About eight years ago I took an unintentional and very deep dive into a five-year period of self-loathing that had me reeling. I had never been in a place like this before so when I found myself at the bottom of this dark pit, I was utterly confused. Worse, never having been in this predicament before, I realized that I had never developed the skills to navigate my way out of it.
In a very short period of time, I began to comprehend that my most important relationship was also the most toxic: my relationship with myself. To my shock and horror, I had somehow become the kind of woman that scurried past mirrors without daring to look. I had become the kind of woman that couldn’t stand to see herself in a mirror. I believed I was a failure as a friend, mother, and wife. I always felt angry, overwhelmed, and tired. I had too much of everything and not enough of anything. Nothing brought me joy, even the things that unarguably bring everyone joy. The cultural instructions I had inherited at birth that defined how to live a fulfilled and contented life were present and working like a well-oiled machine. Perplexed, I mentally scanned through the checklist:
- Graduated college
- Got married
- Bought the house
- Had the child
- Gained financial security
As far as I had been told, I had everything that would supposedly make a woman happy. So, why was I crawling out of my skin? On paper, my life was what every woman could possibly dream of. In real life, it didn’t make sense to me. I wasn’t just baffled; I was annoyed. Who has time for this shit?? I had a successful business and home to run, a daughter to raise, and a husband with which to partner in all of it. Curling up in the fetal position to rock my way out of this was out of the question.
Being equal parts curious and tenacious, I set to work immediately to identify and solve the troublesome conundrum of self-contempt. A little bit of research identified all the things one must do in order to love oneself, and I ferociously dove in. I know you’ll find this shocking but starving myself, exercising to death, buying all the things, taking all the classes, reading all the books, and basically mindfucking myself into Stepford Wife oblivion didn’t work.
Then the lightbulb shone bright and the answer set in. I didn’t need to make some changes in my life; my entire life needed to change. How it needed to change was another question. I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing some piece of a big life puzzle that, when discovered and put into place, would finally allow me to reach a destination of peace and serenity. Again, I’m sure you’re shocked to read that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I knew I had a long path ahead of me but how does one begin such an expedition? How in the world was I supposed to know how to change my entire life, or where to begin? Turns out, I just needed to focus my attention on those questions and the universe took it from there…
During a random conversation with a woman I hadn’t seen in at least ten years, and would never see again after that night, I learned about a woman who worked in Reiki therapy. Never having heard of Reiki, she explained to me all that it entailed. She raved about the Reiki therapist’s ability to zero in on past and present events and circumstances, which were believed to have created barriers to living the life one is meant to live. She would then use energy to heal them.
I was so in.
As the therapist was, and still is, located in Santa Fe, NM, and I in Pittsburgh, PA, I set up a distance Reiki session and impatiently awaited my healing experience with excitement.
When she called on the phone, she began by running through a few simple instructions and explained how the session and Reiki worked. She dove into her process, which included periods of silence while she worked what I could only have identified as magic. After each quiet stretch, she would come back to the conversation and discuss what she discovered, such as family issues, occurrences in my childhood that had long-term effects, and behavioral patterns that were getting in my way. As the session continued, I could see the full picture of the puzzle begin to reveal itself. It was like the weight of a mountain had been lifted from my back. Clarity set in and I could visualize the story of my life and all that had unfolded and brought me to the very couch I was laying on right then and there.
In that moment of lucidity, I spied that last puzzle piece. The desperately sought-after answer to all of my problems. I smiled as it clicked into place. And then the mountain crashed down onto my back so hard I lost my breath.
It was my marriage to my husband.
My eyes flew open as my heart pounded out of my chest. What?? How did I not see this? Where had I been and what in the world had I been doing while my marriage was apparently falling apart?
Still reeling, I mentally journeyed back through our life and relationship to find the source and landed in the seventh month of my first and only pregnancy.
I was big and round with pregnancy glow (and bloated ankles) when my husband began coming home from work worried about some discomfort in his legs. Within about a week, it went from discomfort to numbness and tingling. A visit to our PCP indicated that he may have Transverse Myelitis, otherwise known as Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO). A slew of specialists’ appointments, coupled with a barrage of MRI’s and other tests, confirmed a fate we couldn’t wrap our heads around. No one could’ve been less prepared than the two of us when we were told that my husband may not survive past the next five years.
Those next five years were a blur of sickness. My husband spent months in bed at a time, and the mentally debilitating effect this had on him, me, and our home in general, was more than either of us could bear. Our arms were filled to the brim with responsibilities that didn’t have room for something like this. We had a brand new business that we started when I was 2 months pregnant, and we were about to move into a brand new house with a brand new baby. As I sat working each long day at my computer, trying to keep everything afloat, I’d catch myself writing his ecology in my head, knowing that he could die at any moment. In those five years, we both became people that neither of us recognized. He became resentful and angry, and suddenly, I couldn’t do anything right. I saw the looks, heard the judgmental comments, and felt the weight of his silent responses that were dripping with disapproval. I had no idea what I was doing wrong, but I knew with certainty I couldn’t do anything right.
