This is not a glib pronouncement. It is hard-won. I was not raised to love myself.
Several years ago, I was living in a rental home and suffering from migraines almost every day, along with cognitive fog and a myriad of worrying symptoms that nobody seemed to take seriously - least of all myself. I called myself lazy and couldn’t understand why I spent all day in bed.
Meanwhile, the plumbing on the 100-year-old rental house had gone bad and we couldn’t seem to get the property manager to take it seriously. The fact that I had to take three-minute cold showers because the drains were backed up and the shower would overflow before the water got hot, and couldn’t take baths because the separate bath tub wasn’t draining at all, was classified by her as a “minor inconvenience.”
One day, however, she decided rather abruptly to call in plumbers, who showed up unannounced and were let in by my kids. I was upstairs sleeping while they went to work looking at the drains and taking apart pieces of walls in the hall bathroom.
The first I knew about it was when the property manager herself walked into my bedroom, where I was sleeping.
She had come “to inspect the work” that was being done.
I was embarrassed to be caught in bed in the middle of the day, but not nearly as embarrassed as I was when I received a letter a few days later informing me that she was appalled at the state she had discovered the house to be in, and giving me notice regarding some matters that needed to be cleaned up and that would be reinspected in two weeks.
The plumbing never actually got fixed, but I’m moving ahead of myself. I was accustomed to being treated badly and assumed most of it was my fault.
When the letter arrived, I was flooded with hot shame. Trash bags had piled up in the basement because we kept forgetting to take the bins out, and then my dog had gotten into them and spread trash all over. I had small children and, as you may recall, was spending most days in bed, sick. I had left it all to fester while I tried to understand why my life was falling apart.
I hated myself.
Hot shame. I don’t know how to describe this if you’ve never felt it. It’s not embarrassment, though it is a distant kin to embarrassment. It’s much deeper. It strikes at the very core of who you are. You feel dirty, disgusting, like you don’t deserve to live. Sometimes, shame has made me suicidal.
This time, however, I had not too long before embarked on a spiritual journey that would bring me where I am now. I had left the church of my upbringing many years before, and Christianity altogether very recently. My beloved mentor and father figure had recently died, and from the other side had arranged things for me, including arranging for a friend to support me, who would become my companion and soul sister through a massive spiritual awakening.
I called her.
We were both such babies on this journey, but she was already brimming with divine wisdom, and she advised me to go outside, somewhere away from other people, find a place that felt safe to me among the trees, and just go ahead and FEEL everything I was feeling.
To stop trying to hide from it, or stuff it down, or pretend it didn’t exist.
She said she wasn’t sure what would happen on the other side, but that these feelings needed to get out, not get trapped inside.
Trusting her, I did as she suggested. Our rental was on a lovely one-acre lot on a small lake. I went out to the trampoline we’d set up for the kids under a couple old trees, and I lay down and I cried.
I cried and cried and cried. I screamed, I sobbed, I leaned over the edge of the trampoline and vomited drily into the grass and then cried some more.
After long and long and long and long, I started to feel that there were not so many tears left inside me anymore. I began to feel a strange calm come over me, along with a sense of the presence of divinity. Well, divinity is always present, in our own hearts - so perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this is a state in which one’s closeness, one’s intimacy with, one’s oneness with the divine is deeply felt.
And in this state, a vision came to me. The vision was of a heart, a large, red, glowing heart. Very beautiful. And the sensation that there was something behind the heart, something very, very important. Something for me. A gift of enormous significance, something that would change everything for me.
I waited and watched, and after a short time, I saw what was behind the heart.
It was a kitten.
A little, black kitten.
And as the kitten became visible to me, I felt words resonate within me, no sound, just meaning, and the meaning was: “You deserve to see the kitten.”
At the time, I had a beloved black cat. She was small and sweet and affectionate, the calmest cat I have ever known, my companion and familiar. I adored her. I thought this was what I was seeing, but I still didn’t understand what it meant.
After that, I wandered around a bit, just feeling how clean and clear I felt. Wondering about that kitten. Cuddling my cat. Noticing that the shame was gone.
Later in the evening, I pulled out some old journals. I didn’t know why, but I felt the urge to flip through a few pages.
One of them fell open to a day when I had been writing down some old memories. I began to read. The pages told the story of when I got my first cat, who was also a black cat.
It’s one of my earliest memories, and I remember it like a dream, fuzzy around the edges, some critical bits missing, mostly feelings and a few environmental details. I was two. I remember the car ride to the friend’s house who had the litter of kittens, I remember the inside of the car - it was brown leather and carpet.
I remember staying in the car while my mom and my brother went into the house to pick out the kittens. I remember feeling ashamed.
I was not allowed to go in with them to see the kittens and pick my own out, because I had forgotten my shoes. This was a terrible oversight on my part, and meant that I not only had lost the privilege of going in, but I must sit in the car and contemplate my own forgetfulness and make plans to do better the next time.
In the journal, I was retelling this story simply by way of remembering. It had not struck me, at the time of writing it, how appalling it was that a two-year-old should already know how it feels to be ashamed, to feel unworthy even of seeing a litter of kittens.
But now it struck me. And it struck me what my vision had been about - the universe, my own divine higher self, showing me the truth:
You deserve to see the kittens, Fen.
You always deserved it. You always deserved to see the kittens. No matter how many times you forget your shoes, you deserve to see the kittens. No matter how many times you forget your lunch, you deserve to eat. No matter how many times you leave your favorite toy by the road when you’re three years old, you deserve compassion when it is stolen, and not to be told to stop complaining and be more responsible with your toys.
