Following on from my first blog post about body image and self-esteem, I wanted to talk about self-love. This is a term you see printed on pyjamas and purses, and preached to the masses on social media, but I don’t think many people really delve deep enough for it to help them. I see people who advocate for self-love but display behaviours that indicate they’re deeply unhappy. Loving yourself isn’t a simple decision; you cannot just profess to practice it and suddenly be happier within yourself. It takes time and dedication to address parts of you that perhaps you’d rather were not there. I am by no means ‘there’ yet, but I’ve come a long old way since I was a teenager and one thing I can say is that I know who I am, whether or not I like that person wholeheartedly quite yet. With each obstacle that crosses my path in life, I find myself more and more able to do what is best for me, because I care about myself. That is not something I have always been able to say.
When at school, I was bullied by a group of girls relentlessly for a period of time. They just decided I was going to be the person they focused on for that time, and that was that. They threatened me in writing and yet I never told anybody. I found out a couple of months ago, a decade later, that I could have gone to the police due to the nature of the situation. But instead, I apologised to the people who were making my life a living hell – and for what I still don’t know. But apologising rather than standing up for myself was just the natural thing to do for me. I think this is partly down to the fact that I avoid conflict like the plague, but also because I have never put my emotional wellbeing first. I never called anyone out or looked after myself. But recently I found myself in a situation that brought back those feelings of hopelessness and though my initial reaction, as a 24-year-old, is still to back down, I fought that instinct. I thought about what the 5-year-old me would feel; would she wonder why I wasn’t looking out for her? It was surreal, realising I could have done this all along, throughout life. I didn’t have to sit back and wallow; I could change things around. If not for me, then for 5-year-old Lily.
This made me wonder where those key changes happened that made me start looking after myself. I started to love myself and defend my soul as ferociously as I would for somebody else. Looking back, I learned so much about myself in my late teens and early twenties and some of the decisions I made during those years must have contributed more than I thought they did. So here are a few things I would suggest if you truly want to practice ‘self-love’.
Do things on your own! I can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t matter if it’s the theatre, a meal out or an entire trip – I’ve done all three and they all felt so freeing. I almost can’t believe I just threw myself into those things when my mental health was at an all-time low, but I did. I did several trips in Europe by myself, walking the cobbled streets of a distant country and learning the basics of the language to get by. When I went to the theatre, I cried with the old lady sat next to me who decided I was more interesting than her husband who had fallen asleep. And the pure satisfaction of replying “nope, just me” when the waiter assumes you need a table for two is pretty great. On some trips, I would say ‘thank you’ to the person checking my passport on the way home and realise those were the first words I had spoken to another human in days. I think I really needed that time. (Personal highlight of my solo travel adventures: trespassing to see the Von Trapp house. Risking arrest in a foreign country when you’re alone because of a filming location in a musical is totally sensible).
Self-awareness is hugely interlinked with self-love, and is equally difficult to master. My level of self-awareness has always been one of my (few) strengths in this area – I’m a very emotional person and have always been able to tap into myself easily. I know my triggers, I know the things I love, how I want to spend my time. This level of self-awareness also means I am critical with myself far more than I need to be. But we all need a small amount of self-criticism otherwise we’d be stuck in our unhealthy cycles forever – it’s all about striking a balance. Self-love does not just mean mindlessly excusing all of your behaviours because you love yourself unconditionally, it’s just as much about struggling through the tough stuff to recognise the harmful things about yourself that are hindering you in life. Self-awareness, in my experience, means you become more aware of others’ feelings too, which is an added bonus.
Do not pacify yourself. Say what you mean. One of my pet peeves about life is that, especially in the UK, you are surrounded by people playing games and wording things too carefully in fear of making a situation awkward, and they do this to the point of completely losing themselves. Speak your truth! Denying yourself the ability to shout about how you feel and make yourself heard is only going to bottle up negative energy inside you, which suffocates self-love. How can you truly practice self-love if your self is not present?
All of this comes down to mental health. We have an issue with mental health; not only in the media but deeply ingrained in society. I still, on a daily basis, see people belittling the experiences of others and it must stop; the energy spent on hurting one another is stealing time we could be spending on healing ourselves. We have to look after each other. It’s become a bit of a cliche to say “how do you expect others to love you if you do not love yourself?”, and I personally don’t actually think that is true. Sometimes we need the light of others to open us up to begin with, although the work must be primarily carried out by ourselves. Love each other; it has so much more power than we give it credit for. Just remember to save some for yourself.