I didn't "do" self-love. What I did do was put my head down and grind out accomplishments, adding lines to a CV that would prove I was worthy. I was doing what was expected of me: nose in a book, praises falling from others' mouths, and not staying still enough to really see myself. Deep down, I knew if I did, I'd be scared at what I'd find.
I grew up in East Tennessee in the USA, in a small town that didn't have an Indian community at the time. I draw many similarities between my hometown and South Asian culture - some good and some bad. Community and family are grand pillars, and "everybody knows everybody" is wonderful... until it isn't.
And that self-love is an individualistic behavior in a collectivist atmosphere i.e. “selfish.”
The external reinforcement of the ideals represented inside my household was a strange and dissociating experience, one that sheds a lot of light on why my definition of love and self-love was very detrimental to my emotional well-being since a young age. I thought love meant fulfilling all my parents' ambitions and dreams, even if they weren't my own. Especially if they weren't my own. Others, mostly white Americans whose families stayed in the area for generations, reinforced that they just "want what's best for me". I thought since other people, non-South Asian people, see this as love, it has to be.
I was in a situation where I was told, from my culture and my environment, that family and connection were important, while simultaneously not having a close family. It felt inauthentic, disconnected. It felt like I had to be unimaginably ambitious and simultaneously be okay going after goals on my own while pretending that I had a solid support system around me. I felt more like the mascot for a brand. It seemed no matter which costume I put on or how many balls I juggled, it wasn't enough. I was still expected to perform, to act a certain way, and have a bottomless well of forgiveness. It meant not showing how upset you were at a mean comment. It meant being expected to do well on a test when there was a screaming match at the dinner table when the previous night. It meant being expected to understand that the list of taboos was because they cared and that I should feel nothing but gratitude. I thought love meant doing whatever it took to please other people, especially your family. It meant making yourself small, nonthreatening, and dismissing yourself more than others dismissed you.
I was in a situation where I was told, from my culture and my environment, that family and connection were important while simultaneously not having a close family. It felt inauthentic, disconnected.
Making friends lead to a brand new level of performative anxiety. I had wanted so badly to connect with people that my sense of self-love was non-existent. Much like with my family, it wasn't that I didn't know where I began, and the other person ended. I didn't consider myself there at all in the first place.
When searching for love in partners, I would always propel myself into the future. Are they marriage material? And would they even consider me a worthy partner after they meet my parents? It was difficult to figure out what I wanted in a partner. In many instances, I had stayed in a relationship well past the expiration date.
This is what love is, I thought, and this is as good as it's going to get.
But if all of that was love, why did it feel so horrible?
Even when I moved to Paris after graduating from university, I had mostly been focused on my future career prospects instead of my emotional wellbeing. I had thought about the difficulties of learning French and how exciting it would be to immerse myself in a different culture. I didn't think about having space to finally face and fully reckon with myself.
It took the last year, alongside a generous amount of therapy, to begin unpacking everything.
One major red flag in myself was that I didn't practice any self-love. I did a lot of negative self-talk; I looked for approval from other people; I chased things that I was expected to chase. As I grew up, I had chosen, regretfully, to close myself off from others and put on a façade of connection.
I had experienced so many warped definitions of love and even viewed self-love as an act of selfishness.
I've slowly, and sometimes hesitantly, learned to put one foot in front of the other on a path of my own choosing. I've started to look for spaces and communities that allow me to bring my whole self, hyphenated identity and all, to the table. To me, for people to recognize the crack in my voice on a bad day and ask, "No really, how are you feeling?" is a form of love. To sit in a language exchange, kindly offer feedback, and gentle encouragement is a form of love. To silently co-exist with someone on the phone while going through unimaginable pain without judgment is a form of love.
At this moment, self-love is approaching, developing new friendships with curiosity. It is to find people who welcome me to express myself and validate my feelings while simultaneously calling me in when I say or do something hurtful. Self-love for me is accepting that I will not follow a traditional career path and knowing that in the end, I will be successful because I'm capable, hardworking, and kind. It does not include bath bombs, face masks, and beach getaways, because that's not what self-love is for me.
Like many others, I had carried my spoonful of self-love into my late teens and early twenties. Womxn, especially South Asian womxn, are often conditioned to act in others' service, never wavering in our service or suggesting that we should be privileged to the same love we afford unto others. I had experienced so many warped definitions of love and even viewed self-love as an act of selfishness.
But we are not only privileged of love and self-love but well-deserving. We are allowed to be treated with kindness, with gentleness, on the days spent at the mountain's peak or nights spent in the ocean's trench. You are allowed to love yourself and let others love you.
Currently based in Paris, France, Anu Kumar is a neuroscientist, writer, and the Head Article Editor for Pardesi. A first-gen American of South Indian descent, Kumar is a Lab Manager and Research Technician within the Institut du Cerveau and enjoys learning about French culture and language. She is passionate about accessible science education, diversity and inclusion, and encouraging dialogue about trauma, feminism, and identity.