A lot of us incorrectly learn, growing up, that we are responsible for the way the people around us feel. When we behave naturally we make others feel uncomfortable, and so it’s on us to suppress our natural selves in the interest of letting other people feel safe.
We learn that professional life means maintaining unsustainable tension between how we need to live and what society expects from us. We learn that social and romantic relationships require us to contort ourselves into expected shapes with no regard for what that does to us.
In short, we spend an awful lot of time participating in society on other people’s terms instead of our own. This has all sorts of obvious challenges, but I’d really like to thank the person who asked this question for framing it in a more nuanced way.
Listen: everything I’ve described above is ableism. And when you spend your life surrounded by ableism, it can be almost impossible to avoid internalizing a lot of it. What does that mean?
It means that when society tells you every day “You’re wrong, you’re not enough, you’re weird, you’re broken, you’re different, you’re not welcome,” then a part of you starts to believe it, no matter how well prepared you are.
And when we believe ourselves to be fundamentally flawed, it can be really hard to love ourselves in the way we need to do if we’re going to thrive in this life.
So, here are a few pieces of advice that I’ve managed to gather together about how to root out the internalized ableism and see myself with love and compassion despite my challenges:
- You count. You already value the well-being of people, you just need to remember that you’re people too. If there were five unhappy strangers would you bully one of them to make the other four happy? Why would that change if you’re the one being bullied? Make room for yourself, you deserve space in this world as much as anyone else.
- Stop running from your shame. Shame is a tool that other people used to make you behave in ways that made their lives more convenient. You don’t have to carry it — though knowing that and putting it down are very different things. Listen: your shame is a map to those parts of yourself that you were taught to hate. Listen to your shame, but only to get a sense of where it’s strongest — use it to find out where you need to practice loving yourself a bit more.
- Holding Space — making room for other people to express their feelings and needs is called “holding space” for them. You’re probably good at this – but ask yourself, who are the people that are holding space for you? If you are the only person witnessing yourself then it’s very hard to be yourself, let alone love yourself. Family, friends, therapists – you need SOMEONE in your life to really See You in order to be okay. If you don’t have anyone holding space for you it’s going to be much harder for you to really know yourself — and that gets in the way of loving yourself.
At the end of the day, I love myself because I understand that there has never been and there will never be an identical set of experiences, ideas and expressions. I am unique in this universe, for all its nigh-infinite complexity, and that means that I have as much to offer as anyone else.
Through therapy and intentionally developed relationships I’ve started to learn to hold space for myself, and through that I’ve come to understand who I am and what I value.
I no longer immediately shut down my own sense of what I want or need in a social interaction the way I used to – my goal is no longer to successfully pass as “normal” until the conversation ends, the way it used to be.
All of this is to say that I discovered that I’m, in fact, a person– with needs and interests and hobbies and whims; and further, that all of that is valid. It’s okay for me to have needs. And, mind-blowingly, it’s also okay for me to have whims! It’s okay to need to be seen and heard and understood. I don’t have to act like I don’t need those things.
Because ultimately, the neurotypical (NT) world is spending a lot of energy telling you that it’s not okay to be who you are. It’s just that the NT world doesn’t really have the right to tell you that, and it’s okay to laugh at it and ignore it as you become the best version of yourself that you can imagine.