Being in close quarters with my mom and sisters, I noticed how much of our time we spent being self-critical.

Morgan Noll
Jun 29, 2020 @ 3:41 pm
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Credit: Morgan Noll/HelloGiggles

I inherited several things from my mom, both good and bad: my long legs and tall body, my headstrong personality, my acne. She passed down her chin-up, shoulders-back style of confidence, but she unknowingly passed down her insecurities, too. All the things she was insecure about while growing up (having acne, being taller than all her friends, gaining weight) became the things she gave me and my sister tools to conceal. She did this out of her protective motherly nature, never wanting us to feel insecure ourselves or be made fun of, and although it wasn't a foolproof method, her teachings are the reason I'm so confident today. Recently, though, I've learned that there are holes in that confidence and that it does not always equate to true self-love.

Since I started quarantining at home with my mom and sister, I've noticed how much negative self-talk we engage in. Many of our conversations center around the way we look. My mom talks often about how she's put on weight, shares details of new diets she's trying, and hesitates to step outside into our gated backyard with her arms showing. Seeing this has led me to spend more time looking in the mirror, fixate on new hormonal breakouts as they've popped up, and not want to join a single Zoom call without first putting on concealer. My sister, dealing with her own skin frustrations, has been complaining about the appearance of her pores and the many unsuccessful products she's used to make them appear smaller.

I've always tried to monitor my fixations with my skin and body, pushing back on my negative self-talk. Living with other women who are each working on their own self-image issues, though, it's hard to push these thoughts aside and pretend they don't matter.

Some of these conversations with my mom and sister have felt cathartic, since we're honest about what's bothering us on the inside—but they've never actually gone anywhere productive. Even in quarantine, I know there are better ways to fill our time than with self-critique, and it pains me to realize how much headspace we've collectively wasted thinking about our appearances. It's especially difficult to hear my mom, the woman who gave me my confidence, talk negatively about her body nearly every day. Even though I've always been thin, I feel myself internalizing the things my mom says about her body and applying them to my own. As much as I'm working to unlearn body-shame, I'm also worrying about experiencing more significant weight fluctuations as I grow older and having my weight dictate my happiness. And it's not just my mom's comments; I've become guilty of negative self-talk, too.

So, recently, I asked my mom if she would take a digital self-love course with me so that we could work on being kinder to ourselves together. I was nervous to ask at first, worried she would take it personally, but she was open to the idea. My sister was less enthused, but she participated as a spectator and chimed in when she felt inclined.

The first thing we learned? Self-love apparently isn't free. Various self-love courses on the internet—ones that have the tone of "Yes, girl, you got this!"—are priced at around $300 to $500 and include weekly modules, reading materials, and motivational prompts. Because I didn't think self-love was something we needed to buy into, I started searching for self-love resources that were free or low-cost instead. I scoured lists of the best self-love books, found an e-book from Empower Your Mind Therapy filled with daily affirmations, and looked for TED Talks that brought in new perspectives. For the past few weeks, my mom and I have been "studying," learning new ways to think about self-love and having some uncomfortable conversations about where we're currently coming up short. We've dedicated about an hour each day to responding to self-love prompts and talking through what we've learned. It can be draining to dig into this work, but we've already learned a few things that I hope we'll take with us moving forward.

The lessons we learned about self-love:

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Credit: Morgan Noll/HelloGiggles

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1 Vague self-love doesn't work.

One of the first things my mom and I did was listen to the audiobook version of The Self-Love Experiment by author and empowerment coach Shannon Kaiser. I'd seen this book come up on various "best of" lists, and some reviews even claimed it had "the potential to change your life." Though the book may be a great resource for some, it focused more vaguely on the positive power of self-love (which we already knew about) rather than the specific work it takes to experience it. We needed to know how we could actually confront the ways we weren't practicing what we preached; how we were giving love to others without offering the same kind of unconditional acceptance to ourselves.

A better tool for us was journal prompts, which forced us to have conversations about self-love in more direct ways. On the self-love blog Blessing Manifesting, author Dominee shares 31 prompts that aim to "help you take a good look at where you need to put a little more love in your life." The post includes questions like, "What is your biggest struggle with loving yourself?" "What's one compliment you struggle to accept about yourself?" "What do you need to forgive yourself for?" and "How can you set better boundaries in your life?" These questions forced us to look at our own relationships with ourselves and think more critically and personally about self-love. And though many of the questions weren't directly about appearances, many of our answers were. It was easy to name our biggest struggle for loving ourselves—my mom said it was with her inability to lose weight, and mine was my insecurity with my skin—but harder to identify other areas where we weren't fully content. That's where we learned our next lesson.

