How I learned to love myself

Written on March 28th, 2016

My insecurities were truly birthed in the sixth grade.

Before that I had been a rather self-assured (if naive) kid who was much more likely to be found with her nose in a book than engaged in conversation. I simply didn’t care what my classmates thought of me; I really didn’t have a desire to impress anyone.

My parents were loving and supportive, my teachers had always been kind, and I was proud of my intellectual abilities. I liked what I liked, I hated what I hated, and I never felt the need to justify my feelings or decisions. I was shy, maybe, but deep down I was also confident and proud.

I wish I had stayed like that.

When I entered middle school I started to feel estranged from those around me. I had a few close friends, but a secret part of me still longed to find a place in the large, robust social groups that I saw my classmates forming.

I became acutely aware of how my perceived intelligence factored into my identity as I was branded as “smart” and “nerdy”, labels I never really minded but also never really understood. People thought I was “weird”.

It was often subtle, but it was always present: this feeling that I somehow, deep down, just didn’t belong.

And then there was a boy. He was my first real crush and I’d never had any experience with romantic relationships before. He confused me and I liked the rush of trying to figure him out, I reveled in the excitement of getting to know someone new, I glorified the challenge of making myself acceptable in his eyes. I had no idea just how dangerous it is to give one person so much control.

I allowed a single external opinion to determine the way I saw myself, and it stripped my self-esteem down to something so feeble it almost ceased to exist. He would talk to me for hours outside of class and he would come to me when he needed help, but whenever we were surrounded by other people he never failed to make me feel inferior. He told me the things I did were lame. He told me I dressed poorly. He told me he liked me, but that I wasn’t good enough for him. He told me it wasn’t cool to be a good student and to turn in multiple assignments late.

And the worst part of all of this? I listened. I almost got a D in seventh grade English (a subject I adored) merely because I wanted him to think I was cool. I started to doubt everything I thought I had known about myself. I let this one person control my every move because I had begun to think that his acceptance was the only thing that mattered, that I existed solely to become worthy enough of his affection.

I was so wrong.

I finally broke away from this unhealthy relationship after years of struggling under its weight, but the self-doubt didn’t leave when he did.

I had become dependent on external approval and I collapsed into a cycle of trying to please everyone around me. People thought I was happy and often I even convinced myself, but at my core I was living just to meet the demands of others. I became so worried about what the world thought I should do that I completely forgot about also pleasing myself.

If I did something that wasn’t “normal” I felt a searing need to justify it, to explain it away, to make people understand every last reason why. I became obsessed with my reputation; I didn’t allow myself to have bad days, to argue with my peers, to show how I was really feeling. I checked myself obsessively, mapping out conversations and planning explanations and stressing about every social interaction so much that it became habit.

It almost felt natural to constantly wonder if everyone hated me, to continuously feel awkward in conversations, to nearly always walk away thinking that I said something wrong, that I did something weird, that this person was going to figure out the terrible secret I had known for years: I didn’t belong.

There was one friend who I stayed close with through it all. She was the person I felt like I could be myself around, although I still constantly tried to please her and worried excessively about losing her friendship even when I had no reason to.

She was brilliant and beautiful and quiet and brave, and I protected her fiercely and loved her with even more vehemence. We used to vacation together, and on my junior year spring break I remember crying on the edge of her bed as I told her how I feared we would grow apart as we graduated and attended different colleges. She told me that our friendship wouldn’t die unless I let it, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, this statement put all of the responsibility on me. It was my job to preserve our relationship, not a dual effort. I had begun to think this was normal.

I started to believe that things only ever went wrong if I deserved them to, that every broken relationship or argument was entirely my fault. It’s not that her words caused this – it’s that my immediate acceptance of them reflected how warped my views of myself and reality really were.

A few months later she began to grow distant from me with no explanation. We had almost all mutual friends and I will never be able to describe how difficult my senior year was. I overanalyzed every last thing, I relived all of the memories we had made over and over, I traced the same paths in my brain so many times that I’m not sure the imprints will ever truly fade.

I thought it was all my fault and I couldn’t live with the guilt and the lack of closure. I felt ostracized at events with our friend group, but I was looked down upon if I didn’t attend. At one party held at her house I spent almost an hour crying in the bathroom but I felt that I couldn’t leave because I would be judged. People thought that I wasn’t trying or that I didn’t care – in reality, sometimes it was just too difficult to be present.

