This is the story of my journey to self-love.
My father divorced my mother when I was three. She was left devastated and depressed.
I was put in front of the television to watch cartoons for hours at a time, day after day. Sometimes she took me to the playground to play by myself. When I asked my mother about my father, she would say: He left us. He doesn’t love us. We weren’t good enough for him.
My mother didn’t connect with me or acknowledge my individual existence.
I remember her telling me that if I was a “good girl,” he might come home again . . . so I decided to be really good. I was a three-year-old desperate to prove that I deserved my father’s love.
He would visit me, but every time he left again, I felt like I was bad—that I had failed to be “good” enough to get him to stay.
Thus the stage was set. I was a lonely child experiencing developmental trauma.
My mom would repeatedly reinforce that he didn’t love me (or her). I wasn’t good enough for him. And her inability to pay attention to me, to see me as a unique human being, and connect with me confirmed that she didn’t love me either.
Looking back after all the healing work I’ve done as an adult, I can now see that she did love me. I now understand that she was trapped by her fear and depression . . . with no strong sense of her true Self.
As a child, I developed attention seeking behaviors—trying to figure out how I could get my mother and my father to notice me.
I experienced what author Antoinetta Vogels calls “Fear of Annihilation,” which is the feeling that there is no point to your existence.
When my mother grew angry with me, she called me worthless and useless and threatened to send me to live with my father—whom, she insisted, wanted nothing to do with me. It was a double-edged sword.
Her idea of discipline was to reject me to the core by telling me that the two people in my life that mattered the most didn’t want or love me. As a result, I developed a Lack of (Natural) Sense of Self as a child.
Occasionally I was praised for my attention-seeking, but this was only a temporary relief from the absence of a healthy sense of Self.
Nothing could have prepared me for puberty. Overnight, it seemed, I had breasts and a pretty face. I was lean with long legs. Boys and men tripped over their feet because they couldn’t stop staring. I was beautiful.
For the first time in my life, I had all the attention I could handle. I couldn’t get enough. I loved it. I liked that they were looking, talking, and flirting with me. I felt seen. Like I was someone special.
I was determined to find true love . . .
I knew there was someone who would love me forever and never leave me. We would make the ultimate bond, and experience a promised land of love and happiness, just like in the romance novels I read as a young woman.
When I was fourteen, one of my friends introduced me to an older boy named Gary. Gary was handsome with strong, tan muscles—a football player twice my size and four years older.
And I knew he wanted me.
He asked me out for a walk by the river. I said yes. It was a lovely summer day, and I felt beautiful in my flowy dress.
As we walked, we spoke about things teenagers usually talk about. School. Friends. Parties. Opinions. But mostly we talked about how much we liked each other, even though we had just met.
Then he kissed me. It was wonderful. It was thrilling. My heart was pounding, and I felt lighter than air.
Was this what love felt like?
He asked me back to his house to meet his parents. I agreed, smiled, and held his hand as we walked. But I was unprepared for what happened next.
He opened the door to the house and immediately shoved me into the basement bedroom. He pressed me against the wall and began groping and kissing me. I was surprised and unsure what to do, so I kissed him back.
A minute later, he threw me down onto the bed, lifted my dress, and before I knew it, he was on top of me. I panicked.
“NO!” I shouted, “STOP!”
He covered my mouth with his strong hand. His smiling face took on a twisted expression, and he told me to calm down. That I would like it.
I struggled against him. He was heavy. I couldn’t move him. I wasn’t strong enough, so I stopped trying to get away and just lay there like a dead thing waiting for him to get off.
Remembering what I heard in school about bears: If you play dead long enough, they’ll leave you alone. I stayed still while tears ran down my face. It hurt physically . . . but the emotional pain was worse. And when he finished, he got up and laughed. I still remember his hateful words: Get the fuck out of here.
I was only fourteen years old when I lost my virginity to rape.
I wanted to die.
I ran out of the house and down the street to the park and sat down to cry. I felt like a failure. Like I had done something wrong. What I thought to be the ultimate act of love was horrible. How could anyone ever love me?
My thoughts spiraled out of control, and I made my way home to where I was staying at my grandparents’ house. It was getting dark outside, and it mirrored the darkness inside me. The pain in my heart was too much to bear.
I was awful. I was bad. My parents didn’t love me. Gary didn’t love me. What was the point in living? I meant nothing to no one.
During this time in my life, I felt the feeling of total annihilation.
Someone with a healthy Sense of Self wouldn’t have had my same thoughts that stemmed from an Internalized Parental Voice (IPV). A healthy person would have felt violated and angry. Instead, I experienced the ultimate failure and that my world was ending, and I wanted the pain to stop.
I felt worthless and unlovable.
I found my grandpa’s pain pills, and I took the whole bottle. Then I laid down and cried. Thinking about how much it hurt to be me. How much it hurt to fail again and again. To always be unlovable, to never be “good” enough.
That’s how painful it can be to lack a sense of Self. However, that night as I was falling asleep, I heard a voice in my heart. It was a little spark of self-love.
I’m here! I have value! I’m alive! Don’t give up on me! The voice reminded me to reach out to the one person in my life that I felt connected to, for help. I went to the hospital and saved my own life.
Self-love saved me from ending my life.
For those of us who grew up without a healthy sense of Self, the term self-love may seem obscure. How can you love yourself when you feel like no one else loves you?
A Sense of Self, as described by Vogels, comes from feeling acknowledged, respected, and valued as a unique human being by your primary caregivers in childhood. For people who fail to develop a Sense of Self in childhood, a whole lifetime of symptoms can result: depression, anxiety, addiction, and endless people pleasing and approval-seeking.
Self-love isn’t just yoga retreats and spa days. Sometimes it is the tiny spark of the fight inside of us that keeps us alive when all other lights go out, and we want to give up. It’s the child’s voice deep inside the heart that screams, “I’m here! I’m alive! Don’t give up on me!”
This voice spoke to the remnant of my true Self, buried in childhood neglect and trauma.
Only through strengthening my sense of Self have I been able to overcome a lifetime of depression that started in childhood. And as I sit here and type this twenty years later, restoring my Sense of Self, I can tell you that it has not been an easy journey. I struggled with self-confidence, depression, and self-worth.
I had to fight every step of the way to stay alive and find my Self.
Through many twists of fate and life lessons, I grew and blossomed. Recently, when I read Antoinetta Vogels’ book, The Motivation Cure, it dawned on me. This was what I’d been missing in my life. Recovery didn’t need to be so hard. I didn’t need to do it alone.
Further, I discovered that although I may not have grown up with a Natural Sense of Self, my Restored Sense of Self works just as well.
The first step toward self-love is self-awareness.
Becoming aware that there’s something not quite right in your life and then looking at it for what it is is in itself an act of self-love.
If you are anxious and depressed and feeling like you’re not making progress . . . then I urge you to check out Vogels’ book, which talks about developing your Natural Sense of Self and discovering the motivation behind your behaviors.
May you live a healthy life filled with Self-love!