It was clear from when was a very young child – and my mother might argue earlier – that I was a deeply sensitive, emotionally intelligent being. My ma has told me about each of her children after childbirth: “With each of you, I looked at both of you and saw these big, soulful eyes that seemed so old and wise.”
The natural-born tenderness was nurtured and tended to carefully, and only seemed to grow as I became more exposed to this complicated world.
My parents would have to pull me away from the television sets as I sat looking, wide-eyed and teary, because the pain of the world devastated me. I watched as Oprah’s guests would speak to the anguish of their lives, and their pain was palpable. Mama would have to comfort me hours after the program concluded.
She would say, “you can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders,” and that’s exactly how I pictured it – me carrying people on my shoulders and back, seeking to soothe them.
Of course, I don’t think my story and sensitivities are uncommon among the company I keep – queer folks of color, artists, freedom fighters, and healers. Many of us possess the gift (or the curse, depending) of deeply feeling others’ emotions and carrying their hearts as we move through a world already not designed for our survival.
As a young one, I was not only carrying the world on my shoulders, I was also seeping through the pain of my and my family’s daily life.
My parents had divorced and my father had moved out of the house, five hours away. The blow was incredible and permanent, but I didn’t fully realize it at the time.
What broke my heart the most was the pain of my mother. She masked it well, but I knew in my cells the hurt she was in. And that’s when I unconsciously became a “fixer.”
I remember waking up early on the weekends, before she got up, to fix her coffee in the mornings. I remember on her birthdays trying to gather up gifts and trinkets I found to make her happy, despite her insistence that she didn’t really like her birthday and didn’t need me to do all that.
In witnessing and attending her pain, which she never asked me to do, I was ignoring my own wounds, the pain of being abandoned, and the damaging blows to my self esteem that came as the result of being bullied daily in school.
‘i love myself’
–ism, nayyirah waheed
This neglect of myself and hyper attention on others is co-dependence, and it’s nothing new. Many of us who were socialized as female – and as Black girls in particular – learned to care for everyone else before ourselves. I watched as my single mother ground herself down in racist, patriarchal academia to provide for my brother and me. She gave selflessly to us as her mother had for her and her siblings, as generations of Black folks have in the midst of our struggles.
As a kid, and up until recent years, I would have praised the value of selflessness as “love” – and it did come from a loving heart. I would be appalled and highly irritated by the lack of consideration from those around me, quietly condemning their selfishness while still wholeheartedly supporting them.
But what I understood as selflessness, empathy, and a deep presence to the needs of others, stemmed from a hole in my heart I thought could only be filled by them, and my love for them. “Selfless” – that word itself implies a loss of any sense of self.
In my romantic relationships especially, it was (and sometimes still is) apparent. When others had boundaries or needed space to attend to themselves, I viewed this as selfishness or as a sign that I was not deserving of their love. Because I had never learned the art of caring for my own self, I quietly expected from loved ones the same love and attention I was showing them.
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And when the relationships inevitably failed – because of my co-dependence and other reasons – something amazing happened: I cared for myself like I never had before.
With no one to focus on but myself, and with a broken heart to mend, I recommitted to myself fully and vowed to never abandon my own needs again. I ate nourishing meals, got my body moving, made connections with friends, and wrote pages and pages each day. All actions I had neglected in my intense preoccupation with “taking care of” loved ones.
And I would be well. Until I started dating again, and the cycle continued.
Like many statements that call focus to the self, I always found the cliche statement “you can’t love anyone else until you learn to love yourself,” to be selfish. I don’t think that anymore, but I do get frustrated by it sometimes.
After all, as bell hooks points out in All About Love, there is no school where we learn how to love ourselves. Suggesting that the act of self-love is somehow easy and a prerequisite to loving others is over-simplistic.
But as I look at my own patterns today, and to my community of oppressed people, I see everywhere the need for a radical self-love school more and more: I see friends who cannot get out of bed to feed themselves, but will get up to help someone else. I see activists who throw themselves so fully into the struggle for liberation that they neglect themselves and their loved ones. I see myself falling into the familiar grips of co-dependence, of loss of self, too often.
Each of us who struggle with co-dependence fear turning inward because we are terrified that the hole in our hearts – often a product of childhood and emotional trauma – can never be filled.
But what can I do – me, not anyone else – what can I do to fill myself up?
I am learning. For me, the process (which I have had to revisit many times until it becomes habitual), begins with apologizing to myself for the harm that I have caused myself by my neglect. Then, I forgive myself. And then, I write out (and repeat aloud) affirmations of my inherent worthiness, of my value, of my love and compassion.
It sounds corny to me sometimes, but when I think about the act of validating myself – all on my own and not through acts of selflessness to others – it actually feels revolutionary.
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Like any relationship outside of myself, the relationship with myself is challenging and takes time, patience and, and understanding to maintain. Not only do I have to combat daily messages of self doubt, I have to write new ones each day to affirm myself, by myself:
“I am breaking old patterns that no longer serve me. I am committed to fully loving, accepting, and trusting myself,” is a favorite affirmation of mine that is scribbled at least 100 times throughout the pages of my notebooks.
Challenging self doubt and daily oppression is no easy task, which is why I offer myself certain rewards each week for crossing off items on my self care lists. And since I’ve begun this quiet, internal revolution, I’ve found that my relationships with others and to movement work as a whole is healthier, stronger, and more boundaried in the best of ways.
It is an ongoing journey, but in the words of my mama, I like to think of the task of radical self-love as a spiral: “You have a starting point, and each time you go around from that point, you have more and more knowledge.”
Re-committing to myself is the starting point, and I am learning more each day.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person with dreadlocks wrapped around their head. They are wearing a silver ankh necklace and a sleeveless brown top. They are holding a pair of pliers and they are sitting in front of a table. Source: yooperann]