Loving yourself and letting whether you do or don’t affect how you relate to other people is more complicated than I always thought. You know that saying, “You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else”? I won’t argue with it (I actually agree with it, to a point). Oddly enough, my epiphany came during a time I couldn’t even take care of myself and was depending on my husband and daughter to take care of me.
After a long three weeks (total) of a cold, immediately followed by the flu and a stubborn high fever that made New Year’s Eve a total blast (not), then pneumonia, where I spent most of my time bouncing between the couch and the bed, I started looking at that claim about self-care differently. The rush of gratitude I had for the people in my life who cared enough to keep things under control while I was under the weather had me wondering if I anticipated and fulfilled their needs as well, all the time and not just when they were sick. I found myself itching to get well and regain my energy so I could stand stronger in my role as a mother and wife.
I think the idea had been percolating for a long time, probably before I even got sick but I couldn’t catch it long enough to inspect it. (Sometimes my mind is like a summer night, complete with fireflies and darkness, and I’m just a clumsy preschooler with an open mason jar in one hand and its lid in the other.) Note: I’ve added some affiliate links here. This blog is part of the Amazon Associates program. I don’t recommend things I don’t believe in, though.
Kindness with a Side of Gladness
It really hit me in the face while I was curled up on the couch under my heavy blanket, watching my husband prepare the turmeric-ginger green tea with raw honey (very specific, very magical!) tea without an ounce of detectable irritation and about two tons of gladness that he was able to do something to help me feel a tiny bit better.
My daughter was upstairs fetching her very own pair of knee-high gnome socks for me to borrow so I could cover the freezing ankles my sweatpants and ankle socks left exposed (I might’ve detected a little resentment from her, but come on, they were her special gnome socks, so I can’t blame her).
The Agony of Vulnerability
I was so embarrassed by my vulnerability those days and nights I couldn’t just push through like I had just days before. Does anyone else push even harder while sick, just to prove they can? It’s pretty humbling when you can’t do it anymore.
That firefly of a thought landed on my arm once I was forced to set aside the mason jar and just be still. I inspected it with all the awe and wonder of a chubby-cheeked, clumsy preschooler, and made it my mission to express my love through acts of service more often. It’s not my usual language. I don’t like asking for help or having people do things for me. I like to figure out and accomplish things on my own.
If someone does something for me, of course I appreciate it but it makes me feel uncomfortable, too. Because I could’ve done it. Should have done it. And what must they think of me for not getting to it first? Is there secret resentment? How will I repay the kindness? I could go more in depth here about that, but I won’t. We’d be here all day and I’m already getting off-track. Lol
A Shift in Attitude
While I was bleary-eyed and slightly delirious with a fever, everything about life seemed so clear. When I had more strength and energy (thanks, Prednisone!), I started anticipating needs, going out of my way to serve more. I went about my daily taking-care-of-the-family routines with a more joyful spirit. There weren’t vast differences on the outside, though there were some.
Most of the changes came from the inside and the conscious decision to exert more energy outward, which took away from the energy I could spend psychoanalyzing myself to find the solution for my depression and anxiety.
Instead of starting my never-ending to-do list of household chores, etc, feeling overwhelmed and thinking, “Ugh, I have to…” and wondering if anybody really even saw me or appreciated me (and wondering why anyone would even love me or want me around in the first place), I started saying, “I get to…” and decided I wanted to do these things out of love, and I would do them because I love these people in my life, whether they see me, appreciate me, or love me (I know they do, but depression can whisper nasty things in your ear and that was my starting point).
Know what happened? I felt lighter. My to-do list may have even gotten longer but I felt more empowered to blast through it daily. I stopped feeling disconnected, isolated, from another planet. My family seemed happier almost immediately, and I felt appreciated and loved. I could even see why they might appreciate my presence. I began to love myself more because I saw myself through their eyes instead of my own.
I opened myself back up to friendships and smiled at strangers more instead of trying to shrink down as close to invisible as I could, finish a necessary task or endure an event without making much eye contact, and then go back home. I saw glimpses of the me I haven’t seen since I worked in sales, when I genuinely cared about my customers, let them know, smiled and engaged in conversation without holding back, knew people loved me, and didn’t have an ounce of self-hatred.
The Secret to Loving Yourself
So what if the best form of self-care and self-love is selfless love? No keeping score. No wondering if this person or group will betray you later and your attempts to build and nourish a relationship will be down the drain. No constant scanning for motives or proof of untrustworthiness.
No wondering if people like you. No convincing yourself they don’t, in fact, like you, and they definitely don’t want you around but are too nice to tell you to get lost. No hiding. No hiding your light. No hiding your face. No hiding your feelings (especially not the good ones, but maybe the bad ones depending on the situation and whether that’s a battle you choose).
No hiding your quirks. People are enamored by quirks. Heck, tell me yours right now. I want to know what makes you, you.
What if the best way to love yourself is to love others and express your love for them, no strings attached, no nagging thoughts in the back of your mind about whether you’ll look foolish for having opened yourself up this way?
I started my experiment from a safe place, within my family, but when I started making a special effort, not just doing what they asked or what “had” to be done to get through the day, I found myself feeling needed, more fulfilled, appreciated, worthy of love and, you know, breathing air, and got a glimpse of the long-forgotten self-assuredness I used to have. I felt fuller and more alive than I ever had with my nose buried in a book, in a bathtub (confession: I despise baths), obsessing about the future and what career move might make me happy, or retail therapy.
I get lost in my head. Depression and anxiety really box you in and your own mind becomes the most dangerous place that feels like the safest one of all. I can practically live in my head, oblivious to the real world out there (easy to do when you’re basically a hermit) — but when I made the effort to flip the view (no lie, I could almost feel my eyeballs roll around to the front with the shift in perspective, which was kind of delightfully creepy, Lol) and start looking outward, it was like I had stepped out of a brutal winter and straight into spring.
Before y’all think I was totally ignoring my family, I wasn’t. Lol There were still family outings, new restaurants to try, trips to the park, movie nights, cuddles, reading books together, etc. I was just empty, numb, depressed, anxious about everything, and knowing there was joy in certain moments and frustrated that I couldn’t feel it.
Realizing you’re missing out on joy you know you should be able to feel is like dating. It’s like finding your Mr. Right (on paper, he checks all the boxes and he’s even as handsome and charming as you always imagined he’d be), then realizing you have no chemistry and can’t force yourself to fall in love with him no matter how much you want to and technically “should” be able to.
Ease up on Trying to Fix Yourself
Y’all just got a peek inside my brain. That’s what it’s been like the past few years as I worked hard on all that “self-love” people talk about. I took it to the extreme. I tried to love myself enough, build myself up enough, read enough, create enough, and make enough money to feel like I was worthy of even being on the planet. As I worked so hard to fill myself up, I got emptier.
As I tried harder to connect with others by joining groups or trying to engage them in awkward conversation, the gap widened. The lack of significant progress led me to feel more hopeless at times. Some of the things I gleaned from books or exercises or journaling became stepping stones out of the depression, but there weren’t many huge leaps in progress until I turned my focus back outward.
I know this mindset shift won’t work for everyone and some people already approach life this way to no avail, but I hope by sharing my experience, I can help someone who’s spent time soul-searching and researching everything from diets to mental exercises in search of relief without finding anything that helped for long.