When I tell you hundreds of books cross my desk each year, I mean it. Staff editors at wellness publications get review copies and manuscripts—most selling self love, radical happiness, promising to be life changing—every single day. At Yoga Journal, the interesting ones become the building blocks of desk-top fortresses. Few get read in entirety. None have ever actually impacted my life in any significant way.
I started reading On Being Human one particularly lonely March weekend when my friends and husband were partying in an HGTV house we’d rented from AirBnb for a birthday party. Instead of revelry in the Rocky Mountains, I was in the fetal position thinking about dying—because endometriosis is murder and that’s another story. I’d brought home a review copy of Jennifer Pastiloff’s On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard, simply because I’d recognized her name from Instagram. Or maybe it was because magic is real and the Universe was offering me an olive branch. I kind of like not knowing.
Pastiloff’s memoir brilliantly details her own triumph over anorexia and self-hatred fueled by crippling depression—and the similar transformations of women in her retreats and workshops that she bears witness to as some kind of anomalous yoga teacher/sisterhood guru. Suddenly I was cutting up Post-Its to mark passages, highlighting words I needed to hear and keep hearing, and texting iPhone photos of paragraphs to friends whose very own souls also seemed to be leaping off the pages of a manifesto relishing imperfection and shushing self doubt. I felt a surge of cosmic connection—of being seen by a stranger. So I did something bold and unusual and a little bit scary. I messaged Jen and told her how I felt like she was speaking directly to me. That I felt a little silly telling her that at all, but fuck it, right? That I’d love to attend, and write about, her On Being Human retreat in France in May. And could she offer a reduced media rate or host a member of the press—aka me?
Three months later, as I try to put the beauty and absurdity of the past week on paper—seven days spent workshopping and laughing and dancing and swimming and stargazing and holding hands and hearts at a dreamy 17th century chateau with some of the most dazzling people I’ve ever met, I can’t help thinking: This book actually changed my life.
Besides lasting friendships and precious memories, I’m walking away with tools to make every day a bit brighter. To see the beauty in myself and others and to quiet that little voice that tells me I’m not good enough; that I should have published my own book by now; that I’m behind or undeserving or a bad wife or too fat or unlovable.
Here are just a few of the ways I learned to open up and love myself more—and you can too.
1. Be A Beauty Hunter
Beauty hunting means looking around and counting as many gorgeous, amazing miracles you can possibly take in in that moment. The sound of rain on the roof. Clouds parting in the sky. Puppies. Baby feet. The smell of barbecues and fresh-cut grass and a hoppy IPA. It’s actually kind of impossible to be miserable and ungrateful when you’re collecting lovely things. The crooked smile of the concierge even after you’ve missed your flight (I did on the way to this retreat). The fact that humans even know how to fly at all. Beauty hunting. You’ll be surprised. The more beauty you seek and appreciate about a person or place or experience—quieting the inner monologue about what’s annoying you (a screaming baby, impossibly small airplane seats, no room in the overhead bin)—the more you’ll actually like yourself, too. Love and compassion are just muscles. Use them on others when it’s too hard to use them on yourself, and pretty soon it’ll be difficult to remember why you were so self-critical in the first place.
2. Banish Your “Just-A” Box
No one is just one thing. You’re not “just a mom,” “just a yoga instructor,” “just a teacher.” We all have multitudes. We are constantly evolving and growing and becoming better and best versions of ourselves. And this is the most important part: There is no timeline.
At the retreat, I shared space with women who accomplished many enviable things at varying times in their lives. One published a book in her 60s. One had her first baby at 20 and another had hers at 41. We all went around the room and listed off the things we were afraid of—scared we were too late for or had missed our shots at. I don’t want kids but I’m scared of not having kids. I’m afraid I’ll never publish my book or write for TV or film or get unstuck or feel fall-in-lovable.
One particularly vibrant, intelligent, successful woman confessed that at 31, she was afraid she’d missed her chance at love. Oh, how the room scoffed at her perceived disillusion: You’re gorgeous! You’re so young! You’re so amazing! You’ll have everything! You have so much time!
But her fears are real for her and worth validation. We’re all afraid of things that won’t come true. It’s easier to look at the people around us and assure them that their worries are ridiculous and unfounded and of course there are wonderful things ahead. But it’s much harder to do it for ourselves. Think about the people you know and love in your life. Do you think of them as “just a _____”? I’m sure you don’t. Stop thinking about yourself that way.
3. Outsmart Your Inner Asshole
Your Inner Asshole (IA) is the voice of shame and degradation that tells you you’re awful and no one likes you and you’ll never accomplish your dreams and you’re stupid for even wanting them. Or at least that’s what mine says to me. Each IA is different. But they all have one thing in common: They’re A-holes. The IA will never stop trying to tell you what Jen calls “bullshit stories”: Messages of self-doubt or loathing that are completely unfounded but often paralyzing. In one of her workshops, she asked us each to write some of ours down. I’m too screwed up to find radical happiness. Passionate love doesn’t last. I’m not important enough to write what I want. I’ll never find financial freedom. I’m bad at marriage because of my parents’ shitty relationships.
