I am one of the millions of millennials waking up to the undeniable truth of how very unspecial I am.
Growing up in the age of self-esteem had a profound impact on this privileged white girl living in the Chicago suburbs. My own memories of self-esteem and a “You can do ANYTHING you put your mind to” mentality come from elementary school, where we threw a red ball to one another in a circle and said something we liked about our fellow classmates.
Kim had the coolest scrunchie. We loved Brad’s hair. Sam’s mom always packed the best lunches.
As I sat with my tray of mystery meat and lukewarm milk, I wished for Sam’s Lunchable complete with a sleeve of double stuffed Oreos with a fire in my belly that could only be known as envy. The exercise hadn’t shown me the importance of loving myself, nor did I understand the value of being grateful for what I did have. It was an exercise in validation from your peers and your teachers, fanning the fire that fueled the cut-throat nature of elementary school social hierarchy. Self-love was a vehicle for social status.
Fast forward through a decade of iceberg lettuce diets, secret binges, and hundred of hours of self-loathing, and I found that what I valued most about myself was quantifiable. A number on the scale. A jean size. A marriage certificate. A cool job. A social media following. It signified my discipline and hard work, and, more importantly, the ability to wrestle the part of me who wanted to be accepted and loved into total submission. I clung to my grit and self-discipline like life rafts. Without them, I was nobody. And being nobody felt like a death sentence.
I collected accolades and badges long after they were handing them out in Girl Scouts, yet I never felt less confident in the person I was becoming. There was no Instagram post that could cover the blemish of perpetual, low-grade self-loathing. And I didn’t know where to begin to change that narrative.
My experience mirrors millions of my peers. Self-esteem was taught as an important part of the success equation, a vehicle for achievement, a means to an end—not a means to a better relationship with yourself.
“The self-esteem craze changed how countless organizations were run, how an entire generation—millennials—was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favorably). As it turned out, the central claim underlying the trend, that there’s a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate. But that didn’t matter: For millions of people, this was just too good and satisfying a story to check, and that’s part of the reason the national focus on self-esteem never fully abated. Many people still believe that fostering a sense of self-esteem is just about the most important thing one can do, mental health-wise.” – Jesse Singal on The Cut, How the Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America
When you grow up in the era of self-help, there are a lot of pretty messages that are packaged up in the promise of transformation. Just follow steps A, B, and C and all your dreams will come true!! The weight will fall off! You’ll find $100,000 in your bank account! All you have to do is BELIEVE in yourself.
It’s not that goals are out of reach; it is that very few of us know how to look inside ourselves to see the value that has always been within.
Self-love is being at peace with where you are RIGHT NOW. . . . Rather than looking in the mirror and finding one thing you like, I would challenge you to think about one thing that isn’t tied to age, money, mobility, or social status.
Self-love is being at peace with where you are RIGHT NOW. For me, that meant being really grateful for the manifestation of Kate Arends Peters, forty pounds heavier than she was at 18 at an age she never imagined ever reaching.
Rather than looking in the mirror and finding one thing you like, I would challenge you to think about one thing that isn’t tied to age, money, mobility, or social status. I’ll go first.
I love my unshakable empathy.
I love my inherent kindness.
I love my drive to help others.
I love my love for beauty.
I love my playful curiosity.
I love my sense of humor.
Without those traits, I’m not me. Forty pounds up or down, my value won’t expire or increase with whatever I gain or lose. With or without my marriage, my business, my children, my income, my friendships, my family—I will always be these things: empathetic, kind, helpful, curious, funny, seeking beauty in the world.
If you are tired of fighting to keep what inevitably will slip away, I invite you to wear the things you cannot quantify like a shade of lipstick. Like a great pair of jeans. Like that Ivy League email address. Like that family name. Like the money in your savings account. Like something no one can take away from you.
When you find the freedom of self-love—the kind of love that can’t be taken away with age or status—you begin to see the world differently. You see the invaluable importance of your fellow humans. You recognize a spark in a stranger. You see beyond the clothes, the stature, the status symbols. You find less relief in screaming about how unfair the world is (which won’t make it any less untrue) and begin to look at how you are a part of that equation. You start taking care of your own messes. You begin to hold yourself accountable. You do good work. You do that work without the need for applause, without righteousness, without the need to seen.
Self-love is undeniably part of your own self-help journey. But it requires the painful and uncomfortable process of letting go of the ways we found relief and joy that were harmful and cyclical. Sometimes it requires a breakdown. Sometimes it requires us to make tough choices in our relationships with friends and family. Sometimes we feel like Bambi, completely new in our aging bodies, trying to find our footing.
So if you are finding yourself left with no one but the voice of your inner critic, you’re moving in the right direction. You’ve come to the fork in the road. You either love the one you are with, or let your self-worth continue to be defined by a broken system.
So if you are finding yourself left with no one but the voice of your inner critic, you’re moving in the right direction. You’ve come to the fork in the road. You either love the one you are with, or let your self-worth continue to be defined by a broken system. I have a feeling if you’re still reading this, the future is going to be filled with a lifetime of freedom to be fully who you are, loving all that you have to offer.
These days, I live with a lot less drama in my head. I’m happy that Sam had a childhood filled with the best school lunches the 90s could deliver. There is a lot less time spent justifying my worth and a lot more time creating a life around the gifts that make me, me.
Kate is currently learning to play the Ukulele, much to the despair of her husband, kids, and dog. Follow her on Instagram at @witanddelight_.