“How I learned to truly love myself.”

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Source: Best Health magazine, January/February 2014; Image: Carlyle Routh

When you have the startling realization that you’ve spent too much time dating a not-so-great guy and denying your worth, you can do one of two things. You can move on to another wrong guy and continue to sell yourself short, or you can face reality. For once, I chose reality. It was February 2011, and after enduring another go-nowhere relationship, I’d had enough. Of me.

Little did I know that by finally taking responsibility for another painfully bad relationship, I would undergo a life makeover. Changing my outlook transformed my relationships, friendships and career. It was a tough process, but I edited out the people and things that didn’t work. And I drew closer to me the people and things that did.

I had help. In this series, which will run from time to time in 2014 in Best Health, I’ll tell you how you, too, can get happy with the help of some amazing, inspirational self-development gurus at the forefront of a new generation of speakers and authors. People like Brené Brown, a 40-something Texan academic and expert on topics like happiness and shame, and a regular on Oprah’s Lifeclass series. Or 33-year-old Gabrielle Bernstein, a Manhattanite and motivational speaker whose bestselling Spirit Junkie instructs us to choose love over fear. Or L.A.-based Christine Hassler, also 33, who teaches us to get beyond our ‘expectation hangovers’ and instead lead the lives we are meant to live.

They are attuned to the pressures we women often place upon ourselves. Unlike the old ‘self-help’ days, this wave of fresh faces is keen to use social media, podcasting and web conferencing to interact directly with their eager audiences. They also tour on the speakers’ circuit and hold retreats. I have seen many of them speak, and for the purposes of this new series, I have interviewed several of them so I can share their invaluable insight with you.

I’ve come out the other side a strong, thriving and happy person who is no longer tortured with feelings of guilt and self-doubt. Instead of reacting to my life, I learned to take charge of it. The aspect I started with was my crazy train of bad relationships’an important one, because your relationships are a mirror on how you feel about yourself. Here’s how you can do it, too.

Get clear on the story you’re telling yourself

My recovery started with a blog, of all things. The U.K.-based Natalie Lue’s blog, Baggage Reclaim, draws thousands of readers from around the world. She also has a book, Mr. Unavailable and the Fallback Girl, that should be handed out in every high-school class. Natalie, 36, had spent her young adulthood going from one commitment-phobic man to another, each of whom took a notch out of her self-esteem along the way. She realized she was acting out her own self-limiting beliefs, so she stopped the vicious cycle.

Eight years ago, she started her blog to guide women who were still lost in that cycle. ‘These relationships can give you a window into areas of your life where you need to step up for you, meet your needs and make different choices,‘ Natalie told me, over the phone from her home just south of London.

For example, a lot of women think, as I did, ‘But why would he be with me if he didn’t love me?’

Easy. He’s thinking short term. People have all sorts of reasons for doing what they do. But if their values don’t line up with your own, then why are you going along for the ride?

Also, it can be self-destructive to live a life that isn’t what you want or need. You can start to believe you’re flawed. And that’s the most damaging story to be telling yourself.

Without being conscious of it, I‘d been trying to find happiness from external sources, such as a man who didn’t really care about me. Trying to win over a guy who didn’t really love me felt like familiar territory’the same place I was in as a child, when my mother not only wasn’t around much, she just wasn’t there for me. I didn’t think I was worthy of having any needs.

Natalie helped me see that the cycle can be stopped. We can undo the negative self-talk and false beliefs that started the pattern in childhood, but that no longer serve us now.

Realize you’ve been blessed with a huge lesson

You have to get honest with the situation, says Natalie. I spent two years with a guy who relentlessly complained about his lousy job and underachievement, but did nothing about it. He’d take his misery out on me, cruelly, putting me down in front of others. One time, with me sitting right there, he told a table full of his friends, ‘Kerry’s all right. She’s no Kate Moss, though.’ Other times, he’d pretend he wanted a hug, only to suddenly pinch my waist a bit too hard and ask, ‘What’s that? Gaining weight?’ This man, who had never had a relationship that lasted more than two years, started by putting me on a pedestal and then slowly tore me apart. By the end, he berated me over nothing, stood me up when he felt like it, and barely concealed his roving eye. He treated me like garbage, which is what I started to feel I was.

Says Natalie: ‘When you have been trying to give someone your love, care, attention, trust and respect, only to discover that this person was in some way exploiting that to gain an advantage, that is a really, really painful realization.’

But, she adds, that experience can be reframed and used as a way to move forward instead of keeping you stuck in the past. ‘It’s how I arrived at writing Baggage Reclaim: by hitting bottom and coming back up,’ she says. ‘I quickly realized that part of the reason I was going through what I was going through was that if I had loved me, taken care
of me, had boundaries, then I would not have ever been interested in a bad relationship in the first place.
How I dealt with my self-esteem and fallout from various relationships has also helped me to grow up. It didn’t make me a bitter, twisted woman, but it made me deal with my father issues and mommy issues and every issue.’

Today, at age 48, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be attracted to the same guy’ I no longer have negative self-beliefs.

Know what love looks like

To find my way out, I did what Natalie did. I chose to get beyond the fantasy I had created, and truly accept and understand what love is. Until my spate of bad relationships, I’d had loving, respectful, healthy relationships with men, so I did know the difference; I’d just lost my way.

Here was my reality check. If someone loves you, they don’t confuse you. You shouldn’t have to stay up late doing Google searches to try to understand their erratic behaviour. When they love you, they don’t want to lose you, so they make their feelings and intentions clear. True love is easy. It feels good. It doesn’t feel bad, exhausting or crazy-inducing. Maya Angelou said it best: ‘Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.’

I finally ended the relationship with the bad boyfriend. Once I left, I suddenly realized I’d had the power to stop my own torment all along. It was amazing; I got me back.

Liking yourself is a process

A self-esteem makeover may sound daunting. But while I can’t speak for everyone, sometimes keeping the status quo is more painful than making a change. If happiness is the goal, I had to undo some beliefs, such as ‘I need to be in a relationship’any relationship.’ Or ‘My self-worth depends on how another person sees me.’ Whether it takes daily journalling, meditation, new friends, the support of old friends and family, finding your passion in work or tapping into your creativity (I’m dabbling in all of the above), there are ways to discover and appreciate who you truly are. But we have to accept that we are responsible for our own happiness. There are no shortcuts.

‘We have to internalize it and process it and decide for ourselves, because our life is ours to lead. I had to take responsibility for my relationships,’ says Natalie, who is now happily married and has two daughters. She is proof that once you stop the cycle, the whole world can open up to you. You become strong, and strong people become drawn to you. That’s the law of attraction.

So you wasted time in a lousy relationship’who hasn’t? We all learn at our own speed. It took me a while to realize I could be happily single. The important thing is to move forward. Forgive yourself for mistakes, and do not let yourself dwell on the past. You can change your life, and your destiny.

This article was originally titled "Resolution you" in the January/February 2014 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!