Then she asked us to close our eyes and think of someone who makes us feel safe, loved, and understood—and write a letter to ourselves from that person's point of view, beginning with: If you could see what I see, you’d know that…
I thought of my dear friend Hannah and how she laughs at my jokes and thinks I’m adorable when I’m gross and never judges my questionable choices as long as I’m following my truth. I channeled her voice and wrote myself a letter of admiration:
If you could see what I see, you’d know that you are a badass B. I’ve watched you reawaken and take responsibility for your life in a way that is so cool and powerful. I love seeing you realize what you deserve and going for it. You’ve always had a way of making those around you recognize their own light. Yours, too, is so bright: I love seeing you shine. You are strong. You are brave. You are beautiful. You don’t even know yet that you’re halfway there. Keep going. I’ve got you. I’m walking you home.
Hannah is smarter than my IA. She knows that the things it tells me are 99 percent untrue. So from now on, when my IA pipes up to make me feel small or unworthy, I will be channelling Hannah when I tell it to kindly shut the hell up.
4. Embrace Vulnerability
When Brené Brown coined the term “vulnerability hangover,” the woman had my number. I am the queen of wallowing in self-loathing after a night of putting my true self out on the table (this exposure is often helped along by lowering my inhibitions with alcohol, if I’m being honest). A friend of mine in college called it “the Weirds” when I woke up hungover, cripplingly afraid that no one liked me. “We all get the Weirds,” he said, reassuringly.
And no matter how many times I’ve woken up with said Weirds, no one who's witnessed me be outrageously myself has ever decided they no longer enjoy my company. As it turns out, I’m the only person who cringes after a night of wearing my heart on my sleeve.
In Jen’s workshop, we were vulnerable from day one. We wrote down our deepest fears about ourselves and read them out loud before we could even remember each other's names. We read letters to our 16-year-old selves and poems we'd only been given a few minutes to write. We told each other all the horrible self-loathing thoughts our IA’s were ramming down our throats. And you know what? It was freeing.
There were no pretenses to keep up with. We had come without our armor to a safe space and we did not die without it. We loved each other more because we could see each other better. In writing this now, I looked back at On Being Human and found this passage, which accurately confirms all I’ve just described (or maybe vise versa):
As my workshop started to morph into something more than yoga poses, I began to feel like I was falling in love with everyone in the room who allowed themselves to be vulnerable. And it dawned on me that the part of them I was smitten with was the side they probably tried to hide, just as I had done with my own vulnerability or perceived weaknesses. It wasn’t people being strong or snarky or guarded who made me want to know them more, who made me want wrap my arms around them. It was the ones who had snot dripping from their nose, who whispered "I am afraid," who admitted they had no idea what they were doing. It was the ones who let themselves be silly and sing out loud, the ones who told the truth, the ones who shared their stories wholeheartedly. It was when they started to take off their armor and soften that I felt that surge of love, the same one I feel now when my son says Mommy, or when he wakes up with his hair sticking straight up. It was the feeling I got when someone was utterly themselves without any self-consciousness, when they allowed themselves to be seen. What is more desirable than that?
5. Give Yourself A F'ing Medal
At her workshops and in her book, Jen tells a story about “the one and the 100”: One person out of 100 may not like you. Do not try to please the one.
At one of Jen's earlier retreats, there was a woman wearing a big hat who just was not having all the Kum-ba-yah-ing. As she drove away a day or so early, she said to Jen, “I have to go. I need yoga. This is Feelings 101.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you,” she continued, “because you just gave that whole speech about the one and the 100, and I am being the one.”
Here’s (a slightly abridged version of) how she tells it in On Being Human:
Later that night, in the kitchen, as I was chatting with some women at the retreat, I mentioned the woman leaving, even though I had promised myself I would not talk about it or feed it to give it energy. My IA was like, "Girl, you know you wanna gossip."
So I stood there with my wine and said things like, “I mean, look what I’ve accomplished being a college dropout, having waited tables at the same place for almost 14 years, being deaf. I’ve overcome so much, and I guess there is always going to be that person.”
I said a lot of other things, but what I remember is one woman wouldn’t give me what I was looking for. A pat on the back. I wanted to be told it was going to be okay, that I didn’t suck. I wanted someone to appease my IA. The woman just listened.
In that moment, an epiphany struck me and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could call my friend.
“Elise,” I said excitedly into the phone. “I had my epiphany: No one is going to give me a fucking medal,” I yelled. “I have to give myself one.”
There it was. My whole life I had been waiting for permission, waiting to be discovered, waiting to be acknowledged, chosen, given permission to take up space. All of my life I had been waiting for someone to tell me I was enough.
The lady who left my retreat gave me a gift. She gifted me with the revelation that you have to do all the hard work of loving yourself yourself. In that moment in the kitchen with those ladies and the wine and the chocolate ganache, I finally realized that no one was ever going to save me. No one was ever going to give me permission to be me. I had to do it.
So on one of our very last days together last week, we sat baking in the warm sun together on a wooden yoga platform in Southern France. We stood up, one after another, and gave ourselves fucking medals. For being fiercely feminist. For having kids. For not having kids. For telling the hard stories. For surviving. For getting out of bed. For beating cancer. For eating the bread. And we all cheered and laughed and said “I got you” and were in awe of each other’s strength and beauty and we meant it.