Self-understanding and patience will get us further than harsh self-judgment and punishment. When I couldn’t live up to the expectations of others and myself, I actually did more things to undermine my own efforts, because I felt too ashamed and small to ask for help, and sometimes worked on things I didn’t actually want to do in order to please others and gain self-worth. This made me unhappy and resentful — of course it did, if I was directing my energy towards making others happy, while neglecting my own needs!
As a part of our series about “How To Learn To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Janet Chui.
Janet Chui was born in Singapore. Since childhood, she found refuge and expression in drawing things both real and imagined. She is a professional artist who has created fantasy, spiritual, and mythological paintings over her lifetime, and in 2009 she was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award for Best Artist.
Janet has a bachelor of arts in journalism and is currently studying counseling psychology. She has experienced motherhood, divorce, Tibetan Buddhism, healing, and the supernatural, all of which encouraged her to help others heal through self-acceptance and creative expression. For more about Janet and her work, visit: www.janetchui.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.
Thank you! The short answer is motherhood! When my daughter arrived in 2009, I found myself grappling with overwhelming exhaustion and anxiety. It was like being hit by a bus, with challenges not just to my emotional and physical health, but questions about how equipped I was to handle them. I found myself lacking the energy, tools, and support to become the emotionally present mother I really wanted to be. I started looking at the experiences that had shaped me for better or for worse and felt myself forced to face the traumas I hadn’t even realized I had. I’d always thought myself as “just another artist” and an “OK” writer and journalist. When I started looking into my emotional workings, I was fired up wondering how much I’d learned to minimize myself and my needs. This hadn’t done me any favors preparing me for the challenges of motherhood. It means so much to me now to help others facing the same challenges I faced lacking self-worth and self-love.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?
I’m always working on a few things, but the project closest to my heart right now is journaling and reflecting on the adventures in my life. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs while always trying for art and publishing gigs, and many of them were unconventional, like working in alternative health or leading historical tours. These adventures constantly lead me to wonder how people ticked and how I could facilitate more meaningful and memorable experiences for them. I didn’t realize until later that I loved sharing my enthusiasm with them and inspiring people enough to ask questions and make their own connections no matter what the topic may be.
This was in sharp contrast to my own life experiences where much learning was always clearly towards the purpose of training people for a vocation, so they could get the respectable job, then the spouse, the house, kids, and finally retirement. That safe prescribed path is not for everyone, and I wish I’d been given more space and permission to follow my own. In hindsight, I still wound up doing that, but I doubted and undervalued myself a lot. I’d like to now entertain people with those stories I lived; maybe these will spare them the hard way of learning self-love, self-understanding, confidence, and some relationship tools!
Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self-acceptance?
I’m still learning, and one story is an example of how long it took me to realize how much I still had to learn. I had to accept that I didn’t have all the answers yet. I was 39 years old when I was locked in a room by a person who yelled and threatened me for four hours. This was someone I considered a friend and teacher, who berated me for all the recent things in her life, pinning them on me, and dredging up my personal history to explain how I had failed her. When I got out of that situation, I still wondered if I deserved those four hours and such blame. I had to ask someone else if what I had experienced was emotional abuse! That was how little I knew.
I was just starting to realize how much emotional abuse and toxicity I’d internalized in my life that I thought it was normal and deserved. I think that experience, tough as it was, made it clear certain people cannot be relied on for validation or for a clear reflection of ourselves. It’s harder if criticism and rejection is what we’ve mostly experienced, but we all need to know we deserve better — no one deserves abuse — and we need self-love, self-acceptance, and advocacy to help us.
According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?
I think Photoshopped and filtered photos are ubiquitous, and we shouldn’t take those as reality! It is scary, working in publishing and in enhancing images, I’ve always known some photographers’ tricks and thought that if more people knew to what extent photos were airbrushed, they could relax a bit about themselves. But, social media seems to now thrive on enhanced photos and beauty filters are on everyone’s phone. We need to remember we’re looking at nothing but carefully curated photos; they’re not a measure of our worth nor are they even reflective of reality. Trying to match our physical appearance to a filtered photo on our phones sets ourselves up for struggle and ultimately disappointment. In the end, I think we all want peer acceptance and admiration. Maybe we can focus on how else we can have those feelings without trying to reach unrealistic beauty standards.
To some, the concept of learning to truly understand and “love yourself” may seem like a cheesy or trite concept. But it is not. Can you share with our readers a few reasons why learning to love yourself is truly so important?
We’d tolerate a lot less abuse and boundary violations if more of us learned about self-love and emotional health. Children especially can learn to be very hard on themselves when trying to please their adults, and many of us can take that lack of confidence and self-love into adulthood so that we ignore our own needs, interests, and dreams, or we may not even know what they are, or feel unworthy of them. What we will tolerate and believe ourselves worthy of is determined by our self-love and how our self-worth was shaped. Do we believe ourselves deserving of happiness, kinder treatment, better health, and more authentic and rewarding relationships? How we answer that really decides how we live and the decisions we make in every aspect of our lives.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
When we stay in situations and relationships that don’t feel good, it’s often to avoid experiencing something else that looks even more scary and uncomfortable. No one likes loneliness, so “settling” feels safe, even practical. Or people may stay out of guilt, a lack of options, or a fear that comes out of wondering what the next steps will be. I recommend holding an “interview” session with our fears. We can gently ask ourselves more about what scares us, and if our fear can be broken down into parts that have workable solutions. Do we still love the person we’re with? What do we really want? Even these two questions can look scary if we’re ashamed of the honest answers. Self-love and self-acceptance of our most authentic sleeves, however, wants the honest answers. I would ask questions and listen to the heart without judgment.
