Why I Couldn't Write a Love Letter to Myself Without Feeling Shame


A couple of weeks ago, To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) challenged people to write a love letter to themselves, and my first thought was clear and concise:

Nope. Buckets of nope.

I love writing, and I love encouraging people to love themselves, so the intensity of my reaction caught me off-guard. This seemed like the perfect little assignment, so what exactly was my problem? I sat there, dumbfounded and more than a little uneasy. I could dig deeper — which could get ugly — and figure out what was going on, or I could totally pretend that I hadn’t seen TWLOHA’s challenge and just go on about my day. I went to scroll down to the next item in my feed when I realized that I couldn’t “un-feel” that visceral reaction; this wasn’t going to go away. I grimaced and grabbed my journal and some coffee, sought out a quiet corner and began to process.

Why did writing myself a love letter bother me so deeply? Did I love myself? Sure. I mean, I thought so. I didn’t hate myself, and that was a world away from where I used to be. I at least liked myself enough to think that I’d want to be friends with me, if I wasn’t already me. So if love wasn’t the problem, what was?

This picture popped into my head of me writing a letter, the cursive flowing across the page as I filled up lines with adjectives talking about how great I was. That was the moment it hit me; writing a love letter felt exactly like writing my annual performance report at work. Those performance reports are always wordsmith-ed to make it sound as though a person not only walks on water, but they led 500 other people in walking on water too, and they saved the organization enough money to pay off the national debt in the process. Writing my performance report makes me feel like I’m selling myself, and I tend to want a shower afterward, because gross.

I didn’t want anything I wrote to myself to be remotely like that. Love letters are beautiful, almost magical things. To string words into sentences that somehow communicate why a person loves another is a spell in and of itself. Maybe I didn’t feel worthy of that magic, or perhaps that kind of enchanted communication seemed meant for two hearts and not just one writing to itself.

I realized that I would believe every word of a love letter written to me by someone else, but I would feel arrogant and conceited if I did the same for myself. Could I trust my own words? What if I wrote the wrong things? What if I loved myself for the wrong reasons? Were there right reasons to love myself, and did I know them? If I knew them, did I actually love myself for them? The line of questioning became absurd and vaguely familiar, and as I asked them, my face suddenly became very hot and my chest tightened a bit. The word iridescent flashed across my brain as I realized this wasn’t all that different from trying to figure out the “right” favorite color to have as a kid. I recognized the sensation immediately, and I was stunned when I made the connection: to write a love letter to myself felt risky, and the potential to somehow be wrong in what I wrote drove a feeling of shame before I had even jotted down a syllable. It was fine to encourage others to love themselves; it was fine to be loved by someone else. It was even totally acceptable to say that I loved myself. But get into the details about why I might be worthy of that love, and I might be wrong. Wrong. Bad. Judged. Shameful.

That was it. The source of my adamant refusal to write myself a love letter had been discovered. I didn’t feel better; instead, I was livid. I wasn’t sure who to be mad at, but the fact that shame existed in this context seemed like a valid reason to be angry. But being pissed off wasn’t going to solve anything, and it wasn’t going to make the weird “shame monster” go away. So I did the only thing I could think of.

I flipped to a blank page and started to write…

Dear Jessie,

First, I love that you prefer “Jessie,” even though you’ve been using “Jessica” for years. “Jessie” is who you were long before you were Brudjar or Short SKATE or any military rank, and I adore the relaxed familiarity that comes with your nickname and those who use it.

I love that on the spectrum of smoking hot messes, you are downright radioactive. That’s part of your charm. You are real and honest about your mess and you’d walk away from this sweet career you’ve built if it ever demanded that you be anything less than your messy, authentic self.

I love that you bare your scars — some deep, some weathered, some so fresh they might still be wounds. You show them unreservedly, so that others might avoid scars of their own or at least be unashamed of the ones they have.

You’re a forced extrovert by day but a confirmed introvert at heart. In spite of your need for time to yourself, you cannot bear the thought of anyone feeling alone, lost, left out, or hopeless on this journey called life. If you could spend every waking minute telling people they aren’t alone and that hope absolutely exists, I think you would do it.

I love that you experience life and feel emotion in ways always amplified with the same adverb: too much, too deeply, too greatly. You put those feelings on a shelf to do your job, but you inevitably circle back to take them down, unwrapping the dubious gift left by and for your heart and soul. Profound feeling is your birthright; to be any less would be a betrayal of the very essence of who you are.

The intensity with which you feel and love and live makes you an open target, and while you still feel wounds far more deeply than you will admit, you haven’t closed yourself off. You have consciously chosen to risk those wounds rather than become bitter. It doesn’t always make sense — from a self-preservation perspective, it makes none — but I’m not sure you could actually survive if you boarded up that beating heart of yours. Again, you certainly wouldn’t be you, and I love that you are so recklessly committed to being you.

Part of your unfettered feeling comes from a desire to be an example to Abby. I love that you want so desperately to be a good mom and you worry constantly about how your choices will impact her. Here’s the reality: you’re a good mom. Some days, you’re a great mom. Abby is secure in the fact that she’s loved, that you believe in her and that you’re proud of her. She’s happy, healthy and resilient. You’ve spent the last few years walking through fire to make sure she’d come out unscathed and you’ve done a pretty good job. Don’t sweat the small stuff, Jessie; you’ve got this.

I love that you seek out beautiful things and that sunrises, sunsets, rainbows and starry nights still make you cry. You’ve been storing up and holding onto these encounters with beauty for years, unsure of how to express the raw joy and awe that comes from such things. But you’ve been finding ways to channel all of that into creating. You have shed that people pleasing skin you’ve been walking around in your whole life, and your creativity has blossomed. You don’t always belong in the analytical corner you’ve painted yourself into, convinced that creativity was the domain of the free spirits in your life. You can be both — you are both — and that happiness radiating from you when you are making music or writing is telling. I love that you’ve found it; don’t bury it, but by all means, share it!

I love that you are fiercely loyal, often to a fault. I love that your faith still runs deep after all these years, even if you no longer fit the church girl mold that you once did. That’s OK. Jesus loves you anyway, and so do I. And maybe that makes it OK for other people who don’t quite fit the picture perfect Christian model either. If Jesus loves you, He most certainly loves them!

You’re insecure about so much of your body; you always have been, and there are some molds you just won’t ever fit into. But your eyes — those are my favorite feature. They are shades of brown that resemble different hues of honey, depending on your mood, and they betray your every deeply felt emotion. (You are a terrible liar because of this, and that’s a wonderful thing.)

Jessie, you’ve come a long way down a hard road, and I couldn’t be prouder. You don’t have it all figured out; you never will. But your heart is still open — to others, to yourself, to faith, to love, to hope. I love that. I love you. I love you. I love you. Don’t forget that.

Always,

Jessie

Friends, do you have it in you to write your own love letter to yourselves?

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