If I don’t love myself, I can’t love anyone else.I project the negative and often brutal messages I’m feeding to myself onto others and no matter how much I want to show love, I am incapable.
As a part of my series about “Connecting with Yourself to Live with Better Relationships” I had the pleasure to interview Nita Sweeney. Nita is the author of the #1 Amazon New Release Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink. She blogs at BumGlue on topics of writing, mental health, running, dogs, and mindfulness. She also teaches creative writing and publishes the monthly email Write Now Newsletter. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband and biggest fan, Ed, and their #ninetyninepercentgooddog, Scarlet.
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.
I’ve always wanted to write, but also wanted to be “practical” so I studied journalism then went to law school. After a decade of legal practice (and a major depressive episode), I turned in my shingle for a fast writing pen. People still ask legal questions, but I’ve done my best to forget the answers. Instead of negotiating labor contracts for public agencies, I write and share what I’ve learned.
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?
Right now, I spend most of my energy on preorder marketing for my mental health and running memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink. I want to share not only my love of running but also the way exercise, meditation, and fellowship have transformed my life. I carry this purpose into my blog, BumGlue, and the writing classes I teach.
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?
In my twenties, my mother frequently called late on weeknights when she was very drunk. I needed to go to sleep to work the next day. Her calls were a litany of complaints against my father which began with whimpers and built to a crescendo of wailing. For years, I tried to be a “good daughter,” to listen and give her suggestions. My father could be difficult.
But one night after I’d begun spending time with families of alcoholics and reading literature about codependence and alcoholic family dynamics, something shifted. I also took time for silence. I wouldn’t have called it meditation, but the solitude increased my awareness. That night, as I listened to my mother, the pain of staying on the phone became greater than my need to fix her. Letting her drunken rant continue did not serve me and did not help her. In a very calm voice I said, “Mom. I love you and I’m going to hang up now and leave the phone off the hook. Please don’t call me again when you’ve been drinking.” I can still see my hand on the black receiver as I took it away from my ear, placed it on the cradle of the rotary wall phone, then picked it back up and set it on the counter. That moment began a transformation.
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 don’t remember anyone in my family or anyone at all telling me I was fat. I learned body hatred from watching my mother cycle on and off countless diets. As an adult, I’ve been everything from a size 0 to a 22. Lately, I’m somewhere in the middle and while my friends assure me that I look healthy and strong, I will always want to lose another twenty pounds. I wanted to lose another twenty pounds when I was so thin that I’d stopped having periods, begun to lose my hair, and had faint spells.
It’s easier for me to focus on external things like appearance than it is to deal with what’s going on inside. My weight is a symptom of my mental health and my ability to deal with my emotions. If I’m too thin, I’m trying to control my body because I fear I’ve lost control of my environment. When I’m heavy, I’m sedating my emotions with food. This might not be true for everyone. Each of our bodies is different. But if I can get quiet enough to be honest with myself, those answers come up again and again.
And I can’t discount the media messages. I don’t subscribe to women’s magazines or read women’s blogs, but it’s impossible to miss the covers in stores and office lobbies. The message “Lose 20 Pounds the Easy Way” bypasses my logic and taps into that part of me that believes I would be happy if I could.
As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?
Loving myself is vital because my self-criticism and self-loathing shows in how I treat others and sabotage myself. It’s not about bubble baths, manicures, or new shoes. It’s an inside job. When I’m in a fit of self-criticism, I lash out at my husband and even our adorable dog. If I can’t be tender with myself, I am incapable of showing empathy toward others. I project my self-hatred onto the rest of the world and the damage can be irreparable.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
When I was in my twenties, I only felt whole if I was in a relationship. I stayed in several unhappy relationships because I was terrified of being alone. This was true even when I was the primary breadwinner. It wasn’t logical, but the belief worked at the earthworm level of my brain. No amount of affirmation could overcome it. I’d watched my parents stay together quite unhappily for many years and did what they modeled. Eventually, I went into therapy, found groups of supportive people, and made changes. I am so grateful I had the support to discover why I was incapable of leaving a relationship that didn’t serve either of us. I have now been happily married to the same man for over twenty-five years. If the pain of staying in those previous relationships hadn’t outweighed the fear of leaving, I might still be stuck there. It makes me sad to think I would have missed out on the fabulous adventure my husband and I are having.
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?
I continue to ask myself “What are you so afraid of?” and “What would happen if that came true?” When I was in those “mediocre” relationships, I needed to trust that I would survive no matter what. Ending a seven-year relationship came only after I did the work I talked about before. When I risked spending time alone and also with people who were in loving, caring relationships, I came to rely on the alone time and longed for the type of partnerships they had. There had been no space in that relationship, no room for me to be myself and despite couples counseling, no hope for change. A day came where I had to grow or die. So, I left.