Then my transgression began to dawn on me. I had a perfectly normal and healthy body that I did nothing to deserve. I could sleep, eat, move, or not move, in any way I wanted and my body worked perfectly fine. Meanwhile, he worked day and night just to stay alive as his body rejected just about everything he did. I realized that this was more than he could deal with, which led to me becoming a target for his fault-finding. The more I was criticized, the more I ate. The more I ate, the more weight I gained. The more weight I gained, the more unhappy with me we both became.
I began to believe his opinions had legitimacy, and that was my downfall.
Looking back, I can now see that this was when I began digging the pit that would become my mental prison for the next five years. In response, I became distant, cold, and angry with my husband, shutting him out of every space in my life that I could. Then, all of a sudden, he could do nothing right by me and the tables turned.
At any moment on any day, the blame, aggravation, and disappointment either pointed at him or me, and we never knew which one it would be. It was a level of pain that left both of us and our marriage, crippled.
Much later and much too late, I realized that fear was the driving force behind our words and actions. I knew that neither of us wanted to hurt the other. But he was terrified of dying and leaving a wife and young daughter behind, and that despair turned into controlling behavior. I may not have liked it but at least understood it. I was scared to death of who I had become, coupled with not knowing how I got there or how to get out of it, all while accepting that my daughter’s father had one foot in the grave on any given day.
I knew we needed therapy. He needed therapy. I needed therapy. We needed family therapy. He disagreed and believed that motoring through was the ticket. So, instead of getting the emotional and therapeutic help we so badly needed, we divided and conquered. First came the business so our daughter and I could survive if my husband passed away. Second came his health so our daughter could grow up with a father. Third came our daughter, and fourth came our home and life.
I’d love to say that our marriage was fifth but it wasn’t. It never even made the list because we believed we were doing the right thing by “unselfishly” putting everything before our marriage. It never dawned on us that it wasn’t strong enough to hold all the pressure and consequences of the disease.
We were wrong.
The closer my Reiki session came to its end, the heavier my heart felt. I knew immediately that it wasn’t just that I was having problems in my marriage; it was that my marriage was over. It was as if the bond between us snapped at the moment the awareness set in.
There before me laid two new sets of puzzle pieces and I had a choice to make. No matter what I chose, I had to accept that those pieces would form a permanent path that would become the rest of my life. One path would continue a status quo life that’s value was found in keeping everyone else around me happy. The other would allow me a life of freedom and contentment but would bear the cost of causing catastrophic pain to those I swore to love and protect forever.
In the end, I decided that the expense to my well-being was too high. Instead, I bet on myself. I bet that by choosing myself I could design an even better version of the woman I used to be. I bet that by choosing myself, I could transform the deep pain that accompanied the journey of my marriage into a healthy and loving relationship with myself. This was of utmost importance to me because I desperately wanted to be an example to my daughter by showing her that strength isn’t determined by misery. Moreover, true love would never ask her to trade her happiness for the sake of others. I bet that if I left, I could show her that when we choose ourselves, we are, in essence, being the most selfless we can be to those we love because we can then show up as our best selves, presently, completely, and joyfully. I bet that if I left, I could prove to myself that I’m a woman worth fighting for.
Turns out I was a safe bet.
My journey has been wonderful, awful, beautiful, horrific, and had me floating high in one moment and down on my knees gasping for air in the next. The understanding that my self-hatred was bound to my marriage meant that healing could only come from detangling those strings, and, for me, that meant divorce. It was a painful but necessary decision. My wish is that you never find yourself in a place of similar discontent, however, just in case you do, I’ve chosen one out of the many lessons I learned while walking this path to share with you. My hope is that it can be a small part of your guidepost, leading you back to your most authentic and beautiful self.
There will be much more of this story to come, but for now, I’ll say that as I put the pieces of myself back together, I kept returning to specific traits of my personality that always made me cringe. Knowing that visceral reactions are an indicator of juicy lessons to be learned, I knew that’s where I needed to start my work. I knew I could no longer ignore parts of myself simply because it made everyone else around me more comfortable. If I wanted to truly heal, I had to love the whole me, not just the parts others, and myself found acceptable.
Carl Jung calls these traits our “shadows”; I call them my “cringy bits” because they were the parts of myself that made me cringe every time they came out to wreak havoc in what I believed was my perfectly manicured life. These are the parts of our personalities that we’ve been made to believe are unacceptable, causing a crack in the mirrored reflection of who we are vs. what we were taught we needed to be to get along and fit in. This process typically begins in our youth.
When I consider my childhood, I remember a little girl who was curious, free, loud, bossy, and excited. Those around me didn’t take long to make sure I knew I was the complete opposite of what the world said little girls were supposed to be. Over time, freedom was replaced with responsibility, loud was replaced with minding my (female) manners, and excitement was replaced with holding it all in and constantly scanning the room to make sure I wasn’t offending anyone (I was pretty unsuccessful at this last bit).