2 Self-love is about more than accepting your appearance.

It's no secret that strict beauty standards can take a hefty toll on self-image. A 2011 experiment published in Glamour, for instance, showed that 97 percent of women reported having body image issues. Recent movements around body positivity have seemed to reverse some of the pressure of beauty standards, but these conversations can sometimes have a negative effect. Whether we're talking about ways to change our appearance or ways to accept it, we're still talking a lot about appearances, which can perpetuate the idea that's what matters most.

My mom and I (and my sister when she joined in) had a hard time talking about self-love in ways that weren't tied to our appearances. We kept repeating the same things—"I'm not happy with my cellulite/weight/skin"—and sharing frustrations about different parts of our bodies without going much further.

So when we challenged ourselves to answer the question, "What is your biggest struggle with loving yourself?" without mentioning appearances, it felt like we opened a whole new can of worms. Our answers mostly related to productivity in general, feeling like we lacked motivation or inspiration, and assigning those feelings to the idea that we're not good enough. I feel this way when I don't have the motivation to write or work, and I realized that when I have these feelings of low self-worth, I tend to fixate on and pick at my skin more than usual. For my mom, her lack of motivation ties directly to her issues with her weight; she feels like her unhappiness with her body is a result of her being unmotivated to work out and lose weight. When looking through high school photos of herself, though, my mom realized that she felt some of the same ways about her body back then, a time when she was an active swimmer and weighed less than she does today.

As women, it's easier to talk about issues with our appearances—it's pretty much an accepted fact that we all have them. But going deeper into why we actually feel like we're not good enough? That's the hard part.

3 You have to find "your thing."

This was one of my favorite points from writer Caira Lee's TED Talk, "I search 4 it blinded: the power of self-love and self-esteem." In a list of four things "you can do to reap the benefits of radical self-love," Lee urges people to ask themselves, "What's your thing?" She says to identify the thing that, when you're doing it, "you feel cool, productive, important, challenged." For my mom, it's singing. For me, it's writing and, sometimes, dancing in my room with my music turned up too loud. I loved Lee's emphasis on finding the thing that makes you feel alive and her advice to do that thing as much as possible. "That is a form of self-love," she says. Plus, it challenges us to admire things about ourselves that have nothing to do with our appearances and everything to do with what actually makes us feel good inside.

4 You can't shame people into loving themselves.

This lesson was a personal reckoning for me. Ever since I started learning more about how our personal negative self-talk can affect others—by interviewing therapists and following body-neutrality advocates on social media—I've made an effort to cut it out of my life. I've tried to stop making negative comments about changes in my body or skin, and I've tried to encourage others to be more kind to themselves, too. Before coming home for quarantine, I made "house rules" in my apartment (where I live with two other women), asserting that we should all stop saying "sorry" so often and cut out negative self-talk completely. I brought similar rules home with me over the past few months, but in these efforts, I sometimes forget that things aren't that simple.

My sister clued me in to the fact that I can be quick to dismiss comments she and my mom make about their bodies, telling them not to "say things like that." Even if my intentions are pure, this can do a lot more harm than good, making others feel shame for feeling bad about themselves, instead of actually helping them feel better. My mom agreed, explaining that it doesn't really matter if others say that they love you or that you look good: "You have to believe it yourself."

So instead of shutting each other down or challenging negative self-talk by saying, "No, that's not true," we're holding each other accountable by working on saying kinder words to and about ourselves. Now, if I hear my mom or anyone else talking badly about themselves, I resist the urge to shut the comments down and instead try to lead by example. The less I talk badly about myself, even if in a joking manner, the less normalized it will be for those around me. If a friend or loved one says something truly concerning—like, "I hate myself" or "Everything is my fault"—then I try to offer a shame-free space for them to talk instead of quickly dismissing their feelings.

5 Self-love is an ongoing process.

It would be naive to think that we could do a few weeks of a self-love experiment and reach some destination of eternal self-love. It doesn't work that way. (This is also why you probably shouldn't pay $300 for a 40-day course in self-love, but to each their own). The lessons that my mom, sister, and I have learned over the past few weeks are things we're going to have to keep coming back to over and over again.

The negative self-talk isn't gone from my household completely, but I can see that my mom is already trying to be more conscious about the way she talks about herself, and I'm trying to recognize the role I play in responding. We have a long way to go, but simply keeping these lessons in the back of our minds is allowing us to have more thoughtful relationships with ourselves and each other.