The piece of feedback I’m most proud of receiving from my work and teaching is this:
“I love how you coaxed me to find my own reasons to love myself rather than just list reasons why I should.”
As someone who exists largely in the eating disorder recovery/self-love world, I see the latter part of this statement a lot: trying to force people into loving themselves. It’s an easy trap to fall into, trying to patch up people’s self-esteem problems by throwing positive affirmations at them like water balloons.
You’re so pretty!
Don’t feel bad! You look great!
You’re beautiful the way you are!
There’s nothing wrong with telling someone these things, but the issue is that oftentimes the conversation just stops here. The reason for this, I’ve found, is that saying these sorts of things to people expressing difficulty in their self-love journey serves more to make us feel better about ourselves than it does to actually encourage someone along their path. Simply telling someone “you’re beautiful!” won’t undo years of social conditioning that lead to self-hatred, but it will make us as the outsider feel better about the situation.
I first learned this lesson in my teacher training when we discussed active listening and how to hold space for another person. For the first time in my life, I became aware of how often we allow ourselves to be selfish when we’re really trying to help someone through a difficult time. I used to think that saying things like, “Don’t cry!” or “It’s all gonna be okay!” were helpful and positive, but what they were really doing were shutting down someone’s processing of emotions and trying to get them to stop emoting so that I would feel more comfortable. Because, let’s face it, watching someone go through a difficult time is hard and uncomfortable. Watching someone we love cry is hard and uncomfortable. Almost subconsciously, we tend to turn towards saying these kinds of things because our brain assumes that if we stop feeling uncomfortable, the problem can be solved.
Now, I have a lot of great things to say about the online recovery community. I think it’s absolutely fabulous that we’ve been able to create a safe and accessible space for people from all over to gain support during their recovery journey. I love that I’m able to scroll through my Instagram feed and have my mind filled with positive messages about body acceptance and self-care. I truly appreciate that when I share my story online, I’m giving others the courage to speak about their own story in a capacity that feels good to them.
But too often I see posts centered around this phenomenon and then not progressing past it. Yes, having a supportive community around you to remind you that you are beautiful is an incredible privilege that can certainly help your recovery immensely. But to me self-love and recovery are about something far greater than this. It’s about learning how to love yourself even if there is no one around to tell you to.
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and isolation for a reason: when we’re alone with our thoughts, it’s very easy to forget how to love ourselves. Part of recovery is learning how to re-train our brain and inner voice during these times. I like to think of that phrase my teachers used to put on posters in their classrooms, Character is who you are when no one is looking. Well, then self-love is how you treat yourself with there is no one around to add their own opinions to the matter, positive or not.
I love giving out compliments. I have a rule for myself that if I think of something nice about someone- whether it’s that I liked their hair or I thought something they did was nice or anything else- that I’ll tell them. It takes hardly any time out of my day to do so, and it’s always met with a smile and a genuine “thank you.” But while I love compliments and think they’re a positive force in this world, I also think it’s very easy for us to develop a reliance on them (and other forms of external reassurance) in recovery.
See, the thing is, no one else can do your recovery for you. You can have a full professional staff of doctors and therapists and nutritionists around to handle the logistics, and a community ready to feed you compliments and reassurance whenever you need it, but until you make the active decision to find reasons to love yourself for you, it’s just not going to happen.
I know this isn’t easy, and this is a bit on the tougher side of tough love, but I’ve found it to be nothing but true throughout my own journey with self-love.
A big part of this is the nature of eating disorders and low self-esteem. Growing up, no one ever told me I was ugly or too fat or too big. If anything, I was teased for being too small. And yet, I still developed anorexia, and had a fixation on being as small as I possibly could. My focus was far less on being “beautiful” or aesthetically pleasing, and about something far greater: a need for control and a deeply-rooted belief that I was not worthy of nourishment and love. Something that runs this deep (and comes from such a long-standing thought pattern) can’t be fixed by compliments on their own, it’s going to take a lot of time and self-reflection to get to the bottom of that.
I like to think of these “reasons” that we try and hand out for why people should love themselves as flowers. When someone is sick, or in the hospital for a treatment of some kind, we oftentimes bring them flowers. This is a very sweet and kind gesture, offering someone something bright to make them feel better during a trying time, but we’re never under the impression that the flowers alone will heal their body. No, we bring them flowers because we want to make them smile, and because it helps keep us from feeling useless when our friend is struggling.
The flowers won’t stitch up their wounds or mend any broken bones, but they will certainly help keep their spirits up as they recover- and the same goes for offering positive affirmations to those on a journey of self-love. Tell your friends that you think they’re beautiful. Call out beauty when you see it. But remember to take this a step further and remind them that they are worthy of loving themselves, whether you’re there to say you think they’re worthy of it or not. And likewise, draw awareness to the fact that it’s very easy to become so dependent on other people’s opinions and affirmations that it can cause your recovery journey to stagnate.
Lately, I’ve been trying to become more aware of how often I tell my friends in recovery that they’re beautiful versus more productive affirmations. I’ve tried to shift more into telling them I’m sending them love and light to find their own path, versus throwing out compliments as though they’ll just bandage up the hard parts for them. It’s a small change, but it’s a shift I think is important to make.
A big part of recovery is learning to see yourself as beautiful no matter what the outside world thinks or says. There will always be models out there that look nothing like you, yet are praised as the ideal of beauty. There will always be people who bring you down and say negative things. And, unfortunately, there will always be times were no one is there to remind you how beautiful you are. That’s when recovery kicks in. That’s when you need to find your own reasons to love yourself.
More than anything, I want to leave you with this: You are worthy of self-love, and you don’t need anyone to explain, justify, or remind you of that.
Keep following people who inspire you to love yourself. Keep reading positive affirmations. Accept compliments (and give them out) with love and gratitude. But know that recovery comes from within, and can’t be found in the hands of anyone else. True self-love will only happen once you recognize that you are worthy of it, and once you relieve yourself of the burden of looking for it everywhere but inside your own heart.
You are enough. You have enough. And so it is.
Photos by Danielle Del Rosario, shared with gratitude.