We’re heading out of pride month, which is why now is the obvious time for me to finally get around to talking about pride (good job me) even though I started working on this post back in May. I have a weird relationship with pride. I feel fiercely proud of the communities that I belong to: I have queer pride and autistic pride and nerdy pride. But feeling proud of particular accomplishments or who I am? I doubt that will ever happen. I’m not sure it needs to.
And that’s part of what I want to talk about: how necessary is pride? How do you build the kind of pride that supports healthy self-esteem? How does pride relate to self-esteem and self-love? What should our goals be when it comes to developing these positive feelings towards ourselves, and how realistic is it to expect something like self-love in a society that just shits all over you if you aren’t a white, cis, dude?
Let’s start by talking about toxic positivity. That sounds like an oxymoron but it’s not. Toxic positivity refers to the way that some people demand only happy attitudes. It’s rampantly common on social media, and is something that gets forced on neurodivergent and disabled people (see: the only disability is a bad attitude). It says that you shouldn’t focus on bad things, feel negative feelings, or share things that could be construed as complaining or whining. It says everyone needs to love themselves, and if you just tried harder you can be happy and positive.
What all of that misses is that some people have really good reasons not to be positive and to have low self-esteem. Some of us have brains that literally don’t function correctly to have good self-esteem. Many people live in bodies that cause them pain and distress on a regular basis. Everyone who isn’t cis, white, thin, able-bodied, etc. gets constant messages that they are wrong and their bodies are wrong. So it’s real and honest to have some negative feelings about yourself and your body. It’s a fight to have self-love or pride. Feelings of sadness and hurt and pain are reasonable feelings and they deserve attention and time. People should feel comfortable sharing negativity when they need to.
With all that in mind, if you’re female, disabled, a person of color, fat, or any other demographic that is constantly told how bad they are for existing, do you need self-love? What’s the honestly healthy and reasonable way to deal with self-esteem?
I no longer think that it’s useful for me to think about loving myself. It’s a goal that I doubt I will ever reach, I live in a society that is constantly fighting to get me NOT to believe it, and it’s simply a fact that my body is not valued in this society (although as a white, cis, relatively thin lady I have it pretty good). I’m too tired to fight that over and over and over and it just doesn’t seem worth it. It’s like living in an abusive relationship and trying to convince yourself that you are actually loved.
That being said, some people find the process of loving themselves and feeling pride in themselves incredibly powerful. I will not deny that being bold and happy and proud in the face of oppression is powerful. It’s not just about you: it’s about showing others that it’s possible, it’s about actively, every second of your life, questioning the ideals that have been shoved down your throat your whole life. For some, this work is doable, important, and radical.
For me, it comes down to effort in and return out: how much work do I need to do in order to feel some level of self love? What do I get out of it? My personal calculation has come down to say that “self tolerance” is more reasonable, but your equation may be different.
With that in mind, how do you actually go about feeling more proud of yourself and improving your self-esteem? If you want to love yourself, what can you do to make that happen?
The thing that has surprised me the most is how big of an impact the people around me have on my self-esteem. This has been true on two levels: the friends that I have and how they respect my needs, boundaries, and accommodations as well as the communities I expose myself to and the ideals they uphold.
I started with the first level because finding communities and being intentional about what images you expose yourself to is hard and more abstract. Other people (while also challenging) are also a bit more literal.
Friends are damn hard. Finding good friends, especially as an adult is hard. I’m about to make a recommendation that might seem real shitty to a lot of people who struggle with socializing: be picky. Friends who ignore your boundaries, friends who make you worried that you’re saying the wrong thing, friends who won’t allow you accommodations are not good friends. When I first started dealing with my mental health I made a concerted effort to be social more often and I canceled plans with people at least once a month because of mental health issues. I needed the accommodation of flexibility, patience, and support. My friends were willing to provide that, and because they never got upset when I canceled, I learned that my needs were valid and I was acceptable as is. I highly recommend learning about how to set boundaries and make requests, and practicing as often as possible because that will create the healthiest, most supportive relationships.
I found friends who understood when I said “I cannot tolerate chewing noises, could we turn on some music” if we were out together, and friends who never told me I was acting weird or talking weird. Friends who would listen when I told them about how cool octopuses were (and how they can taste with their skin). It’s HARD to find these people, and it can seem exhausting and impossible when you’re still looking, but keep trying.
My strategies have been to find people with similar interests to my own, to find one friend who is accepting and nurturing and then meet their other friends, and STEAL THEM FOR YOUR OWN, or to work hard on establishing one relationship at a time that you feel solid and comfortable with. Even 1-2 people who are validating, supportive, and accepting can make a huge difference. That for me was the major turning point from “I am a burden on everyone who doesn’t do enough and is ugly and bad and awful” to “I’m ok. Asking for what I need doesn’t hurt anyone. Being different doesn’t hurt anyone.”
There could easily be a whole series on building healthy relationships and finding people who respect your needs, but for this post we’ll have to settle for that down and dirty overview. It seems odd that you would need other people to build your self love and pride, but the environment you live in makes a significant difference to what you internalize, and if you’re always around people who accept you, build you up, and treat you well, you’ll start to think that’s what you deserve.
Speaking of internalizing things, let’s talk about media and culture. Your direct friends aren’t the only people who send you messages about what’s valued, what’s acceptable, and who you should be. You also get those messages from the utter deluge of media and information we get every day. Lucky for you, the internet means that you get some control over what types of images you see every day.
Curate your internet experience. No it’s not an echo chamber, it’s so easy to hear fatphobic or ableist or racist bullshit, you’ll get it no matter what. Intentionally follow people on social media who are like you and who celebrate themselves. Work to find media that doesn’t disparage people like you (e.g. I try not to watch things that make jokes at the expense of fat people being fat). Find hashtags or movements that celebrate the things you find difficulty being proud of (for me it was the neurodiversity movement and body positivity movements). Spend time looking at images of people being happy and (fat/black/disabled/trans/etc.), read articles where people talk about the things they love about themselves or how they are building community.
I have also found it incredibly helpful to find or build spaces where it’s taken as a given that you and your traits are valued. One of the most positive influences in my life is a Facebook group run by autistics that says in the rules that autistic ways of playing, communicating, and being are to be valued and respected. This gets played out in all the posts and interactions, and it feels like a place where I can finally breathe. Give yourself those spaces.
Sometimes this might mean cutting out media you enjoy. I really loved trash-watching America’s Next Top Model, but guess what? It gave me fuel to hate myself for my body. I stopped and I feel so much better. Be aware of what you’re learning from media so that you can choose it intentionally.
There are definitely additional things you can do that involve gratitude, challenging negative beliefs and myths, reminding yourself of what you do well, and so on, but these are two that I rarely have heard and which made all the difference for me.