I couldn’t win. I couldn’t please everyone around me without damaging myself, and I couldn’t protect my mental health without being judged because of it. For years I had been so concerned with what people thought of me that it was impossible to imagine anything else. I tried to justify everything without stepping on anyone’s toes, to make up excuses, to hide the extent of my turmoil and to still be the girl everyone always thought I was.

Underneath it all the poisonous thought still burned: I just didn’t belong. I had always known it, and now it was becoming a reality. Even my friends were pushing me out the door.

Eventually I reached a breaking point. I had begun to hate myself. I believed everything was my fault, that I couldn’t do anything right, that I was fundamentally flawed and unlovable.

My relationships with my family and boyfriend were becoming increasingly strained as I began to take everything too seriously, to constantly degrade myself, and worst of all, to take it out on those who loved me.

After months of this, I finally sought professional help.

I felt embarrassed at first to be in counseling, but then I realized something pivotal, something that has honestly changed my life: I do not have to justify myself to anyone.

I had always felt as though I wasn’t enough, as though I was inherently wrong, as though I needed to explain my every move to the world. But I don’t. Sometimes people won’t understand, and no matter what you say they’ll never understand.

And that’s okay.

I had become so worried about pleasing the world that I forgot about my own importance. I abandoned my self-worth in order to mold myself into something society and my classmates and all of these external sources told me I should be, even though my natural self has always been sufficient.

There’s much to be said about consistently trying to improve, of course, but never forget that you are amazing just where you are. Don’t let your goals be set by the world – let them be set by you. Let them be shaped by your passions, your interests, your love, your faith.

Do not let them be shaped by the demands of people who are not privileged to the wonders in your head.

For years I had believed a lie, this dangerous voice that told me I didn’t belong. But here’s the truth: I am valuable, even if. Even if I am nerdy. Even if I am weird. Even if I like to be alone. I have worth regardless of whether or not my opinions match those of the majority. Regardless of whether or not I wear the “right” clothes. Regardless of whether or not I say the “right” things.

Don’t let anyone dull your joy. Don’t let anyone tell you to be different. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t fit in just because you want something other than what they want. It is okay to do what makes you happy, even if it’s not viewed as normal.

You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. That doesn’t mean you have a free pass to be rude or inconsiderate… but it does mean that your feelings are valid.

I felt horrible sinking into depression because I felt like I didn’t have a right to be sad; my life has truly always been quite wonderful. I ignored the danger of the negative things I was feeling because I felt that I was wrong to admit how damaged I was. I felt that I was in some way a fraud. I used to remind myself that there were people with real problems out there, and I used to tell myself that I wasn’t one of them.

But saying that you can’t be sad because others have it worse is just like saying you can’t be happy because others have it better. Your feelings are real, and you have the right to respond to them and to take care of yourself – no matter what the world tells you.

I am still learning to love myself.

There are days where my insecurities rear their heads just like they used to, moments where I wish I could sink into the floor, sometimes entire weeks where I feel as though everything I do is wrong. I still have anxiety about making friends. I’m still afraid of people thinking I am too this or too that. One of my future roommates has already noticed my tendency to downgrade my accomplishments and opinions.

But through this all, I am still so much better because I am remembering that it’s okay to take care of myself too. It’s okay to make myself happy. There is a difference between being selfish and being healthy, and it’s a difference I had to understand in order to heal.

No matter what you’re going through, you are valuable. No matter what you feel, you have worth. You are not a mistake and you are not a failure. You absolutely belong.

Take time for yourself. Be honest with yourself. Never force yourself to do something that doesn’t bring you joy simply because the world says you ought to. Someone will love you just as you are – I promise. I didn’t think it was possible, but it happened even to me and I will never be able to verbalize how freeing that is.

If you are with the right people, you will not have to feel inferior. You will not have to feel wrong. Instead, you will feel capable of moving mountains and etching skies.

It’s a suffocating life when you live for the approval of others, but you have the ability to let yourself breathe. You are important. You are worthy.

You are allowed to be yourself, and you are allowed to love yourself.