to be perfect. It merely asks us to be open to accepting the truth of who we are — the light and the dark — and to actively extend the sort of kindness we’d give to a cherished loved one. I have down days and I have fantastic days and through it all I try my very best to be kind and compassionate towards myself. To love the woman I see in the mirror because she really is doing the best she can.
I recorded a little self-love visualisation so we could practice the cherishing together. You can listen to it over here.
This is my contribution to the April LOVE project. I invited 28 inspiring women and one brave guy to share their thoughts and stories of what self-love (how you feel about yourself) and self-care (how you look after yourself and put that self-love into action) means to them. We have a truly delicious mix of essays, videos, meditations and journal prompts for you to explore.
We started today but you can sign up at any time to get the daily self-love emails. Don’t worry if you miss a few days — I’ll be making an ebook at the end to send out the first week of May. All free, of course.
Sign ups are happening over here xo
“It saddens me to think that trip was the last time I truly felt connected to my body. In the in-between years there was a love that set me alight, his eyes, his touch accepting, loving every part of me, a gift I have never fully understood until now. I look in the mirror and wonder who could love me like that again. And that’s when I hear it, the call to be my own lover, with my own appreciative eyes and touch, to see my body as whole and perfect exactly as it is. It was easy to bask in his gaze, to feel at ease in my skin because he adored me so, but it didn’t come from within me. It was not of my own making. I mourned for his touch as much as I mourned for him, but all these years later it’s my own acceptance I crave now. Relying on another to make us feel good only works as long as they are here: better to find it in yourself.”
— From This I Know, page 105
The words above were written sometime in early 2011, no doubt while I was munching on a bar of chocolate. After a couple of years of creating my business and not wanting to leave my desk — so much to do! — I’d put on a considerable amount of weight. At the time I chalked it up to aging. I was conscious of how I was eating more to “give myself energy” but didn’t cotton on to the fact that it wasn’t possible to burn off those extra calories just by thinking non-stop.
The chapter in my book that deals with the body is the one that feels most incomplete to me because I was still at the beginning of that healing saga. I was at my heaviest, I was exhausted and I thought I had to just put up with it as I slid, inelegantly, into my 40s.
Now I know this wasn’t the case at all.
My path back into my body makes sense to me as I reflect on what’s happened since then, but it’s still a pleasant surprise to discover I really do live in my body now. After a lifetime of disembodied living, I now inhabit every square inch of myself. The bits I like, the bits I like less — all of it. It’s all me. It’s all I have, in this lifetime, anyway.
How to get back into your body? I don’t have the definitive answers and anyone who says they do needs to be regarded with suspicion, quite frankly, because it’s different for each of us. All I have is what feels true TO ME so I’m going to share the following timeline with the understanding that you are capable of finding what feels true FOR YOU. Of course, breadcrumbs and signposts help in the quest, so maybe there’s something here that sparks a line of enquiry for you…
— 1973 – 2005. Lived quite unconsciously in my body. Wished parts of it were were thicker/narrower/flatter. Had a slew of digestion issues but never worked out how to fix them. Outward appearance was very important; inward appearance was largely ignored. My preferred form of exercise was sex with someone I adored. Bereavement put a stop to that.
— 2005 – 2008. Drank all the wine. Smoked all the cigarettes. Slowly began putting life back together. Connecting with my body was last on the list — had to find all the pieces of my heart first.
— 2009 – 2011. Created a business without meaning to and had to learn how to run it with integrity and love. Basically didn’t leave the house for two years and got my groceries delivered. Ate all the food. Wrote a book.
— Spring 2012. Started dating and had heart trampled on. Lost appetite for a while. Started smoking again (definite low point).
— Got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired all the time. Hated that I couldn’t walk up a hill (Bath is very hilly) without getting out of breath. Went to Morocco with friends and discovered the discomfort of inner thighs chaffing against each other in the heat. This had never happened before.
— Decided to start going for long sweaty walks in the park. Dreaded them but something forced me out the door every time. Exhausting but occasionally enjoyable, especially when the sun was out.
— Bought some girlie dumbbells off Amazon and started lifting them when I got home from the sweaty walks. Began to see a bit of improvement in my arms. This was encouraging.
— Summer 2012. Went to North America for 3 weeks on my book tour. Was so out of my usual routine when I got home I finally felt ready to move back to London. It was time.
— Autumn 2012. Travelled to Italy and then back to the USA and despite all the glaring signs I did not realise I was sliding down into depression. I did far too much that year. My poor under-loved body was not able to keep me afloat.
— October 2012. Moved back to London and sank into the depression. Took me three months to realise what was happening and look for help. Went back on antidepressants and fought my way back to the surface.
— January 2013. Started making some big changes, albeit slowly and quietly. Found a therapist I liked and began working out with a personal trainer. On a whim I cut out gluten and discovered this is what had been fucking me up all my life. Within days my body felt less like my enemy and more like a cohort. This was definitely a turning point.
— Started noticing that when my therapist asked me where I felt something in my body — an emotion, a feeling, a reaction — I wouldn’t be able to give her a definite answer. Got curious about this.
— June 2013. Wrote a post called The exercise-hater’s guide to loving the gym. Started to enjoy feeling strong and having more stamina. Bought new exercise clothes and felt confident enough to walk to the gym in leggings and a vest.
— Autumn 2013. More dating. More vulnerability. More disappointment. Decided to get braces and go to the doctor to discuss why I was experiencing so much pain in my abdomen. These two things, seemingly unrelated, were sure signs I was listening to, and looking after, my body. It’s around that time my meditation practice began in earnest.