I was learning to hate parts of myself that I didn’t even know existed yet. I believed if I ignored these traits long enough, they’d simply go away. Just when I thought they’d been finally ousted for all of eternity, they’d rear their ugly, little heads and I’d spend the next few days internally berating myself for behaving in a way that I had been programmed to believe was ostracize-worthy.
Not surprisingly, as I continued to grow and mature, my cringy bits followed me. Later in life, as I looked back over the journey of my shadow selves, I could see how they grew and matured right along with me. I can tell you full-heartedly that I was surprised when I realized my cringy bits no longer made me cringe. Stopping dead in my tracks upon the discovery of that epiphany, I wanted to know why and how this miracle had come to be. My exploration led me to something so enlightening that it changed my entire relationship with myself — my Three Big Epiphanies. I hope you use them to transform your shadows into something so beautiful and metamorphic that it causes a rebirth and expansion that have you seeing yourself in a whole different way, just like it did for me.
- The goal isn’t to change, it’s to accept. Humans don’t really change, not our core selves. We grow, we evolve, we gain wisdom and knowledge and that leads to changes in how we live our lives, but we never truly change our inner self. There’s a method to that madness because self-acceptance is the key to true inner joy. I don’t know about you, but I found it quite relieving when it dawned on me that I didn’t ever need to change myself. That’s way too much work! I’m sure you’re asking yourself the whys and hows of this right about now. Keep reading…
- Your most hated cringy bits are your greatest gifts. Yep — no kidding! Right now, your cringy bits might make you plant your palm to your forehead with fierceness but that’s only because you haven’t learned how to transform them into your greatest superpowers yet. Once you figure out the delivery in a way that’s going to serve you and others, it’s going to blow your mind. Therefore:
- Rather than sending your cringy bits anger and hatred, send them love and gratitude. When you send any part of yourself darkness and disgust, you are not only growing darkness and disgust from within, but you are also keeping those parts separate from your complete self. So long as you live fractured in this way, you will never be whole. We’ve now learned that our cringy bits can’t be changed and that they are actually our greatest gifts. Living whole is the final goal and this can only be achieved through love and gratitude. This is how we transform our weaknesses into strengths.
To bring this all home, allow me to share my own story with you. As I mentioned before, I was a fearless child and I thoroughly believed that if everyone would just do things my way, they’d be much happier. As you can imagine, that didn’t work out very well. Being told to shut up and go away was pretty typical. Unfortunately, this trait transformed most counterproductively in my teenage years. I couldn’t let an underdog suffer and so I spent my time sticking up for them and doing my best to pump up their egos with confidence and bravery. I believed that if I could help even just one person believe in themselves, it was worth all the detention I had to sit in as a result of constantly intervening between them and their bullies. Happily, and to my surprise, those rough edges smoothed out in college and I found that my friends began coming to me for my advice and opinions. I don’t know how, but I could easily tune into how they were feeling and was able to introduce new ideas that they hadn’t considered in relation to whatever problem they were having at the time. Being a small part of their A-HA! moments were priceless.
Little did I know that, through my photography, I would spend the better part of the last two decades of my life becoming a guide for women searching for a way to find balance between what they wanted to feel about themselves and what everyone else wanted them to be. I could be an active participant in making space for them to explore their ideas on womanhood while choosing to define beauty by their own standards. As they grew and evolved, so did I, and adding Reiki and Self-Love Coaching to my skillset has allowed me to journey deeper with women. It has been my joy to help them unravel and peel away their own social conditioning to reveal a version of themselves they never knew was laying underneath everyone else’s expectations.
Leading women to rediscover the courage they’ve always had inside of them to design a life that is in alignment with their truest and most authentic selves has been more fulfilling than anything I’ve done before now.
Looking back, I now recognize that I was wrongly informed with regard to unacceptable traits of my personality. But the worst part of all of it was that I believed those messages. I can follow that trail that led me to contort my square self into a round hole while attempting to conform to cultural norms I had no participation in constructing. Even with all of that, I found the strength to come full circle, gathering the pieces of my personal puzzle back up that I had mistakenly and willingly scattered.
I accepted my complete self. I transformed what was labeled as undesirable into my greatest gifts. I now live a life of wholeness, celebrating every part of myself. Yes, every part.
If you’re struggling with your personal journey of self-love, I want to share a bit of advice that I hope you call upon when you need it the most.
- The pursuit of self-love isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. You must remember at all times that you’re a beautiful soul having a human experience and the greatest gift you can give to yourself is forgiveness. Never keep from yourself what I’ll bet you give freely to others.
- Never question that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be at exactly this moment in time, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. You are enough. Always.
- You have everything you need inside of you to live your most joyous and inspired life, and you always have. Never forget it.
Welcome to the journey, friend. xx