This piece was first published in Edition 2, 2021.
Content warning: anxiety.
As an international student living in Australia all alone, I’ve realised quite a few things about myself that I never knew before. The one quality that surprised me the most was my strength.
Believing in myself and having faith in myself takes incredible strength. When I’m staring at myself in the mirror, inundated with anxiety and scattered thoughts, I have to build up the strength to soothe my senses. I need to reach out to that hidden strength from deep within, to extricate myself from those evil voices in my head telling me that I’m worthless.
And for some days, that’s enough to make me beam with ecstasy. It’s enough that I can manage my emotions, can tell myself with conviction that “I am okay and I can do this” – even though I don’t always believe it.
All my life, I was never really taught about self-love. Growing up, my worth was equated with my academic performance, and any encounter with romantic relationships was a scandal soon to be discussed at the dinner tables of other judgemental families – any attempt to focus on myself was probably seen as a narcissistic luxury. It was a society where my success would always be contingent on my qualifications, my job, and my social status, even if that success was at the expense of my mental health.
Once I moved out and started living by myself, I was hit with an epiphany: I didn’t love myself, not really. I was so hard on myself. That little voice in my head was constantly telling me that I was weak, pathetic, ugly. It was a monster with beguiling eyes, encouraging self-destructive behaviour. It persuaded me to hate myself, to detest all the qualities that I was complimented on, and to look at myself in the mirror with disdain.
It was like being submerged underwater and not knowing how to swim, while insanity crept up on me like an incoming tide. As I drowned in my own thoughts, I tried to grasp a shred of sanity, like grasping a rope thrown from the shore with trembling, blistered hands.
It was time to take the power back and reclaim my hold on my mental state. I made it a point to consistently interrupt that voice with my own positive affirmations such as “I am strong, I am beautiful, I’m worthy of being loved, seen and heard”. I couldn’t entirely eliminate the voice in my mind, but I still had the power to strike it down when it reared its ugly head, reducing it to nothing but a distant static buzz in the back of my mind.
I realised a lot of self-love was about perspective. Our existing reality is shaped by our perspectives, so we can create our own reality by making a positive change to our mindset. Self-love is not about taking scented bubble baths with a glass of wine, solo road trips, or spending hundreds of dollars at your favourite brand’s store. Those activities can bring you transient moments of gratification, and I do believe that self-love has a different meaning for everyone. But it really comes from within.
When you’re truly happy on the inside, it’s almost as if your heart glows, and unbridled joy is evident on your face. It’s beautiful.
Our past does not have to define us. We can move forward and heal, we can learn how to smile and soar through this chaotic world with purpose and courage. The journey to self-love starts with accepting every atom within us, including the ones we try so hard to conceal. The more we hide, the more we accelerate the stigma surrounding mental health. Being vulnerable and accepting each other’s flaws with open arms is something that makes us human.
It’s okay to feel emotions so passionately that you feel like you’ll burst. But when you dust yourself off and pick yourself back up, you’ll still have that glint of survival in your eyes and that heartbeat, you realise you are a warrior. You are capable of so much more than you give yourself credit for.
I believe that when we use love and compassion as a guiding principle in the way we treat ourselves, we can create systems of change that let us create a safe space for our mind, body and soul.
Remember when you were a very young child, innocent and naïve? Asking innocuous questions, full of curiosity and an ardent desire to succeed in everything?
Now imagine where that child went amidst the ocean of responsibilities and predicaments of adulthood. What were you really like before complexity and anxiety took over your mind?
The real you is loving, kind, and so full of potential. The real you values happiness and pleasure above everything else. We can never go back to being that person – but some days, when we feel like nothing makes sense and those feelings of dread and anxiety are continuously washing over us, we can still visualise that version of ourselves. We can merge with it, maybe for just that one day. By connecting with our inner child, we remind ourselves to exhibit the same love and tenderness towards ourselves that we so freely extend to others.
Now every day, when I wake up to the glorious sunshine casting a warm glow through my balcony window, I hear my heart thumping in my chest and realise I am enough. I am here. Loving myself is an ongoing process and I am still a work in progress.
But we are all works of art, ready to paint the world in an explosion of colours.
Art by Ruby Comte