By Jennifer Ann Butler
I looked in the mirror this evening and the first face I made at myself was one of disgust. There I was, in PJ pants, a baseball tee, messy hair in a bun, no makeup, ungroomed eyebrows, and dirty glasses. But I didn’t walk away. I also didn’t correct the reaction. I didn’t say, “NO, Jen. Be NICE to yourself. GAH.” And force myself to say something kind. Because that’s fake. And, frankly, that’s almost worse than the initial face of disgust. At least that reaction was authentic. Even if it wasn’t healthy or kind, it was authentic. It stemmed from somewhere in my psyche and it deserves light. It deserves attention and affection and expression just as the rest of my emotions and thoughts and opinions about myself do.
See, we’re all onto something with there being body image issues and us needing to love ourselves more, but I feel as though we’re going about it in the wrong way. Oftentimes, we’re combatting the issues rather than offering love and tenderness. By faking it until we make it, we are ignoring the emotions that are so desperately vying for our attention. From my [many] hours of research on self-love and self-acceptance, the main approach to increasing self-confidence seems to be through avoidance. Ignore the bad emotion; concentrate on a good one. Who decided which emotions were good and which were bad? What about making an effort to understand the roots of the emotions instead? What does that look like?
What I’ve learned through asking myself these questions is that we are more than who we are in this very moment. I am more than Jen Butler at 9:54PM on a Sunday night. I am also the Jen Butler from exactly four months ago, when my relationship surprisingly and suddenly crumbled, spending the entire night switching between inhaling the scent of my then-boyfriend’s Hawaiin shirt and reminding myself that yes, I could breathe, despite what my anxiety attack was telling me. I am the Jen Butler who went to the MRI and PET Scan by myself in February of 2014 when the doctors thought my melanoma had returned and metastasized in my brain. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want anyone to think I was overreacting. I am the Jen Butler from December 29th, 2011 who stood and watched as my horse was injected with a potent drug that ceased his heartbeat because I didn’t want him to go through the pains of surgeries and be confined to a stall and fed through a tube. I am the Jen Butler who swallowed a bottle full of prescription pills in March of 2011 in an effort to end my life because of how much of a burden I believed my presence to be. I am the 24-year-old Jen who listened intently as my then-boyfriend drunkenly told me of the stripper’s breasts he’d fondled that evening, afraid that if I showed the pain I felt that I would scare him away. I am the 21-year-old Jen who patiently listened to my then-boss’s wife call me a laundry list full of excuses when I explained that my daily retail sales were lower than normal due to having rolled my Trailblazer four times (or five times?) across a few lanes of I-75 the night prior and having a resulting concussion. I didn’t argue. I didn’t stand up for myself. I listened. I even agreed. I remained in my comfortable discomfort of voiceless victimhood.
Not only am I the Jen of my sad times. I’m also the Jen Butler who graduated college with a 4.0 GPA. I’m the Jen who had my first play produced. I’m the Jen who first got my horse on Thanksgiving Day when I was eleven years old. My mom made a carrot cake for me and Chance, my new horse. It was such a beautiful time and I was so thrilled. I still have that piece of me. Chance’s sudden death did not erase that Jen. Perhaps his dying is a more recent memory with fresher emotions to be felt, but that giddy eleven year old’s excitement is still something I have access to.
Having defined myself by comparisons to others and based off of the opinions of others has robbed ALL of these Jen Butlers of a voice… And of expression. So, when looking at my reflection in the mirror, I recognize that I am not just a 28.973-year-old chick who looks frumpy. I am all of the Jens I’ve ever been. I am thousands of beautiful memories (a lot of which were painful) all in this one package. And yea, my skin wouldn’t be so scarred if I hadn’t gone through four surgeries, but I learned so much from those surgeries. Each of these scars has its own story. The Jen of those times is ready to speak my truth to anyone who asks. I’ve just realized that I’m the person who needs to ask. I needn’t wait for some fabulous and sensitive dude to come and give me permission to feel my feelings and tell my stories. I needn’t pay a therapist $X to pull my painful past out of me. Because, when it comes down to it, I don’t need to be heard by others in order to feel full or healed. In fact, I could tell the same depressing story about any one of my scars fifty times and still not feel healed. I need to listen to myself. I need to truly hear myself and hold space for the emotions I didn’t process or express at those times. I need to be the one to retrace my breadcrumbs and find each injured Jen patiently awaiting her (my) turn to speak. I need to give each of those Jens a voice.