Now, in my marriage, I ask myself, “What is really going on?” or “Am I projecting?” Here’s a silly example. About ten years ago when I was experiencing severe depression, my husband bought me a gift certificate to an expensive store that carries mostly purses and wallets. Instead of being grateful and thanking him, I lashed out and accused him of not loving me because I wasn’t more fashion-conscious. It took weeks (months?) for me to realize I had projected onto him my own self-criticism. I desperately needed a new purse, but I hadn’t had the energy to go to the store and find the right one. It was me, not him, who wanted me to be more fashionable. Once I realized my error, I thanked my husband and bought a purse I loved which I kept for many years.
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)?
Once my husband (he was my boyfriend at the time), introduced me to meditation practice and retreats, the courage to be alone grew within me. Meditation practice taught me to recognize and sit through the negative thoughts and body pain that arises when I am afraid. This skill helps me not lash out or flee and built my self-confidence. It’s ironic that it took being in a relationship with someone who wanted to share that with me in order for me to trust I could survive alone. And now, I don’t have to!
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?
If I don’t love myself, I can’t love anyone else. I project the negative and often brutal messages I’m feeding to myself onto others and no matter how much I want to show love, I am incapable.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
Therapy, meditation, exercise, and a regular writing practice are crucial. I wish they taught meditation in schools. It doesn’t need to be about the Buddha or Christian contemplation. Studies repeatedly show that basic mindfulness practice produces calm and concentration across the board.
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?
Through Meditation, I became aware of my cruel self-talk. Sitting, walking, and “loving-kindness” practices taught me to observe the angry inner critic without judgment. Gradually, it transformed into a gentle, inner mentor. I remember sitting in my first silent meditation retreat. I’d been so afraid of spending time alone with my mind, but by the second day of the weekend, a peace and calm came over me that I hadn’t felt since I was a child running through the woods with my dog. The negative thoughts disappeared.
Healthy Eating is still a challenge, but learning to stay awake to my hunger and my level of fullness allowed me to stop dieting. I no longer stand over the garbage disposal crying as it grinds up the last portion of a forbidden food I’m trying not to binge. I still “watch” what I eat, but instead of counting calories or weighing and measuring food, I ask my body what it wants and then ask it how that food makes me feel. There’s still that nagging voice harping, “If you could only lose twenty pounds,” but I know that voice doesn’t have my best interest at heart.
“Writing Practice” (a term coined by best-selling author Natalie Goldberg) also helps me stay in tune with my innermost desires. I set a timer and begin to write. The self-loathing may start, but by the time the bell rings, it will have turned around. I’m not sure Natalie meant for “writing practice” to be therapeutic, but it is.
I also learned to love myself by taking Small Actions. In 2010, when some friends took up running, I leashed up our yellow Labrador retriever and carried a kitchen timer into a secluded ravine where no one could see me jog for 60-second intervals. This began an adventure which culminated in me running marathons and writing the book mentioned above.
Fellowship is also crucial. I work on relationships by being in them and this builds my self-esteem. Like-minded people support and encourage me in every aspect of my life. In marriage, my husband and I hone our communication, listening, and empathy skills every day. In running, I’m in a training group. We run together, but also go out for meals and do social activities. In writing, I belong to groups, teach, and take classes. We challenge and affirm each another. In meditation, the group is called the “Sangha.” My husband and I have belonged to several meditation groups including one we formed. We always find the shared experiences beneficial. With my mental health issues, various fellowships serve this purpose. It’s more than just the support. Sometimes it’s pure entertainment. Laughter is also good medicine!
My mental health team (a key to self-love) would not be complete without my therapist, psychiatrist, and a psychologist who uses neurofeedback. I have chronic depression and am bipolar. I need these services to treat a disease that would kill me without them. I am fortunate and grateful to have access to good mental health care when so many do not.
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?
Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana is a basic meditation text I return to again and again. I love that he starts the book by asking, “Why bother?”
The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young is another meditation book. Besides providing instruction, Shinzen offers the science behind why meditation is so powerful.
The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson offers an overview of the Enneagram personality typing system. Studying my “type” helps me understand the fears, hopes, and dreams that underpin my actions. It also provides suggestions for how to overcome challenges.
The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie is a timeless classic on overcoming codependence. I clung to it in my twenties when I was first learning to detach from the alcoholics in my life. I return to it again and again in times of need. Beattie’s truths and suggestions continue to heal me and help improve my relationships.
The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion by Pete Egoscue outlines a simple method of working through physical pain. My husband introduced me to this when, due to horrible back pain, I could barely function in life let alone in our relationship. I still do many of the recommended “e-cises” on a daily basis to reduce or prevent pain.
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…
I would love to see mindfulness practice taught in schools. Some schools already offer it. I would love to see it spread worldwide.
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?
At the risk of sounding like a shameless self-promoter, I have to say that the phrase which became the title of my book “Depression Hates a Moving Target” has been my guiding motto for years. When I wake up anxious or exhausted, I remind myself to just get out of bed. The same is true in my writing. I ask myself to take action, “Just open the file.” It works with everything.
Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!
Thanks for the opportunity to share my experience! I hope others find it helpful.