In January, I broke up with my boyfriend of three years. Before him, I had been in another relationship of nearly three years. I decided I would take the year off from dating to do some classic rom-com soul searching. Papi, I didn’t like what I found.
I’ve come to realize that over that combined period of six years, starting at 18, I had learned to see myself as I related to my partner. I was proud of things I did only because they made him happy. I sought career advancement because it meant I had more money to spend on him. Stuff like that.
Now that I’ve been single for a while, I’ve realized I don’t know how to feel about myself or the things I do without someone else telling me how I should feel.
I spend most of my time now worrying about how a future partner will see me. What if I meet someone that I can picture a life with, but they can’t picture a life with me because of things I chose to be before we met? I feel the need to remain a completely featureless blob that someone can come along and shape in whatever way they want to in exchange for love.
I can’t convince myself that I love my job, because what if they don’t respect what I do? I can’t convince myself to focus on my hobbies, because what if they find them stupid? Maybe most damning of all, I can’t convince myself to love my body, because what if it isn’t good enough for them?
Papi, how do I learn to fall in love with myself?
Hey there, SP! We love a classic rom-com soul-searching expedition. What did you do, like an Eat, Pray, Love situation over Zoom? One of those virtual excursions offered by AirBnB™, proud sponsor of ¡Hola Papi!?
That last part isn’t true, and I don’t know why I said it. Maybe I’m trying to take a page out of your book and make myself look more appealing to potential corporate partners. Except, I’ve never actually had one of those. This is getting more depressing by the paragraph, so I think I’ll shift over to “your problem” now.
Right, I think it’s very self-aware of you to recognize that you’re doing this, SP! Some people go much, much longer without realizing that they’re making all their decisions around their desire to please other people (people who might not even exist). That can look like romantic partners, family, co-workers, or even the whole world. It’s normal to want to be liked. It’s harmful to let a fear of being disliked govern your existence.
You arrived at an interesting remedy for your predicament, one that I think is a pretty common way of thinking: I don’t love myself, and I need to learn how if I’m ever going to be happy. The prevalent term for this is “self-love,” and, you know, I think there’s definitely something to it. It’s great to feel an affinity for yourself, to respect yourself, and to make yourself a priority.
But I also think self-love as a concept has a way of being positioned in our brains as a kind of goal, and it’s really, really difficult to make a state of mind your goal because that’s not how minds work. Minds are turbulent, shifting oceans, and we have but a raft, and we only occasionally rest on islands of self-love, of self-adoration. Also, in this world, you can’t build a house on those islands and live there. It’s my metaphor, I make the rules, and I am a cruel god.
The point is, if you, like me, consider self-love to be a pass-or-fail type of thing, then you’ll only feel worse when you inevitably fail to meet the criteria of “being in love with yourself.” It’s just not realistic to feel that way about being you all the time. It’s a relationship, and like any relationship, there will be times of frustration, betrayal, and contempt. You need to be flexible enough to meet those realities.
I think we need a more malleable goal to work with here, because the truth is, SP, even though you’ve been living your life to appease these nameless, faceless people, well, you’re still the one calling the shots. You’re actively making these decisions. You’re deciding to live your life this way. No one is actually, verbally telling you to de-prioritize yourself. No one is making sure you don’t nail down the furniture because you need to be able to move and rearrange everything in case someone else wants you to. That’s … all you!
Yes, other people have probably had a hand in tilting you toward this way of thinking. I think I’m the same way. I often find myself being a chameleon in company I want to impress, especially of the romantic sort, and I sometimes feel ashamed of the things that make me, well, “me,” because they’re in the way of me being a more ideal person for this potential romantic partner.
But the potential partner actually has very little to do with that inner dialogue. I’m preempting their judgment, assuming they couldn’t possibly like me for me, and showing them the things I think they’d like more not because I know they wouldn’t like these things about me, but because I’ve already decided that other people won’t. It’s a psychodrama of one. What I mean to say is that your life isn’t divided into “pleasing others” versus “pleasing yourself.” All this time, beginning to end, there has only been you. And your relationship to yourself is not as good as it could be.
Forget about “falling in love with yourself” for a second. You don’t have to be enamored with yourself to prioritize yourself. I do it every day. There are times when I’m frustrated with the facts of me: my looks, my tics, my bad habits, the things I struggle to do, the things that hold me back. But I’ll say this about myself: I’m stuck with me. I will probably be stuck with me for my entire run of “experiencing things,” unless there’s some sort of reincarnation system going on. Although, arguably, I’ll still be stuck with me even then. I just have to cross my fingers and hope I end up in a beloved celebrity chef’s body who is also hot.
My sexy, delicious future life aside, I want you to see your relationship to yourself less as a “love versus loathing” type binary and think of it more as, well, just another relationship that happens to be your most important one. Think of it as something that needs to breathe, that needs forgiveness and patience, because there will definitely be screw-ups and obstacles and hurdles. That’s life.
But I think it’s entirely possible for you, for all of us, to see ourselves through eyes that feel more like our own, and we can feel empowered enough to say, “Good enough.”
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on September 10, 2020.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Preorder JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, out June 8, here.