I felt fat and awkward. I looked around the changing room and everyone else looked sexy and beautiful. We were dressing in skin-tight lycra eighties costumes for a charity fundraiser and I felt embarrassed by the bits of me that were bulging out whilst the other girls were sleek, slender and toned.
My wonderful friend Blanche complimented me but instead of thanking her and reconsidering my own harsh appraisal, I replied “I look fat and horrible”. She looked me right in the eyes and said “Please don’t be mean to my friend JuJu”. It shook me to my core. My words were mean. They were words I would never say or even think about anybody else.
I pictured turning to one of my friends and saying “you look fat and horrible” and the very notion made my blood curdle. I imagined the shock and devastation that could be caused by being so cruel to someone and wondered why on earth we say such nasty and humiliating things about ourselves?
Since that moment every time a friend says something unkind about themselves I borrow Blanche’s phrase and say “please don’t be mean to my lovely friend”. The way we talk to ourselves can cause real harm. So how can we learn to be pacifists with ourselves?
Start by noticing the language and tone you use in your head. Observe how often you put yourself down or chastise yourself. When you notice yourself saying or thinking something unkind, imagine directing the same criticism in the same harsh tone to someone you love or to a young child. Picture their face as your cruel words pierce them and connect with how sad and upsetting it feels to hurt someone you love.
Self love can feel like a complicated concept. For me it means practicing treating myself with the same friendliness and care I give to loved ones. If I were to be nasty and critical towards the people I love, they would never be their best selves around me. A child is never at its most jubilant, playful and brilliant when it is around someone who bullies it. To discover our most expansive selves we need to create a friendly internal atmosphere. I have a lovely friend who always puts herself down in her texts messages to me. I can write back encouragement but it won't change the habit of self criticism; we can only do that for ourselves.
Try and make it a new habit to notice your inner critic and explore different ways of talking you yourself. How many times a day do you think, write or say something mean about yourself? Start with gentle curiosity; don’t berate yourself for doing it, commend yourself for noticing it. And then, after you’ve asked yourself if you’d ever use those words or tone with a loved one and considered the effect it might have on them if you did, gently start encouraging yourself to practice another way. A softer tone, a kinder energy, a more sympathetic viewpoint.
I think part of why we are unkind to ourselves is because aspects of us feel lost and hurt and empty. Bullies are mean to others because they don’t feel safe and loved themselves. Perhaps if we can try and work out what we crave most in life, what we are missing, we can then explore the ways we can give that to ourselves and create more of a sense of wholeness.
We all crave a mother and father who are always there for us and love us unconditionally. A sibling who has always got our back and can relate to how we feel. A best friend who cheers us up, gets it when we're suffering and would drop everything to be there when we're having a tough time, who makes us laugh, lifts our spirits, snuggles in bed with us and strokes our hair when we’re sad, celebrates us, holds us accountable and makes us want to be the best we can be.
But who can you guarantee will always be there, never die while you’re alive, never be too busy or have their own stuff going on, never be in another country, never struggle to understand exactly what you’re going through because they haven’t experienced it themselves? Who can be available 24 hours a day for as long as you live to care for, love, cherish and support you?
You! You can be there. You can learn to be your best friend in the world ever. You will be alive as long as you’re alive. You’ll always be in the same country as you. You’ll totally get what you’re going through and understand the intricacies of the situation. You can stroke your own hair and be kind and encouraging and gentle and funny and supportive to yourself.
Not instead of other people, we definitely need each other and would go completely cuckoo without each other, but alongside our lovely friends, partners and families. And when we cultivate a friendlier, warmer relationship with ourselves we are naturally kinder, more supportive and caring towards everyone else.
I have actually stroked my own cheek a few times when I’ve remembered to be extra kind. Why does that sound so weird? Why is it so odd to be gentle and tender with your own self? It’s your body, it’s your life and your choice. Why is it socially acceptable to be critical and cruel to ourselves? Why is seeing self-harm scars more common than seeing people walking around with a lightness of being because, when they needed to, they privately stroked their own cheek in a gesture of kindness, or gave themselves an encouraging squeeze?
If you had a baby what would you do for them? Ensure they are comfortable, clean, warm, cosy, well fed and hydrated, kissed, cuddled and adored? Well, as a bare minimum each day, to be a good kind parent to ourselves, let’s make a commitment to ensure that we are comfortable, clean, warm, cosy, well fed and hydrated, kissed, cuddled and adored.
And because we can’t always guarantee that we'll have someone available to kiss and cuddle us when we need it, and because being kissed and cuddled is so nice, let’s work out what else gives us that lovely feeling. For me it’s fresh bedding, cosy slippers, hot chocolate and watching a comedy that unites me with others by reminding me how funny and similar and silly we all are.
Take a moment to conjure up the feelings a kiss or a cuddle gives you. It gives me a bubble of warmth in my belly that rises to my heart and lifts my mouth into a smile. It feels like safety and comfort and being lucky. It makes me feel like I exist and that I matter. Explore what gives you that feeling. Make a list. Make it part of your daily life to give yourself that feeling. And perhaps the darling vulnerable younger self that we each carry inside us, may cry less, smile more and develop even faster.