You deserved to see the kittens, you deserved to eat, you deserved compassion, you deserved to be loved even when you were crying because you were bucked off an animal you asked to ride (why did you ask if you didn’t want to take the chance?). When you wandered among the tall grasses at the age of five and you heard your parents calling you home but you couldn’t find your dog, so you called and called for him, scared to come home without him, scared he wouldn’t be able to find his way, and then when you finally got home and your parents were angry, you deserved to be listened to, you deserved to be treated with compassion for the love you had for your dog, not shamed and punished and told that you were disobedient and irresponsible for not coming right away, and foolish for not knowing that the dog would find his way home. Not told that you could never play in the tall grass again because of your foolish irresponsibility and disobedience.
Dear Fen, you always deserved the good things.
Even when you made mistakes. Especially when you made mistakes. Even when your house is a wreck and you’re spending the day in bed and the basement is strewn with garbage. You deserve to see the kittens.
What you didn’t deserve, what you never deserved, was the shame.
So, dear friends, when I tell you I love myself, I want you to really understand this: It was not always true. How could I learn to love myself when I knew myself to be so bad? So wrong? So irresponsible, disobedient, prideful, rebellious, dirty, and shameful?
I have hated myself for most of my life. I didn’t even realize it. After all, I never knew anything else. How was I to know that the hot shame I carried around with me was hatred? Hatred for my precious self.
And I know my story is mine, in its particulars, but I don’t think it’s unique, in its themes. Our culture teaches us to be ashamed. It teaches us to hide and bury parts of ourselves. Our parents, often from a place of love, make mistakes that we internalize as self-blame. Culturally, we don’t have good frameworks for teaching our children to love themselves. Culturally, we equate self-love with selfishness, with harmful pride.
I think many of us struggle to love ourselves.
That night, lying on the trampoline, hanging halfway off the edge, my belly on the bare springs and my hair trailing to almost touch the ground, a string of bile and saliva and tears dripping from my mouth, was the beginning.
Well, A beginning. What is a beginning, anyway? Sometimes I say it’s when Ken died. Or when my grandma died. Or when I first started going to the trees for comfort. There are many beginnings.
But that was one sort of beginning, it was the start of the practice of learning to know that I deserve nice things. The beginning of a journey that is still in process.
Today I was walking around the neighborhood feeling sad. No particular reason, just sad. I began imagining myself telling someone, a beloved, about my day. I imagined the things that a beloved might say to me that would make me feel better.
Then I remembered that I can tell myself those things. It’s not the same, of course. But it is important to learn to center our love inside ourselves. I have spent so much of my life asking others to validate my worth for me, to love me enough to make up for how much I didn’t love myself, and I am ready to be done with that. I want to accept love when it shows up, exactly for what it is, and not demand of it that it also perform a song and dance to make me believe it.
I decided - again - (for I must decide it over and over again - it is how we change, you know, not one big epiphany followed by sudden transformation, but by making the decision again and again to do the thing we know will create our transformation bit by bit by bit) - I decided to tell myself how much I love me, and specifically why.
I love me.
I love my big, soft heart. I love that I open my heart again and again, no matter how many times I get hurt. I love that I show up. I show up for my friends, I show up for love, I show up for myself, I show up. I love how well I listen. I love how hard I love. I love how loyal I am. I love how I have chosen, again and again and again, to love hard, to love well, to love deep. I love how I choose it despite how many obstacles have stood between me and my ability to do so.
I love my wit, my humor. I love how I turn words into pictures, pictures into stories, stories into meaning, meaning into healing.
I love my openness to the world, my love for it, my absolute devotion to the beauty of it.
I love my willingness to feel. I love my commitment to heal. I love my decision, again and again and again, to make a different sort of life for myself and my children.
I love who I am. I love who I have become. I love who I am becoming.
I love me.
And I don’t know where you are on the journey. I don’t know if love for yourself comes easily to you, or if it feels almost impossible. I don’t know your story or your journey, except insofar as you have shared it with me.
But I do know that you deserve to love yourself.
You deserve the good things too.
You deserve to see the kittens.
Fen Druadìn (they/them) is anamchara, storyteller, dragon, student of trees, and a breaker of generational curses.
Fen's mission here is to love and remember themself completely, connect deeply with the world, and help others do the same for themselves.
Fen connects deeply with the universe through their relationship with a sacred land in the Appalachians of North Carolina, and shares messages here and elsewhere. When not in the woods, they can be found on Facebook and Patreon.
If you feel led and are able, you can support Fen's work in any of these ways:
You can also contribute to the work of reconnecting with yourself and the world in any or all of these ways:
Stand in front of a mirror, look in your eyes, and say, "I love you." Repeat daily for as long as it takes
Send your love to the trees and stones and water and Earth
Spend time in quiet meditation with a plant or stone person, and listen for messages
Clean up litter in your neighborhood and/or engage in other acts of environmental restoration
Build a personal relationship with the plants and animals in your area by spending time with them and listening for their messages and responding to their needs
Reconnect with your own strength and power and truth via meditative practice such as yoga, guided meditation, chanting, drumming, dance, or any other tool that feels right and helps you ground and connect
Engage in this community and/or other communities committed to re-establishing our right relationship with ourselves and the earth
Wherever you are, on your journey and in your life, may you be well, may you be at peace, and may you always find the next good step.