On his blog, Ferrett Steinmetz asks How do you handle your insecurities?
I have destroyed relationships by overreacting to my insecurities, demanding my partners prove things to me that they could not possibly ever reassure me of; sadly, I have also destroyed relationships by notlistening to my insecurities, and having partners then go on to cheat, abuse, and hurt me because I didn’t interpret that signal properly.
So for me, the trick is to try to find reality.
I am like the Sherlock Holmes of my own psyche, whenever those tides of anxiety roll in. I sift everything for clues. I make lists. I replay conversations in my head over and over again like that lunch at Chipotle was the fucking Zapruder tape, relentlessly scouring it to try to determine whether she was actually Not Into Me or whether I was just misinterpreting the signs.
The following Twitter conversation ensued:
Ferrett has shared extensively about his struggles with depression and social anxiety. Mishell is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I have PTSD. None of what I have to say is intended as a facile solution for anyone’s mental health challenges. There are no quick and easy solutions. But I do know a thing or two about self love, and the terrible pain we cause ourselves when we withhold it.
Basically, self-love is like vegetables. Your body needs them, but a lot of people have trouble with vegetables for one reason or another and avoid them. Likewise, for a lot of very valid emotional reasons, many of us have grown up not knowing how or refusing to give ourselves love. The result is emotional pain that can contribute significantly to mental illness and cause chronic disconnection from others and relationship problems.
The subject of self and personal development is important for writers. As artists, we funnel creative energy through ourselves and when we become published authors, there is unavoidable attention, public scrutiny, and criticism attached to that role. If we lose ourselves, the art suffers.
Learning self love when you don’t have a foundation is extremely difficult. Like Ferrett, I’ve been prone to rumination and people pleasing, and I know how those habits can be an important way to cope. It feels like if you can understand other people’s behavior well enough, you can keep yourself safe and continue to feel ok about yourself, when the alternative is a pretty nasty series of attacks of self loathing. It can work “well enough” for a long time, but if some life crisis or event takes away that “base” of external validation–maybe you realize that all of your calculations and simulations have failed all at once–you’re in for a world of hurt.
Self compassion is like a couch to 5K program. When you first start, it feels unnatural, difficult, and exhausting. There is little immediate reward.
For a long time, months maybe, I worked diligently at improving my self concept through practicing self compassion, but would still spiral into episodes of “badfeels” that would flatten me like roadkill for days at a time. It felt like self love couldn’t possibly be enough. It felt like I HAD to get something more from outside myself, though I couldn’t have easily explained what that was, and I knew it wasn’t coming.
I now know that the sensitive inner self, which is variously known as the emotional self, the inner child, the true self, the vulnerable self, the feminine essence, yang, etc. does not immediately respond to self love when it’s been withheld for a lifetime. It takes time, and practice, to learn to trust yourself to provide what you need. Think about adopting a neglected or abused child. Is that child going to open up to joy and trust on the first day you bring her home? No! The child will need time to learn to feel safe and trust in your love as a parent.
In the same way, when you first start attending to your own emotional needs, the pain doesn’t immediately vanish. It takes time, a lot of time, and patience. Your inner self needs to learn that your adult self will back up its promises with action.
Things finally started to shift for me when I had a dream. Until that point, my self care efforts were inconsistent, and I was feeling frustrated and despondent and alone. My attitude was like, “I did self care a week ago Tuesday, so why do I feel crappy today?
Then I had a dream. In the dream, I was hanging out with some friends I lost contact with a long time ago. At first it was great, because I had felt rejected when we drifted apart, and I was happy that they still seemed to like and welcome me. But in the dream, I was also aware that I had grown and changed, and I wasn’t feeling super comfortable with this friend group anymore. Plus, their affection for me felt lukewarm. Then, suddenly, there were kittens everywhere. I was the only one who seemed to notice that multiple litters of kittens were running around loose all over the house and property. Some older kittens were attacking and playing too rough with the younger kittens. I tried catching and containing the kittens, but the task seemed impossible.
When I woke up, I knew the dream had a message. I knew my subconscious was telling me that others opinion of me didn’t matter, that the real question was how I felt about them. Like Ferrett, I had spent way too much time trying to figure out who is Into Me, and had been ignoring any messages from my inner self about who I was actually into. But that was old news.
The real key was the kittens. I’ve dreamt of kitten infestations before. What is up with that? And then, in a flash, while running errands, the answer came to me. The kittens were my inner self (selves), which I was neglecting while trying to get people to like me and chasing after external validation and approval. Bam!
After that, I got serious about self love and self care. I made it a daily practice, and instead of whining when it seemed like I needed MORE from myself, I started generously giving myself all of the time and energy I needed. The more I gave, the more my inner self started responding, and talking to me about her needs. The more I understood those needs, the more I was able to respond and give. The “badfeels” went away, and have not returned since.
I have had to learn inner dialogue, which healthy, well-nurtured adults do without thinking about it, but felt very difficult and unnatural to me. I’ve also worked on it through exercises like journaling, nondominant hand writing, art, meditation, role playing with dolls and teddy bears, etc. etc. Mostly, I’ve just tried a lot of things and tried to be open to my inner voice. It was nice of my subconscious to offer the kitten avatar, because that turns cat cuddling into therapy.
I would venture to say that learning self care for the average adult in our culture takes at least as much time and energy investment as raising a puppy. So many of us were either denied a healthy example or actually given a negative example through childhood abuse.
None of what I say is meant as a fix for a chemical imbalance of the brain, variations in structure or wiring, or neurodiversity. But learning self love can give you extremely robust coping skills for managing those conditions and choosing safe, supportive people to connect with, and it’s something each and every one of us need. Self love is not a way to “fix” yourself. It’s just something you need. Self love is the key to pulling yourself back in and not getting caught up in ruminative cycles about other people’s behavior, none of which really has anything to do with you.
I honestly no longer care what people think of me, and have no need to seek approval, acceptance, or validation from anyone. I invest in people I like and care about. If they want to reciprocate, awesome. If not, meh. There are 7 billion people on the planet, and I have shit to do.
It feels good. Like srsly.