“You’re so up yourself”. As far as insults go, and as teenage girls we knew how far they could go, this one was right up there. To be ‘up yourself’ or, worse, to ‘love yourself’ was the most unwelcome accusation ever, implying that any shred of self love meant that you thought you were better than anyone else. And that was simply not – deemed by the self appointed arbiters of appropriate conduct (which every high school seems to have) – cool.
As a teenager, I went out of my way not to display any shred of confidence from my looks (no real risk there as I got the picture that pale skin and freckles was the least appealing combination you could get), to any talents (however mild – see, there I go again) that may have started to reveal themselves. I batted away compliments with frantic forced humility. I played small, smaller than I could have, so as not to draw attention. Self worth of any kind just wasn’t a good look.
“Don’t get too big for your boots”, adults would caution. A friend’s mum would tell her to “play it down” (her intelligence, that is) lest she become a ‘target’ for other kids who thought she might think she was a step up the ladder.
You wouldn’t dare get caught looking in a mirror admiring your visage. Or brushing your hair for longer than was necessary to get the knots out. A friend studying photography asked to take my picture. “As if”, I retorted. Not because I didn’t want to her to but because, what might others think? You wouldn’t want to risk any inference that you might have tickets on yourself. At my catholic high school, modesty was an attribute above all else.
It takes work to unravel, this learned capacity for self deprecation. Decades of conditioning to appear less than we are. To this day, I make apologies for my vanity playfully refusing to be snapped for Instagram posts until I have a minute to apply makeup, tousle my hair. A friend pulled me up recently, not for the makeup (no less censoring than an Insta filter) but for feeling the need to explain myself. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best”, she said. We’re so conditioned to having to be all nonchalant about ourselves (inward and outward) that it took me aback. To be comfortable with wholly embracing yourself takes a lot of getting used to.
Blessedly the self love tide is turning.
We now know that a healthy sense of self worth is a prerequisite for any sort of contented existence. We can’t truly love anyone else until we love ourselves.
“All the research shows if you don’t have the capacity to be in a loving relationship with yourself and fully accepting of yourself – talking kindly and compassionately with loving acceptance to yourself – it’s virtually impossible to be those things in relation to another person”, says Eloise King, Founder of The Self Love Project which teaches people the vital art of self love through empirical science based research. It takes work and attention to undo what Eloise calls the “critical inner dialogue” from our childhoods and rewire our brains to love.
“New science tells us that the brain is the centre of our daily thoughts, behaviours and actions”, she says. “The only way to actively and systematically become more self loving is to make it habitual. Then you begin to reprogram neural pathways to experience self love. Over time it becomes your MO, your way of being”.
Our children get to start from scratch, blank canvasses that they are.
“Remember who you are”, I say to my boys, placing my hand on their hearts, reeling off a gushing list of their endless attributes (the innate ones not the learned ones) hoping it will lodge deeply enough to be indisputable.
The challenge for parents is to imbue our kids with robust self confidence – teaching them to love and honour themselves deeply – while being careful not to tip them into narcissism, verifying their worth via Snapchat likes. To realise their greatness without being a tosser.
The crucial difference is authentic self love needs no outside validation. And the best way to teach that is to live it.
Hence my slow and tentative footing into a celebration of the self, the hardest kind of love there is.
“It takes energy and effort. Catch yourself, do the work”, says Eloise.
If not for our own sake then for our children’s who deserve to see how it’s done.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and on dailylife.com.au and is published here with permission.