It was a sunny fall afternoon in 1996. On this particular day I was sitting on my bed reading a self-help book.
And I was thinking of killing myself.
My boyfriend had broken up with me to be with another woman, and I was not taking it well…at all.
We had split over two months earlier, and I was doing my best to not get over him. My days consisted of going to work, running on a treadmill at the gym (the only time I felt ok), coming home, drinking beer, maybe eating ice-cream or macaroni and cheese, and watching episodes of Wonder Woman and Hercules. On the weekends I read self-help books, looking for answers to my pain.
My thoughts constantly circled around my anger at him, her, how they had ruined my life, and how worthless I was.
Let me give a little history. Somewhere in my childhood I had developed the idea that my worth was determined by a man. If I had a boyfriend, or husband, I was valuable. If I didn’t have a man in my life, I was not loveable.
Part of me knew this was not a helpful belief. Part of me had been yearning to figure out how to love myself, without a man as a go-between.
In fact, I have a memory of being alone in the apartment I shared with my then boyfriend before our breakup. I was surveying the living room we had created together, the result of finally figuring out how to meld out different styles. It was morning, the sun was shining through the window onto the oriental rug. The world felt still and quiet. I remember standing on the threshold between the living room and the bedroom, thinking, “Well, I guess I won’t know I’m loveable without a partner, since I am with the man I’m going to marry and be with for the rest of my life.” This memory is clear in my mind. I was giving up on my goal of self-love.
This occurred two weeks before my relationship started unravelling.
I had accepted a belief system that made me a victim to circumstances and other people’s choices. And it was becoming a spectacular failure. To add to my misery (and irony), I was in graduate school to learn how to help individuals and families be happier and have healthier relationships.
Let’s get back to the self-help book. I was reading You Can Have It All by Arnold M. Patent, or Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, I’m not sure which. (I read a lot of self-help books at that time.)
Then I read a sentence that changed my life.
The author wrote about holding onto anger or resentment from the past. The sentence said something like “the other person hurt you once. You hurt yourself a thousand times with your thoughts.”
My breathing stopped. My mouth fell open. He was talking to me. That’s exactly what I was doing.
I hadn’t spoken to my ex in two months, yet every day, hundreds, maybe thousands of times, I felt like I was stabbing myself in the heart with every thought of: “How could he do this to me?”; “How can they be happy when I’m so miserable?”; “How can he love her and not me?”; “What did I do wrong?”; “What could I have done better to make him love me?” Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab.
It was brutal; I was brutal.
That simple sentence about me hurting myself a thousand times, enabled me to see I was not the victim; I was victimizing myself.
I’d always had low self-esteem. I needed the approval of others to feel worthwhile. The effect of any compliment I received never lasted and was never enough. It was like trying to fill a bottomless hole. Negative comments or rejection sent me into a spiral of self-doubt and loathing.
I decided, that sunny afternoon in Minnesota, that I was going to stop trusting other people more than myself. I was determined to do the work to learn to love and value myself. I was going to stop relying on others for the love I wasn’t willing to give myself.
My break-up and that self-help book changed my life. Let me reframe that. I changed my life, because I finally understood I was the only one who could actually do it.
I am a firm believer in the power of pain. Pain, especially intense pain, motivates us to make a change. If something is not working for us, we will usually put up with it because change is uncomfortable. Even good change is uncomfortable. My boyfriend breaking up with me created the pain, and the motivation, to finally do the uncomfortable work of learning how to love myself.
I started the long journey of many, many steps to slowly begin to be kind to myself. I started meditating. I practiced listening to my intuition. I focused on seeking love and approval from within rather than from others. I went to therapy, attended countless workshops, and read a gazillion self-help books.
Nine years later, I had the courage to open my own therapy practice and I am still practicing, 15 years later. My job is to help people find their love within themselves. I can help them because I learned how to do it. I know it is possible for them.
I even published my own self-help book to share tools and insights so others can have courage to love themselves and stop waiting for others to do it for them.
That said, I have not “accomplished” complete self-love. I still have a lot of doubt, I still seek approval from others, I still sometimes look outside myself for value. I likely always will. I am human. The difference is I don’t beat myself up for my failings as much. And when I do, I let my judgment go faster. I am kinder to others as a result of increased kindness to myself. I judge others less; I have more compassion. I have more peace.
That’s a fine outcome from an awful day.