"You need to love yourself more."
This was the response of a good friend in college, who gave me this advice after I bared my soul and told her that I felt excluded. I still remember the soft, condescending tone of her voice, the look of pity on her face and the pit in my stomach, the "vulnerability hangover," as Brené Brown puts it, except without the feeling of knowing that my feelings were supposed to be shared.
In retrospect, I'm glad that I shared those feelings, because it showed me the truth about that particular friendship. But the advice to love myself more? It felt like a big "Screw you. Your feelings aren't valid or accurate. I'm dismissing them and boomeranging them back to you. Even though I'm telling you to love yourself more, the way it comes across is anything but loving." At the time? The clean sweeping away of what I felt caused me to hate myself more.
An ex-boyfriend once told me that he'd be more attracted to me if I lost 10 pounds. When I became obsessed with making myself more attractive to him by exercising diligently and dieting, he didn't hesitate to tell me that my body image issues were my problem, not his. He absolved himself from the equation completely.
I've long since forgiven these people. They did the best they could at the time. They were young, like me. They were full of subconscious programming, like me. We all have programming that requires a lot of awareness to address. I believe that "no one can make you feel inferior without your consent" but with a huge caveat: most of us aren't taught how to stand back and observe a comment or action and consciously decide whether or not to absorb it. We just absorb it. We take it in when we're infants and when we don't know there's a separation between us and others, and when we're teenagers, when we are starting to become ourselves, and when we're adults, when we hopefully have some awareness that we have a choice of how to react to things. In order to learn to stand back, in order to learn how to not let someone make you feel inferior, you have to consciously choose and learn certain skills. They don't come naturally (for most of us).
When it comes to taking full responsibility for your own experiences or taking none, there's a continuum. Some of us blame our circumstances and our feelings on the external world and other people. Some of us actually take too much responsibility for our "stuff." Despite my anecdotes above, I have realized I'm on the too much responsibility side of the continuum.
As I've written about many times, I have a tendency to feel bad, and then feel bad about feeling bad. I've made great progress in this tendency, as I'm now able to step back, recognize where I am, and validate it.
Those of us who are dealing with infertility and pregnancy loss are very familiar with navigating the continuum. There's an inordinate amount of blame that's both self-inflicted and absorbed when it comes to this issue. Why can't I get pregnant? What's wrong with me? Why do I keep miscarrying? Was it something I did, ate, thought? My body is betraying me. I'm broken.
We unconsciously assimilate myths about infertility and pregnancy loss that existed in the ether before we came along, and we also soak up things our friends, family, healers and doctors say to us, many of them well-meaning, but perhaps not totally useful.
"You need to love yourself more." I agree. I'll never argue with more self-love as a remedy -- or at least part of the solution. And, self-love is limited when we have limited capacity to deal with our own uncomfortable feelings.
So, how do we deal with these feelings and at the same time separate ourselves from the subconscious and automatic assimilation of others' beliefs?
1) Ask yourself and/or write down some questions to process and move the things you've absorbed in the past. Some examples:
What are my beliefs about infertility and pregnancy loss?
Where did I learn them?
Who or what did I observe?
What did I feel when I experienced that?
Notice your answers to these questions. What is yours and what is simply learned?
2) In real time, attempt to metaphorically step back from the things that are easily absorbed: the doctor's remark, the scenario you watch in the TV show that triggers you. You can even literally take a tiny step back. Changing your physical presence in space can help you dissociate from an experience on an emotional level.
3) If it's after the fact and you weren't able to step back in the moment that something got soaked up and was upsetting, that's okay. You can retrospectively be with the difficult emotion that may have resulted from inadvertent absorption, or perhaps the cumulative effect of hearing, observing and taking in things that are not useful to you. Know that even though you have absorbed them, they don't belong to you. You don't have to take responsibility or blame yourself for being affected by them or even from absorbing them. Let it be okay that they are there and explore how to move them out of your body. Ask someone to listen (without providing a solution). Write. Exercise. Dance. Create art. Sing. Cry.
Practice loving yourself a little more by observing, acknowledging and moving through your present feelings, no matter where they originated.
If you are looking for emotional and spiritual support on your path to motherhood or support navigating a life curveball in your career, health or relationships, visit www.curveballcoaching.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org