In light of it being Valentine’s Day in North America (in Colombia El Dia del Amor y La Amistad is celebrated in September), I thought I’d write about self-love. (After all, the longest relationship any of us will ever have is with ourselves!)
Sadly, though, we live in a world that makes it difficult to love ourselves. From a young age, we are taught that we are never enough. Beauty is purchased. Happiness is pursued. Bodies are shaped. There’s always someone smarter, fitter, faster, stronger, more beautiful than us. In my grade five class, I’ve been alarmed by the number of uber-thin girls who have told me how fat they are, and the boys who have broken down in tears after receiving 9/10 on their Math quizzes. As high-achieving ten-year-olds, they are already striving for perfection in every aspect of their lives.
But I did the same when I was their age. I was constantly complaining about how fat I was compared to the other girls in my ballet class and would wear baggy sweatshirts to hide my curvy figure. While I never developed an eating disorder, like many other dancers and female athletes, I struggled with exercise addiction until my mid-twenties (and arguably still do). I’d push my body to the point of injury and would beat myself up if I missed a day at the gym.
I’ll admit, there was a day during my undergrad when I taught three fitness classes and then played 80 minutes of rugby. I’d always opt for a Sunday morning run over Sunday morning cuddles with my boyfriend. In addition, I over-scheduled my life with clubs, activities, and leadership roles to fulfill a compulsive need to be the best at everything I did. But it wasn’t entirely my fault: “busy-ness,” over-achievement and perfectionism were glorified in the culture of my university. I even won an award at my graduation for outstanding contribution to athletics and student government. I’m sure my Dean’s List average, long list of extra-curriculars, and high-achieving résumé helped me land a grad school scholarship.
However, my extensive involvement and over-scheduled life came at a cost: time for myself. I went years without going to the doctor, was often running on little sleep, experienced several chronic injuries from over-exercise, and took some of the relationships I valued most in my life for granted. I missed a few of my good friends’ weddings. I had to skip out on Thanksgiving at the cottage (my favourite family time of the year), and wasn’t able to be there for friends who were going through hard times. Also, I never made time for creative pursuits, like writing and photography, which add joy and meaning to my life.
It took a tough and painful breakup alongside the professional heartbreak of not receiving funding for my PhD research for me to realize that the compulsive need to be busy all of the time, as well as perfectionism, come from a place of fear of not being enough as I am. I was forced to confront the fact that I’m human like everyone else, and this means accepting that I’m deeply flawed and ultimately, imperfect. But, as a good friend wisely told me, my beauty lies in my imperfection: my inability to close cupboards or doors, my awkwardness in big groups, my terrible sense of direction.
One of the hard lessons that I’ve learned from being a teacher is to practise self-love in both my personal and professional lives. This means, putting myself first and being okay with saying “no” to people who need my help.
Most of my teaching experiences have been in low-income, “at-risk” communities, like inner-city Toronto and London, and on First Nations reserves. So I’ve worked really hard in my role as a “helper”: helping students believe in themselves, helping them overcome adversity, helping them reach their potential when the odds are stacked against them. However, the amount of energy I spent in investing in others came at the expense of helping myself. Since I was on the road most weekends coaching basketball or rugby, I struggled to make time for the people and passions that I loved. This led to frustration and burn-out. It’s no wonder that nearly half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching.
I love teaching, but I’ve learned that to thrive in the profession, as well as maintain my health and sanity, that I have to constantly practise self-love. I have to put myself before my students. As my amazing and inspiring friend and fellow teacher said, “It’s like being on an airplane. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you put on someone else’s.” This means making time every day to exercise, prepare healthy meals, and get to bed early, no matter how much grading I have. I give myself permission to have shitty lessons every now and then. I give less assignments that I have to grade myself and have more peer and self-evaluated assessments. I continue to be involved in extra-curriculars but I don’t coach EVERY sports team or run EVERY club.
Prioritizing self-love in my professional life has also helped me in my personal life. I say “no” to social events I don’t want to go to and have stopped trying to please other people. I make time to pursue my passions like writing and travel. I’ve stopped investing in friendships that don’t make me better or add substance to my life and instead, spend the bulk of my time with the people I really care about. While I still exercise most days, I schedule time for my body to rest and recover, and I don’t beat myself up when I skip my workouts.
While I spent the bulk of this Valentine’s Day alone, I didn’t feel sad or lonely. I went for a beautiful run in the morning and shared a traditional Colombian lunch with my friend. I spent the afternoon writing in a café, practiced photography with my new camera, and then enjoyed una cerveza y sol with another friend. I felt free to do what I wanted with who I wanted because I didn’t feel the need to achieve, or please, or meet any sort of social expectations.
This Valentine’s Day, I feel lucky to have spent the day loving the person who matters most in my life: me.