— January 2014. Turned out the fibroids I’d had diagnosed many years ago had grown and were now a problem. Got referred to a specialist and awaited my appointment (god bless the NHS and it’s insane waiting times *ahem*)
— May 2014. MRI scan showed my fibroids had taken over half my body. Slight exaggeration but that’s how it felt. They’d been growing for all those years but it was only now that I could hear what my body had been telling me.
— Summer 2014. I read something about how we are embodied souls and a lightbulb went off in my (no longer disembodied) head. I finally understood that my soul does not exist outside of me, somewhere “out there” but is embedded into every single cell of my body. My body is temporary, yes, but it is wholly me while I’m here. It became clear how every gym session has been grounding me back into my body, how meditation was helping me sink deeper inside my own flesh. When my therapist asks me where I feel something in my body I’m able to give her answers — she notices the change in me, too.
— Summer/autumn 2014. Spent five months photographing London for my next book. It was utterly exhausting but there’s something about all the steps I took that mirrors the path back to myself. There’s no way I’d have been physically able to take on the project two years ago.
— November 4th 2014. Smoked my last cigarette. I’d only been smoking one or two a week but my body had had enough. Haven’t had one since. Feel suitably virtuous.
— January 2015. After a lot of waiting, but oh so perfectly timed, I have open surgery to remove 14 fibroids weighting one pound in total. Despite the pain and discomfort — or maybe because of it — I have never loved my body more. I marvel at how it can heal itself. I swear I will never take it for granted again. For better or for worse, this is the only body I have. We are a team.
— February/March 2015. Healing slowly, listening carefully. It’s impossible to overeat when I’m so full of stitches and scars so my eating habits have been shifting. I realise that lightly cooked vegetables suit me better than raw. Suddenly I’m noticing how dairy makes me feel like shit (and completely bloats me out). I’m enjoying eating simply and my body responds by letting me know what it prefers. And yes, I still call my body “it” but that’s okay. I trust the wisdom of my body, wisdom far beyond anything my narrow mind could conjure on its own. NOURISH is indeed the perfect word for this year.
— The future. A yoga immersion. Reiki I. More enquiry, more listening. More kindness, more compassion. More giving myself a break when I need it. Less expectation. More love.
If meditation feels like a line of enquiry for you, come explore The Sacred Alone with me xo
All our inner life and intimacy of soul longs to find an outer mirror. It longs for a form in which it can be seen, felt and touched. The body is the mirror where the secret world of the soul comes to expression. The body is a sacred threshold and it deserves to be respected, minded and understood in its spiritual nature. — John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
As it turned out my fibroids were too big to be removed laproscopically so instead I had an open myomectomy last Monday. Fourteen fibroids were removed weighing one pound in total (!!) The largest ‘broid, as we now call them, was 8cm in diameter. My surgeon took a photo of them to show me afterwards and a) I love that he did that b) they aren’t pretty and c) I’m amazed I carried them in my body. My two-night stay in hospital was an HSP nightmare but I’m now safely at my mother’s house discovering what it’s like to recover from abdominal surgery.
The body deserves to be respected.
Yes. This. A thousand times, this.
I’ve been cycling through different beliefs about my body over the years: I am not my body. I am so much bigger than my body (still believe this). Yet I am utterly my body. My body is my soul made flesh and bone. In the past there was always a distancing between me and my body. “It” was defective leading me to believe I got shortchanged in the body department. Thankfully this has been changing, as I wrote about here.
There has been no distance between me and my body during these last 10 days post-surgery. Every twinge, every pull, the passage of every bit of food through my system, has been felt and experienced. The first time I sat on the loo and had some success I hugged my arms around myself in relief and kissed my own shoulders, silently telling my body I loved it. The first shower made me cry emo tears of gratitude. My body is magnificent. As I told Jo the next day, I will never talk shit about my body again. My body is my truest companion. We’re in it together.
Our bodies have their own animal wisdom, their own way of doing things that we have no control over. My body knows how to knit itself back together. When the hospital called to check in and see how I was doing, I told the lady who rang about the twinges and stabbing pains I’m getting: “It’s your nerve endings joining themselves back together” she told me. MY BODY IS DOING THIS ALL ON ITS OWN. The excision of 14 fibroids resulted in a helluva lot of internal stitches, so even as I watch my external wound heal (a 7 inch cut) I know there’s so much more work happening deep within me — in more ways than one.
I’ve been journalling about the connection between the fibroids and my seemingly perpetual singledom over the last decade since his death. The surgery feels like the most symbolic clearing out I could have had, old hurts swept out as my sacral chakra got retuned, ready for the next stage of the journey.
Today I turn 42 and I’m doing so much better than I was a week ago. In fact, so much better than I was five years ago. Or ten years. Better than I’ve ever been before in my life. Aging suits me. I like it.
The body is your only home in the universe. It is your house of belonging here in this world. — John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
Sunday evening, lying on my bed wrapped in a blanket my mother crocheted for me. The wind is battering the window making the panes shudder, the guttering outside creaking in protest. There’s a storm coming tonight they say, the biggest storm for twenty years. I’m leafing through the pages of my old journals. 2003, 2004 and 2005 already relived and tear-stained — now I’m wandering back through 2006. I hadn’t intended to read so far, but I want to know how the story ends. I turn the page and read a description of my imagined future life and immediately my heart starts beating faster — everything I’d written describes my life as it is today. Where I live, what I earn, the work I do, the places I have been. My achievements. My goals. The way I spend my days. All of it was written out on October 25th 2006. But what makes me smile the most are the pieces of the future I hadn’t even imagined: my love for my nephew, the deep friendships I treasure. Work that feels meaningful. The connections I’ve made. I couldn’t have imagined any of that, yet it came to be anyway. I open my current journal and set my pen to the paper: what future life can I conjure up now, knowing that something even greater will arrive, the pieces of the future I can’t yet imagine…