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Learning to Embrace Self-Love After Years of Internalized Ableism

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

I’m extremely fortunate — I have a family who constantly shows me love, friends who never fail to remind me how much they love me, and a boyfriend who makes me feel like the most unconditionally loved woman in the world. But some days, I feel empty, like the love others express just can’t seem to fully sustain me. And as I look in the mirror and agonize over my appearance, berating myself for every last perceived flaw, I realize what’s missing — I’m wholly lacking in love for myself.

It isn’t difficult for me to piece together how and why I began burying myself in every cold criticism imaginable. I grew up navigating disability in a world that favors “able” bodies, and society’s subtle messages surrounding disability seeped into my life until they became all I heard.  

I learned extremely early that my body was “different” in a way that was perceived as “less valuable” to society. Several years ago, I reluctantly admitted to a therapist that I had not truly loved myself since I was just 4 years old — and that shocking admission was completely truthful. As early as kindergarten, I noticed my classmates were able-bodied, and I was most definitely not, which led to subtle ableism I spent years silently absorbing but was unable to fully articulate. Unraveling and combatting just over two full decades of self-hatred is a Herculean task, especially when it’s interwoven with internalized ableism.

I spent years crying myself to sleep, hating my body and myself, even though I had so many beautiful forms of love in my life. I robbed myself of the ability to fully trust others’ love, much less my own. I genuinely believed that no one — much less myself — could love me if I existed in a disabled body. I questioned every friendship and shut my friends out so they would never know that they had befriended “the disabled girl.” I feared that if they knew the truth about my body — my entire life — they would leave me.

Eventually, my self-hatred escalated to the point where I developed an eating disorder, which further complicated my ability to love myself. I believed my body had to be “flawless” in order for me to deserve others’ love and belonging — and my own love was completely out of the question. I had known myself intimately since birth, and I genuinely believed even with disordered habits and an outwardly “perfect” body, I would never be deserving of my own love. So I withheld any remnants of self-love I was tempted to feel — deriding myself until I believed I was no longer worthy of living.

In the past several years, I have tried my hardest to accept — if not love — my disability identity and the beautiful ways it has shaped me. Opening up about my health has provided me with glimmers of self-love and pure happiness, but those moments are fleeting, and before long, I find myself silently hurling disparaging words at every piece of me I have yet to fully accept. The societal pressures I learned over time seem to overpower me until any last flicker of self-love is snuffed out purely by my own will. I vacillate between yearning for my own love and believing I will never deserve it, still caught in the seemingly endless cycle that has shaped my self-perception since early childhood.

On the days when I feel emptiest, though, I know that self-love is the missing key to my lasting happiness. I can try to deny the truth in an attempt to deprive myself of the love I truly deserve, but I can’t escape my desire for self-love for long. As I work to dismantle my lifetime of self-hatred and replace it with radical self-love, I wonder if I will ever fully love myself, but I know how to quell the emptiness within me. In my fight to eradicate my powerful inner critic, I hope that the simple awareness that I deserve to love myself is enough.

Originally published: March 7, 2022
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