When I talk about self-love and understanding I don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times, self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?
My challenge was learning to ask for what I wanted, from a relationship in theory, and then from the real relationships I found myself in. I hated asking because I felt doing so made me needy and vulnerable, and I feared that rejection would be catastrophic. But experience taught me who to ask and what to ask for. Sometimes we’re going to realize that some of our needs are not for others to meet for us, like making us feel happy or worthy. So “What do I really want?” can be a tough question because if we’re being really honest, some of our wants can be really entitled. We need to recognize which ones are our own responsibility, so the needed changes are usually about learning boundaries, managing our own emotions, and communicating needs and expectations which are fair and healthy. “Can this person give me this?” and “What am I avoiding?” are other tough questions that may reveal uncomfortable truths.
So many don’t really know how to be alone or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?
Very important! Sadly, we don’t get much training in learning how to be alone or how to self-sooth — it might not have been modeled for us. Some people also measure success by their romantic relationship status. This doesn’t make it easy to feel happy being alone, but I believe it’s possible if we’re living a life that we enjoy.
How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?
Deeper and more fulfilling relationships are only possible with authenticity. This authenticity will elude us if we don’t accept ourselves, warts and all. If we’re busy hiding the parts of ourselves we hate or feel ashamed of (and these feelings may come from previous experiences), we’re just not being ourselves. It’s hard to believe sometimes, but some of our past experiences of rejection or judgment might not have had anything to do with us. There are always going to be people who aren’t meant for us for various reasons. If we’re clear that we want relationships in which we feel fully seen and accepted, we do need to show our true selves and model for others how to love us. The right people will do so.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
We need to recognize that emotional and social needs are real and individual and that it takes a village to meet everyone’s mental health needs, emotional needs, and social needs — and of course our physiological needs. But generally, I feel that there’s always been a toxic tendency in segments of society to judge others as unworthy of basic rights and better treatment, going so far as to see them as deserving of exploitation, neglect, or abuse. This shows me how prevalent and active harsh judgment is in society, whether it is turned upon oneself or others. To me, the habit of judging oneself and judging others is connected. I’d love to see more questioning, on the parts of individuals and society, whether these harsh judgments are warranted and based on truth or assumptions. And this takes more education about the long-term effects of survival mode, and how that stress can be worsened by inequalities of opportunity, unhelpful policies, and a lack of empathy and connection, which then affect bigger swathes of society.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?
- Keep Learning. Never assume we already have all the information and tools! If we haven’t succeeded in something yet, we should keep our minds open for new approaches and solutions. This was what sent me to psychology classes and therapy when I found new age wisdom alone couldn’t completely help me.
- Forgive oneself and thank oneself often. We’re human, and we forget how much we’ve lived through and how far we’ve come. Everyone takes time to learn and develop, and we’re all moving at our own pace. Keeping a journal lets us record our progress, even when we think we’re stuck. Loving ourselves through difficult times is a way of growing too.
- Pause often just to breathe. I recommend meditating to really connect with our bodies if we can do so regularly. We get a lot done every day by pushing ourselves physically but not always listening to our bodies or taking the best care of it. Sitting still and feeling into it gives me so much appreciation for my body and all the things it allows me to experience. When I breathe with appreciation, I can feel pleasure in my body despite any tiredness.
- Treat ourselves the way we would treat a loved one or an innocent child. We can be so hard on ourselves, and give more to others than we would ourselves, while using harsher criticism on ourselves than we would on others. Why? Where does the judgment on ourselves come from, and do we really deserve it? I was gentler on myself when I realized that I was worthy of love regardless of my economic performance or how well I met the standards of others. I deserved the same compassion I gave others.
- Self-understanding and patience will get us further than harsh self-judgment and punishment. When I couldn’t live up to the expectations of others and myself, I actually did more things to undermine my own efforts, because I felt too ashamed and small to ask for help, and sometimes worked on things I didn’t actually want to do in order to please others and gain self-worth. This made me unhappy and resentful — of course it did, if I was directing my energy towards making others happy, while neglecting my own needs!
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?
I love following Jeff Brown’s work because he talks about real love and self-love in thought-provoking ways. Psych2Go on YouTube has short and informative videos for mental health, and the cute drawings make me smile! Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score was also pivotal for me to understand why I’d had the chronic health issues I’d had in my life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…
Find three things to thank yourself every night. They can be simple, like keeping ourselves fed and alive, or that we treated ourselves and others kindly, or that we took time for self-care. We often thank others but forget to thank ourselves for little acts of self-love.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?
“Everything is a choice.” These words sat in my mind one night when I was journaling and living in a situation in which I was deeply unhappy. It was the start of a huge journey through divorce, spiritual awakening, and a profound internal change. I went through difficult experiences of shame, legal conflict, and therapy for my own childhood experiences and have finally reached a place where I am proud of how far I’ve come and how much stronger and happier I feel. I created The Self-Love Oracle during this journey. “Everything is a choice” are the words I use to remind myself that facing one’s fears and fighting for better is always an option. The choices are not always obvious or easy, but they’re there.
Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!