Love, Me

Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.

Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.

It takes one to know one.

When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.

(Cringe.)

I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?

(Shudder.)

My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned that a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.

(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)

Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.

Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.

Hm.

How can they do this? I wondered.

Could I do this?

No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.

But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”

OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!

What kind of endearments would I address myself with?

I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.

More discomfort.

But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?

So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.

But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …

I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?

Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.

Not a love letter, in other words.

In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.

Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.

It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.

It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.

Almost as bad as self-love.

Wait now, what?

It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.

And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.

Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.

Questions:

  • How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
  • If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
  • What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

In Plain Sight

It’s hunting season in Maine. Several days ago a woman was accidentally shot and killed on her own property at 10:30 in the morning by a hunter. We frequently hear shots in the neighborhood, and although we don’t allow hunting on our land, there’s nothing to prevent a hunter wandering in, attracted by the deer, game birds and waterfowl on our 26 acres.

I bought a cheap orange vest I can wear over my coat for my morning walks.

Wearing orange during hunting season is such a simple and obvious safety tactic that I didn’t think twice about doing it, but the first morning I went out with the vest on I discovered a lot of complex feelings about being so visible in the world.

Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash

The first thing I noted was how dangerously exposed I felt. I do not want to be seen by human eyes. I don’t mind if the wildlife sees me, but if they do I’m less likely to see them, so I do my best to move quietly and unobtrusively through the landscape, wearing neutral, natural colors. I stop and sit or lean against a tree for long stretches, hardly moving, watching the river and listening to the woods around me.

The orange vest shrieks, “Look at me! I’m here!” and I hate it. It’s more than just my preference to blend in to backgrounds and maintain protective camouflage. It seems a life-and-death necessity to avoid being seen.

I’ve been aware of my hypervigilance for some time now. I’ve never been comfortable in crowds. If I’m not able to position myself in a corner or with my back to something solid and watch, listen and evaluate, anxiety quickly disables me. I need to know where the exits are in any indoor space.

This is interesting, as I’m fascinated by people, and people watching is one of my favorite activities. I’ve frequently longed to be invisible, to watch and listen freely and leave no trace of my presence. If I could be invisible, I imagine I’d still get overstimulated by noise, activity and technologically-generated energy, but I’d feel safer.

The strength of my feelings as I donned the orange vest begged the question: What happens if somebody sees me? What’s so terrible?

That’s easy. Criticism happens. Judgement, abuse (verbal, emotional, physical), negative feedback happen. If I’m seen doing anything, I’m sure to be doing it wrong (according to the observer, anyway). I’m sure to disappoint. I’m sure to be inadequate or inappropriate. My clothes are wrong. I’m clearly behaving like a slut, going out on my own land in my men’s Carhartt jeans and old boots. My hair is wrong. My choices are wrong. If I’m heading for the northern boundary of our land, I should be walking the southern border. I’m too noisy. I’m in someone’s way. I’m too slow. I’m wasting my time and should be doing something more productive. I’m irresponsible. I’m lazy. I’m selfish. I’m scaring the fish. I’m scaring the birds. I’m scaring the animals. I should be ashamed of myself.

Wow. No wonder I don’t want to be seen. Who knew the perils?

I didn’t know, until my ugly orange vest dredged all this up from my swampy subconscious.

On subsequent mornings, as I’ve walked in my orange vest, I’ve thought about the tension between being seen and avoiding being seen. How can anyone be in the world without being seen, even the most self-effacing of us? Refusing to be seen is refusing any healthy human connection. How do we get hired without being seen, or accepted for college? How do we follow our creativity or passion if we’re afraid to be seen? How do we engage in face-to-face conversation or discussion, or participate in politics or as a volunteer?

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

On the other hand, how much exposure is too much? How can we avoid being seen by the shooter at the concert, in church or in the movie theater? We seem to be gradually becoming more and more captive to the Matrix, which makes us increasingly vulnerable to identity theft, technological sabotage and cyber-based terrorism.

I sometimes feel I carry protecting my privacy too far. I can’t say I regret not being on Facebook and other social media, as I’ve yet to hear about anything there that I need. On the other hand, not having a cell phone in today’s world creates a lot of problems for me. My personal issues with being seen are in the context of much wider social issues about exposure and safety. I don’t have any answers for the wider social problems. I wish I did.

For myself, though, it’s clear I need to address some of my subconscious beliefs about what will inevitably happen if I am seen. I’ve also developed a thicker skin about being criticized and judged. At this point in my life I’m really not much interested in the criticism and judgement of others. What interests me is how I feel about myself. My list of terrors about what happens if I’m seen is decades out of date, and I’ve already survived those consequences many times over. More of the same is boring rather than terrifying.

I’m stuck with my orange vest for several more weeks, and that’s OK. I’ve come to terms with it. In fact, I’m grateful to it, because it exposed some old wounds that needed attention. I’m stepping into plain sight In many ways in my life, this blog being one of the most prominent and challenging. Now I’ll practice walking this land in plain sight as well.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted