For those of you who are so sad on this Valentine’s Day, take heart. I get it, I really do. I’ve been that person desperately trying to salvage another holiday ruined by my abuser; I’ve been the woman who had to stay off social media all day on February 14th because I couldn’t bear to see those shining, adored women whose partners brought them flowers. It’s a holiday that seems to bring into sharp focus all that we don’t have. But we can change that focus, and I’m going to tell you how.
To have healthy love, we ourselves first have to be healthy.
Right now it might seem like an insurmountable task. But survivors are used to that, aren’t we? We’re the ones who strike a deal with the devil to spin straw into gold, and who believe desperately in our own alchemic powers. Only, this doesn’t require magical thinking or bargains with cave-dwelling hobgoblins to achieve. It just requires a commitment to step out of the line of fire. The more we chase that almost-love, that almost-good-enough-partner-if-only-he’d-stop-being-abusive, the more lost to ourselves we become. The further away real love actually is. So, first we have to stop. We have to realize that abuse isn’t love, just as alcoholics have to realize that they’re powerless over their addiction.
Next, we have to turn toward ourselves. I can tell you that the person I am today is not the person I’ve always been. Today I not only like and respect myself, I fully embrace the woman I am. I enjoy her company. I think she’s badass and smart, compassionate and lovable. (The person I once was would have cringed just reading that sentence.) But I didn’t get here by denying my own needs. I got here because I dared to tune into them, and started meeting them by putting myself first. Like all of you, I was raised to believe that was selfish. I had to go against all of my conditioning to start acting in this way that at first wracked me with guilt and shame. After a while, though, I got through the fire. I no longer felt guilty for taking time to get in a workout, leave work earlier, make myself good food, stop taking some people’s calls, get my nails done, take time alone. I no longer felt guilty for leaving any relationship in which I was experiencing abuse. (Partners, employers, family, and friends were not exempt; if they were abusive, they had to go, or I had to severely limit my exposure to them.)
I often think about what enabled me to do this, to swim against the stream in this way. And what always comes to me is that there was a small, stubborn corner of my soul that believed I deserved better. That corner became a room, then an entire house. I deserve better, and so do you.
To have a healthy relationship, you have to be healthy first. You can’t drag someone else into health with you–that itself is unhealthy! You can, however, walk there with your shoulders back and your head held high. Your self-love will cost you, this I promise. But after a while you will see that the cost of sacrificing that to be aligned with others who don’t view you as valuable actually extracts far more and will ravage you emotionally over time. As a result of this commitment, you may be alone for a while. If you are, I suggest you get a dog, a cat, something to love who will love you back unconditionally. Eventually, your life will then fill with kind, inspiring, non-abusive people. But you have to take many active steps to get there. You can’t passively hope your life will change, or expect your therapist (ahem) or God or your pastor or your mother to do that for you. It has to be you.
So it turns out Whitney Houston (God rest her soul) was wrong when she said that “the greatest love of all…is easy to achieve.” Poor Whitney could have used a lot more self-love, and what happened to her as a result of drug use and abusive relationships was tragic. “Learning to love yourself” may be “the greatest love of all,” but it’s nowhere near easy to achieve. But what is, that’s worthwhile? While it’s most definitely a lot of work, I have to tell you, it’s nowhere near the amount of labor it takes to hold together an abusive relationship. That is one job I’m happy I fired myself from.
So today, it’s okay to feel sad. But don’t let that current take you down. Use the power of your feelings to fuel your commitment to turn away from abuse and toward your true self.
In the meantime, sending you all love ❤