And that’s what I’m doing. I imagine it will take a while. I don’t care, because each time I sit with pain or self-judgment or discomfort and accept it, I see that it isn’t something to be avoided. It’s a door. Behind that door is a sweet, ailing, fragmented bit of me. Even when I feel angry, if I sit with it long enough, I realize that the anger is a defense mechanism to protect the depressed and lonely me, sobbing on the floor and waiting for someone to pick up the pieces.
Do you have any of those memories? Lying on the ground or crying in the car and just praying to whomever or whatever would listen that someone would show up… But then no one did? I realize now that anyone else showing up would have been a distraction. The ONE person we need to show up is our individual self. There is a tender understanding and acceptance and curiosity that is required in any healthy relationship, so why avoid it in the relationship with ourselves?
It was hard at first, to offer myself the same tenderness I offer others. It has taken—and continues to take—practice, persistence, and patience. But what I’ve found is that once I walk through that doorway and sit on the ground with the sobbing or yelling or numb younger version of myself and say, “I’m here to listen to you,” it doesn’t take long to kiss and make up. Even now in my life, there’s little a simple apology won’t fix with me. Most of the time, all I require is a person taking the time to listen to and empathize with my side of the story for my walls to lower. Now I get to apply that knowledge to the conversations with myself.
When I experience an emotionally-charged reaction, I now ask: “Who is saying this?” Then, I listen. I listen to see which injured Jen Butler it is so I can give myself the voice I didn’t think I had at that time. I am strong enough to do that now.
So… The Jen who thinks I’m ugly and frumpy and not good enough: who is she?
I just sat with my eyes closed and concentrated on what it felt like to embody that ugliness and frumpiness… The not-good-enough-ness. I sat with it, clearing my mind and focusing on what it felt like in my body. It felt like tingles in my face. While focusing on the physicality of the emotion, I was transported to a memory of when I was 18 and managing a tanning salon in Smyrna with a handful of gorgeous and stylish girls working with me. (My boss once gave me a $400 gift card as payment for a training manual I had rewritten, with the attached rule of my being required to buy “sexier” clothes with the money. That’s the kind of place it was.) One day, a new customer walked out of the salon after her session, saying she’d be right back. I stood next to two employees, both of which were thinner than me, had fun hairstyles, and wore their makeup just right. I was in the same black work pants and black Walmart wedges I wore every day, with my hair up in a messy bun. I hadn’t brushed my hair in almost two weeks. The customer walked back in and held her closed fist out to me. I put my hand out, palm up, ready to receive my gift. There, in my hand, lay a pile of miniature bottles of Differen gel, a topical acne treatment. I stared at the bottles with this horrified feeling as if I’d just been seen in period panties in the middle of the mall. The woman then said something along the lines of, “It’ll help with your acne.” With that, she left.
I didn’t let that Jen feel the pain or express how rude I thought that was. Why? Because I was in the role of a professional manager and customer service representative. I went into my office and breathed back my tears, knowing this was not the time or place to show them. But then I forgot about that memory until now, ten years later. So for ten fucking years I have been waiting in that office for someone to burst through the door and hold me and tell me what a dick move it was for that lady (even though she had great intentions) to approach me in such a way. And then just let me cry. And wail.
I’m going to be that person now. Now that I’m aware of this piece of myself, I’m going to go shine light on it and give it the love and acceptance I deserve. I will not hide from my disgust or pretend it doesn’t exist. I will not turn the other cheek and chant “I am beautiful” repeatedly until I create enough serotonin to feel happier. (That’s the same thing that happens with a shot of liquor, by the way.)
Happiness is not always the answer. Being human is the answer. An essential part of the human experience—or at least how I want to experience being human—is to accept and allow every kind of emotion, healthily process it, and then lovingly release it. Emotions are messages, after all. The more painful the emotion, the more urgent the message. I’m finally to a point of strength and comfort where I’m ready to rip open the envelope on my body image issues.
I congratulate myself for having listened to my disgust rather than ignore it.
Hey, Disgust? I love you. I appreciate you. I accept you. I am ready to listen to what you’re really saying.
Jennifer is an animal communicator, a writer, a painter, and a Michael Jackson fan who refuses to wear matching socks. Her mission in life is to help bridge the communication gap between species, generations, and within our own individual selves. She is on Instagram as @jentuitive and on Twitter as @JenniferAnnSaid. She blogs at www.jenniferannbutler.com.