I sat at a small table in a grocery store Starbucks—not the kind that’s secluded and fancy, the kind that’s in the center of things, lacking every element of the coffee shop experience minus the coffee itself.
I took my mocha from the barista, gave her a tired smile, and then sat back down at my table with my journal opened in front of me.
I had taken to stealing moments like this, in between classes, on the way from one obligation to another. I needed these quiet moments to myself because I could feel myself falling apart.
I didn’t know what else to do.
As I sat there, I began to scribble out a letter—it was barely legible, my heavy heart weighing down every part of my body including my writing hand.
It started, “Dear Stephanie, I love you.”
Those were words I hadn’t said to myself in a long time, and not a single part of me meant them.
I was heartbroken, deeply and completely. A relationship had ended and everything I knew to be true about myself ended along with it.
He had been my social life, my identity, the person who held me each night as I slept.
He was my comfort, my safe place, the refuge I’d burrow into when I needed someone to remind me that I was worth loving, because I just couldn’t believe it on my own anymore. And losing him pulled out the last pin that was holding things together.
I was insecure, plain and simple.
I didn’t know who I was or what I was about.
I’d look in the mirror, my eyes narrowed at my stupid face. I was too pale and my body too squishy. I’d shame myself into going to the gym and sweating there for hours, but it never seemed to help. I was never as small as I wanted to be.
My thighs still touched.
I’d get ready with my friends for a weekend night out, and pour through my stupid closet. It was filled to the brim with clothes I hated, clothes that never ever made me look the way my friends effortlessly seemed to.
We’d go to the bars and I’d try to look comfortable, smiling and talking to the people around me, but feeling invisible to any of the men who’s attention I so desperately wanted.
Everyone else’s life looked so easy, so carefree, so happy.
Everyone else looked comfortable in their skin, like they liked to be there, like they liked themselves.
I didn’t. Not even a little bit.
I wasn’t going to like someone who was too squishy, too pale, poorly dressed, and the consolation prize for the guys who liked my friends.
If I could quit your team… I would, I’d tell myself. I’d be on someone else’s team. I’d be somebody else. You’re gross and annoying and I don’t want to be around you either.
So there I sat, at Starbucks, my journal open, knowing that I had two options.
I could either make peace with myself and or I could continue being my own worst critic.
The second one seemed most likely from where I sat that day.
I thought about critics, cynical and harsh. I thought about the appraising way they have to look at everything, pointing out every flaw, every way that their subject has fallen short.
And in that moment, I realized something that changed everything.
We are stuck with ourselves. We have to sleep with ourselves, and brush our teeth with ourselves, and get married with ourselves. We have to have kids with ourselves, and think with ourselves, and go to the store with ourselves.
I wouldn’t want to have coffee with someone who was always critiquing me, let alone snuggle up to that person.
So why in the world would I want to be my own worst critic? That sounds horrible! But that’s what I had been doing for so long.
I thought if I had the lowest opinion of myself, it would motivate me to change.
I thought if I had the toughest standards that nobody’s expectations could exceed mine. I thought that if I was hard on myself, it would hurt less when other people were.
I was sleeping with my own harshest critic, hoping that the proximity would drown out the other voices.
But that’s not the way it works.
Because when we’re terrible to ourselves, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. And when the world becomes harsh—as the world is known to do—there’s nobody to defend us, to love us anyway, if we don’t do it first.
So there, at that table, my mocha steaming next to me, I took a step in the right direction.
It was a long journey, and I’m still learning to treat myself with the love and kindness I deserve.
But the journey began that day, with four simple words.
“Stephanie, I love you.”