I started with books. First I tried the intellectual ones that delved into the female psyche and our traditional/historical role in society. They didn't help. I was already much too cerebral and could understand the heck out of this problem without doing diddly for my self-esteem.
Then there were the perky self-help books that told me all I had to do was open my mind to the beauty inside. That message was all well and good—except I knew what was inside, and it was inadequate. I was sure I had to be perfect to be loved.
The books kept me in my head, but my problem was deep in my gut, and hard to reach. I had done therapy, talk talk talking about this inner chasm, yet there it stayed, needy, gaping. Then I met Kim Forbes, a psychotherapist in Virginia Beach.
"We have to take the problem outside," she said, "where you can address it with all the resources you have as an adult."
Those voices, the ones saying I wasn't pretty or competent or worthy, were, Kim told me, voices from childhood, echoing, stuck in an endless loop. To the little girl who heard them, they were inarguable, but not to me as an adult.
Which is how I find myself talking out loud to a photo of a sweet little gap-toothed girl, her bangs cut straight across her forehead, her eyes innocent and wide.
"You are beautiful," I tell the picture.
Kim leans in. "Tell her it's not her fault. Tell her she is lovable."
I struggle not to roll my eyes. I am the anti-woo-woo, the confirmed skeptic. Still, I repeat her words.
"You are lovable," I say, feeling foolish. Then I get mad.
"How can anyone have told her she was stupid, fat, or ugly?" I ask. "Look at her!"
"I know," Kim said. "She's wonderful."
The photo is of me, of course, at age 5, wearing a yellow dress my mom had made. Kim and I are doing an exercise designed to separate my intellectual side from the emotional, and allow the former to comfort the latter. The picture is supposed to represent my emotional side, the one that has been bruised and quashed and never made to feel important. It's Kim's theory that both sides have to be acknowledged in order for me to feel mentally well.
"This is the child who needs to be told that she's lovable, that she's enough," she says. "That she's not perfect, and it's okay. She needs to hear it. You need to hear it."
In spite of my internal eye-rolling, I do it. I tell the little girl that she is lovable, that she is worthy.
"You don't have to be perfect," I say. I say it out loud. And, awkward and artificial as the whole thing seems, tears well up. It feels hokey to be talking to a photograph and to cry, but there it is, a deep swell of feeling spouting up, a realization that it's true, that that little girl is enough, just as she is, without accomplishment, without successes, without even trying. And that little girl is me.
I leave the session somewhat drained.