A month ago, I was talking to my best friend in the early hours of the morning. I was in Yorkshire and through the window in the kitchen, the framed navy landscape outside was being caressed with autumn rain. I sat on a lopsided wooden table and ate slices of floury bread from a paper bag, while I listened to her talk about how she learned to love herself.
Perhaps due to the well-fostered culture of overwork, ‘self care’ or ‘loving yourself’ has been subject to a lot of media attention. Articles promoting good sleep, technology detox and better eating habits are popping up in newspapers, in addition to the popularity these health-focused ideas have online. Yet, that wasn’t always the way. The predecessor to the recent trend of ‘self care’ is an unhealthy online culture of self-deprecation, a stubborn refusal to change and ‘validation’.
These terms came to mean a lot as they entered my everyday vocabulary as a young teenager. The Oxford Dictionary defines self-deprecation as being ‘modest about or critical of oneself, especially humorously so’, and validation as ‘recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile’. The fundamental core of these ideas is toxic, and had a huge impact on my life as I grew alongside my friends.
For years as we grew up, we desperately disliked ourselves. Self-deprecating jokes became a sort of coping mechanism for us, a way of communicating our deep unhappiness without being serious and emotional, because the person listening was never quite sure whether it was a joke or not. This is obviously a terrible coping mechanism, as it both reinforces your own terrible ideas about yourself and establishes your self-loathing as the norm, (both in and out of conversations) on top of being both upsetting and awkward for the person you’re talking to! This habit would be easier to break if not for how it used to be everywhere online – Jokes about being chronically unlovable, suicidal and a waste of space littered every platform, and that made bad habits easier to justify; it was only a joke and, after all, everyone spoke like that.
What I should have done, as well as the many people in my class who acted similarly should have done, was find someone in school to talk to, and make an active effort to change my unhealthy mindset. Talk to someone who professionally understood what I was going through. I did not do that. The indulgent and dangerous culture in certain parts of the internet had created a chronic distrust of councillors (and adults in general), which led to a romanticisation of ‘dealing’ with your problems on your own, or relying on friends – with just as unhealthy mindsets – to validate your misery.
This all meant that implementing the change in my thought patterns that would help me and my friends to feel better was difficult. Change is an incredibly difficult thing. The brain is wired to become comfortable with the status quo, and in a way, feeling awful is easier than challenging and attempting to change the way you feel and act. The moment of maturity when you realise it is no-one’s job to drag you out of the metaphorical ‘hole in the sidewalk’ is perfectly encapsulated in the third verse of Portia Nelson’s poem, ‘Autobiography in Five Chapters’
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit
My eyes are open; I know where I am;
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
For me and my best friend, this sense of maturity arrived when we finally learned to accept ourselves, and accept ourselves in a productive way. Learning the painful lesson that we were not owed endless reassurance that we were ‘perfect just the way we are’ took time, and it took time for us to learn how to change ourselves for the better. This was made even more difficult by the very centre of ‘validation’- the idea that your self-worth should be something dictated by external factors rather than internal; it should be up to other people to make sure you are feeling good about yourself, not you. However, as good friends do, we helped each other along the journey. She taught me the value of standing up for what I believe in, how to take critique better and how to recognise unhealthy relationships. In return I taught her how to understand differing viewpoints, the importance of healthy coping mechanisms and how to be more emotionally vulnerable. And we both taught each other how to believe we have value, not just because people tell us we do, but because we know it to be true.
This was a hard-won truth, though, and it didn’t have to be that way. The huge psychological influence of social media shouldn’t be ignored; mental health problems are on the rise (depression in fourteen year old girls has doubled over the last decade), and although I still value my experience, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and I think online culture should be carefully considered when discussing this worrying trend. We stopped frequenting the places where this culture was most prevalent, but the ideas are still there – spoken by younger people – and its still the same message. I find it very frustrating how difficult it is to warn people against the traps I fell for.
Luckily, articles on mental health and self-love are gaining traction and awareness, and I’m learning a lot, from how certain unhealthy foods can act as ‘triggers’ for low mood to how, even though I disliked it, exercise was very important and I should make time for it (I also learned that making time for it in your own way is important, so I’m brushing up on my dad dancing skills!) Thankfully, these new, healthy ideas have become a solid foundation for my everyday life. When things got difficult, I could think as well as feel. It wasn’t that the bad times didn’t happen, it was just that I was more equipped to deal with them.
Once, a friend wrote a quote from our favourite podcast on the wall,
It will pass.
as with life,
as with all things,
It will Pass
And I still find it unbelievably reassuring.
It’s learning to find these small ways to find solace through life, meaning you never feel lonely when you’re alone. And, in my opinion, loneliness is when your mind is not also your home.