I, like much of the female population, wrestle with self-esteem issues. Though I'm quick to build others up, I regularly tear myself down and I don't even know why. I began picking apart my looks at such an early age that I don't remember life before self-loathing. As a result, now, at 42 years old, I'm not quite sure what's left of me.
I stopped weighing myself years ago so the numbers on the scale no longer taunt me, but I still feel my thighs touch when I walk in a swimsuit. I got rid of my magnifying mirror, but I still see the wrinkles, sun spots, and stretch marks that have found refuge in my flawless skin of yesteryear.
I don't rip on myself publicly. I save my criticism for when I'm alone and can spew hateful comments directly at myself. I'm not proud of this behavior, but it's ingrained in me, so when I heard of Dr. Christine Northrop's 21-Day Self-Esteem Challenge, my ears perked.
It was a simple enough exercise: Look in the mirror for 21 days straight and state, "I love you....I really love you."
Day 1 was rough. Awkwardness oozed from my lips as I stared into my eyes -- eyes that showed sadness, fatigue, loneliness, and guilt -- and uttered, "I love you." I felt like a used car salesman trying to unload a clunker to the girl in the mirror.
I repeated the statement.
"I really love you," I said flatly.
The second time felt just as forced.
Who would believe this nonsense? I certainly wasn't buying it.
When I had misbehaved as a kid and my parents demanded an apology, I blurted out "sorry" but didn't cough up the sentiment. That's how this felt.
"Whatever," I muttered as I flipped off the bathroom light and rolled my eyes. Then I knelt down to pet my cat, who was sleeping just outside the bathroom door in his cozy bed. Out of habit, I whispered, "I love you, sweetie." I kissed the top of his orange fuzzy head and said it again. "I love you."
Purr. Purr. He lapped up the attention. And why wouldn't he? It feels good to be loved.
As I was getting up off the floor, it hit me how sad this scene was. I mean, I'm not sorry that I adore my cat. But why can I unconditionally love my feline but refuse to do the same for myself? It's not like I have a shortage of love in my heart. I love my family, my friends, my colleagues. I'm even quick to declare my passion for activities (e.g., "I love running"), locations, (e.g., "I love Michigan"), and food (e.g., "I love bread"). So why did I resist loving myself?
On Day 2 when I looked in the mirror with the intention of bolstering my self-esteem, I got distracted by my reflection. Critical remarks flowed from my brain like a river rapid.
Wow, when did my eyelids get so droopy?
Hey, what's that red spot on my forehead?
Gee, did my left nostril shrink?
I hoped that with time I would feel droplets of love seeping into my heart, melting away layers of self-loathing I had built up through the years. But so far, no such luck.
Days 3 through 7 were rather robotic. I spoke the words, but the authentic message didn't penetrate. The trouble was that even though I was proclaiming self-love once a day, I was belittling myself multiple times a day. And since I was regularly telling myself what a fat, disgusting pig I was, I had a hard time digesting the love part.
A flip switched inside my brain. Suddenly the exercise became just as much about what not to say as what to say.
Conventional wisdom states that it takes 21 days to form a new behavior so I was optimistic halfway through when I started to witness a shift in the ease of practicing kindness towards myself.
Panache Desai, a contemporary thought leader, maintains that there is no greater power than to be happy with oneself. "We are not broken. We don't need fixing," says Desai. "All we need is to finally accept all that we are."
When I first started the 21-Day Self-Esteem Challenge, I felt like a fraud. Claiming love where there was none seemed like an exercise in futility. By the end of Week Three, however, the tides had turned. I looked forward to greeting myself in the mirror with an encouraging statement.
Northrop says that her mission in life is to take the pain of all women and turn it into joy. I applaud her mission and hope that others will partake in her endeavor. But it must start with us. After all, as Desai points out, "We can only ever be who we are, and at some point, that has to be good enough."
Day 21: "I love you," I said to myself. "I really love you."
I lapped up the attention. And why wouldn't I? It feels good to be loved.