By: Charlotte Howard, Ph.D.
As a Counseling Psychologist for the past 12 years, I have witnessed an epidemic of women not liking themselves. They feel “not enough” even though they significantly contribute to those around them—keeping track of the needs of the many people in their lives and giving tirelessly, running their families and often a company as well, and even managing to look beautiful doing it. They are smart, interesting, caring, fun to be with, generous, and the list goes on! What’s not to like?
Before you can live and love the real you, you have to get to know her instead of focusing only on others. You have to know yourself to embrace her. Stopping to look at yourself from the outside, as you would see a friend, can help you recognize how amazing you are and all that you are accomplishing. Fully appreciating yourself for everything you are is part of building a loving a relationship with yourself. We all want to be seen.
Then, we must feel inside to know who we really are beyond our actions. What is behind everything we do? Can you feel your own care for those around you? Isn’t that beautiful? What other qualities do you notice? They don’t all have to be good. You might find impatience, jealousy, insecurity, or anger mixed in with all the kinder qualities within you, but that’s called being human. We are complex. As we accept our true selves as we are, without judgment, we experience more love and naturally become who we want to be. Getting to know yourself, with compassion, allows you to actively relate to and nurture who you are—talking to yourself with care and understanding throughout the day.
Many women experience regular distress about their appearance. They can’t see that the beauty coming from their hearts way eclipses the shape of their bodies and draws people to them no matter their size. Whether you have the perfect body from society’s perspective but worry about it anyway, or are lusciously more curvy or wrinkly and look beautiful that way but don’t see it, doesn’t matter. The truth is that your body is awesome and perfect. We are human beings, not manikins. All you have to do is visit a hospital to realize how fragile and dependent our human bodies are. Perhaps trying to look put together and perfect is a defense against the pain of our own mortality and the humble nature of our existence. It allows us to feel in control and distract from our deeper longing and fragility.
Making space for feelings and starting to listen to your heart is a good first step toward accepting yourself and seeing many more important aspects of yourself than your appearance. We have so many repressed emotions that we lose our sense of self and what life means to us. As you nurture authenticity and discover what you really value, such as love or nature or spirituality, you begin to naturally focus there and feel inspired by life. Your appearance starts to feel as though it doesn’t really matter—it doesn’t impact the things you value. You will be prepared to enjoy the last third of life if you know that your attractiveness comes from your heart, and that you will be a treasure to the community and to the next generation as a generous, wise elder. Having a few less wrinkles isn’t going to do anyone any good or make people like you more.
Taking care of your body from love is a strong platform to nurture a healthy, vibrant body that will be around to enjoy your grandchildren. That means eating foods that nourish you and not taxing your body with overeating or alcohol or lack of sleep. Exercising because you want a strong heart and energy to create the things you are passionate about in the world is a great motivator. Criticism of yourself or feeling that you need to be different can motivate some people temporarily but is such a toxic, heavy energy that most crater under the pressure and misery of carrying it. No one performs their best with a mean boss. People grow faster with self-acceptance and self-nurturance than from scrambling to prove to themselves or others that they are enough.
Love inspires and can lead to taking care of yourself in a sustainable way. From love you suddenly realize what your hold ups have been. You will find what you enjoy and be able to savor it. Perhaps you were trying to run for exercise when you can’t stand running. You realize you love splashing around in water and it feels easy and fun to swim regularly. Or maybe you’ll want to jump on the trampoline with your kids, dance, do yoga, or something else that speaks to your heart. It all happens naturally once you let yourself be you.
For many women, feeling bad about themselves goes deeper than appearance. They feel worthless or unlovable deep down no matter how great they are on the outside and how many people adore them. Most often in the women I see, this feeling leads to over-giving until they are burnt out, depleted, anxious and exhausted. In others self-hatred leads to harmful relationships, depression, and destructive behaviors. Research shows people like information and experiences that confirm their internal reality rather than challenge it, so it is more comfortable and less disruptive to create a life that reflects they aren’t good enough when that is how they actually feel about themselves. Many are so accustomed to not valuing themselves that they don’t feel the pain of it until their daughters begin to model after them.
It is time to close the heart-breaking gap between the reality of the jewel women really are and how they see themselves. If you are one of these women, it is not your fault. If you struggle to embrace yourself, it most often means you didn’t get something you needed at home growing up, usually empathic connection—being accurately seen and adored. The way people see themselves and relate to themselves is an internalization of how they were treated as a child. Most people shut down parts of themselves to take care of the family (not be too noisy if mom is fragile, pleasing if dad seems anxious to prevent his exploding, etc). We get messages that parts of ourselves are bad or should be hidden because the parent isn’t comfortable with those parts. Neglect or abuse causes the more severe self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness. These children had to assume it was their fault in order to survive in the system and not hate or destroy the parents they relied on.
Society obviously doesn’t help. The insecurity that started at home from the emotional limitations most parents have plays out in society by people judging each other, competing, living from false self, gossiping, and rejecting difference. One of the signs of an emotionally mature and healthy system is the ability to handle difference and complexity. Instead, we see things black and white and strive for perfection. We reject difference and ask ourselves to conform instead of enjoy who we really are. The expectations put on women are impossible to meet and unfulfilling even if we could.
Facing this problem head on and really loving yourself requires a choice. You may not believe you are good enough or beautiful the way you are, but take a leap of faith anyway by putting your energy behind embracing these truths. Face the terror of rejecting the illusion that you need to be different or better than who you already. You may fear embarrassment, rejection, and the unknown. Because of the way negative self-image developed as a protective mechanism growing up, it feels very unsafe to change it.
You may need to look at how your self-criticism and limiting beliefs about yourself serve you. Do they allow you to be satisfied in your marriage when you wouldn’t be if you valued yourself? Do they make you feel protected from potential rejection because you don’t go after the promotion at work or the new friend or activity that sparks your interest? Considering these unconscious motivations is part of your choice to let go of the illusion that you aren’t enough. You know how to love yourself even though it may feel like you don’t. You love others and loving yourself is the same, so most of the battle is making that choice and facing the feelings that come up as you allow yourself to be genuine and free.
Other aspects of the journey include looking at childhood pain and grieving the experiences that made you feel inadequate or unlovable. We must actively develop a loving relationship with ourselves by speaking to ourselves with kindness and stepping in to protect ourselves from the harsher voices inside. We must make choices that someone who loves us would make for us about how to care for ourselves and what kind of treatment from others is acceptable. We must learn to receive from others.
Countless studies show how authenticity and self-compassion is linked to a long list of positive outcomes—more joy, fulfillment, motivation, physical health, relationship satisfaction, energy, healthy habits, philanthropy, etc. People are more compassionate with others when they hold themselves with compassion as well. The world needs women’s honesty and sincerity, rather than losing our energy to the rat race of keeping up with the Jones’. Embracing ourselves will not only make us free to enjoy this beautiful life, but change our families, friends, and communities for the better too. We deserve to be vulnerable and real and to show up with our whole hearts, shedding the painful mask of false self and defenses. We miraculously arrived on this planet to savor and honor this gift of human life. We have one self to enjoy it with. She’s breath-taking.