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Unconditional Self-Love Lives and Grows in the Little Moments of Trauma Recovery

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Editor's Note

This has been republished unaltered from Atoosa Rubenstein’s free Substack newsletter, Unedited. You can get her weekly emails by subscribing here.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Every week we’re going to get into self-love in a real way…not a “meme” way. Get ready for everything blocking your path to fall away. Our journey starts now…


You’re back! No, wait…I’m back! Still not right…We’re back! Yes. We’re back!

You may be wondering WTF I’ve been doing for the past 13 or 14 years. Well, the simple answer is I’ve been mothering. After leaving Seventeen, I had 3 children of my own (Angelika, age 12 and Avis & Avalon, 8-year-old twins). But the real answer is I’ve been trying to mother myself. When we were in touch last, the truth of my life was somewhat darker than it appeared on the Editor’s Letter page. I’ll let that story unfold as we get reacquainted in this letter every week. But the point is, this time, I’m going to be unedited because you’re mature enough, I’m (finally) mature enough and frankly, I owe it to both of us to be honest and share everything I’ve learned the hard way.

Photo of Atoosa Rubenstein's children. On the left is Atoosa posing with Angelika. In the middle is Avalon, and on the right is Atoosa posing with Avis. Their names are below each photo

Like, let’s start here: Have you ever struggled with this idea of self-love?

To me, “love yourself” always seemed like an idea that lived somewhere over there. I mean…it’s not like I HATED myself or anything. But self-love sounded like some heady concept that was good in theory but it just never quite landed. But girlllllllll…I get it now and I want to keep talking about it together until you totally get it too (if you don’t already). I struggled with the QUALITY of my self-love. I just constantly abandoned myself. It could be bad food choices, the choice to stay up too late, beat myself up for mistakes… OH, and I was an expert in bleaching red flags white in relationships (still sorta am…). To be discussed in detail, I promise (I just vomited a little in my mouth!). I suspect you have your own list of how you may abandon yourself. But we learn how to do it as babies from our moms (who, in most cases, have the best intentions).

Think about it: We are wholly dependent on how our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. loved and learned how to love. A mother’s (please substitute father if you had two dads) unconditional love, teaches her baby self-love. But here’s the conundrum: You can’t love someone else (even your child) unconditionally if you don’t love yourself unconditionally because you’ll always be wanting something from your beloved to fill that self-love hole in your heart. (Think about how your parents may have pushed for certain friends, activities, grades, colleges, career paths, all within the context of “What’s in your best interest” but ultimately in many cases it was about what would make THEM feel better, safer, more comfortable, etc because of their own lack of self-love.) So if most of our mothers didn’t get unconditional love, how can they give it and teach it to us? I mean…We learn math, reading, driving, even how to style our hair more adequately than how to love ourselves, right? There’s no required class. It takes someone like you to say WAIT! I’m not treating myself with unconditional love – let me slow this train down and figure this shit out once and for all. And bang – welcome to my life. This is where I’m at.

It’s totally fine (and, frankly, pretty standard) if you didn’t receive that perfect unconditional love since birth – the path to self-love can also be paved by making all the wrong turns at first: Learning it by abandoning ourselves for a relationship, a job, a sense of how we should look or who we should love….and being devastated by the outcome. Let your despair, your grief, your tears fill the river that floats you home to yourself. That’s my invitation to you.

And sister, it’s a practice. Like, as I walked home today after dropping my daughter off at school, I was struck by a deep yearning, in that moment, to have a man walking next to me, holding my hand. At first, I was like, “Oh damn, Atoosa, no! What do you need a man for? You are amazing! Come on!” But then I realized that’s how I had been mothered. I would express a desire and be told I didn’t really need it. And from there I developed my own judgmental inner voice that would shut down my desires and have me focus on “more important things.” See how subtle it is? You would think telling yourself you’re amazing is self-love – but not if you’re shutting down your authentic feelings. It’s in those moments we need to show up for ourselves with unconditional love.

So this morning, once I caught myself in the middle of my You-Got-This-Girl speech, I stopped and instead visualized myself walking down the street with one hand holding 12-year-old Atoosa’s hand and my other hand holding 8-year-old Atoosa’s. I really felt them using the depths of my creative mind. (You have the same creative mind and that felt sense is important.) And I said in my heart, “I’m here, Atoosa. I’ve always been here. I’m the only one you need and I will never leave you. I am here. I am here. I am here.” And I “squeezed” their hands. That was the message I didn’t get when I was a kid and a young part of me is still seeking that unconditional love, (in this case I was craving it from a man) but I can create my own self-sustaining system of love.

You may be wondering why I chose those ages for my practice this morning. (And again, you gotta practice. That’s how the muscle gets strong.) Not only are those the ages of my children, but 8 and 12 are critical ages that I was sexually abused by my much-older cousins. The first time was at age 8 but then it really intensified at age 12 and continued for years. It’s not lost on me that I’m “back” in conversation with you when my own children are at those critical ages. I regret not telling you about the incest when I was at CosmoGIRL! and Seventeen. I just didn’t have the emotional musculature to be open about it back then. I do now.

And that, my dear friend, is how we start the long walk home. Reclaiming the parts of ourselves – our younger selves – that were abandoned by often very well-intentioned but not deeply connected parents and being that source of unconditional love for ourselves. And not just as a one-time grand gesture today because you read this and felt inclined to try. Unconditional love lives and grows in the little moments. It’s the walk to school or work every day. It’s stroking your own belly and whispering words of support: “I’m here and I’m staying with you until you feel safe” the instant you’re feeling worried about something. It’s showing up over and over and over…for yourself. And forgiving yourself when you fall short. Work in progress, girl. Work in progress.

And eventually we fill in the cracks left by old programming from our parents that we need certain grades, colleges, jobs, weight, types of friends or significant others, money, fill-in-the-blank in order to be whole or worthy. But I have always been whole. I just didn’t get the memo because my mom didn’t, and her mom didn’t, and her mom didn’t and so on.

So here’s the memo, my sister. You are whole. I am whole. Let’s walk the path to realizing our wholeness together. It starts here. It took me a lot of fucking years to get it. That’s where I was while you’ve been growing up and becoming my peer…a grownup human. I was also finally becoming a grownup human. So, let’s start Earth School together. I will tell you everything I’ve learned, and I have no doubt you will be teaching me, too. Ask me absolutely anything about your life, my life, life in general. And let’s fucking crack this self-love code for real. You in?

Email me your life questions for this newsletter. And remember, I’m here for you 24/7, as always at

xo atoosa

Image via Atoosa Rubenstein

Originally published: November 15, 2021
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