Recently, I had the privilege to interview a friend who is recovering from a rock climbing accident that left her with a broken leg. We talked about dealing with pain, taking “baby steps” forward, and how shocking, unpleasant experiences can often be a catalyst for personal growth.
Listening to her story triggered memories for me… memories of when I was a ballerina. Every day. At the studio. Training, training, training. So incredibly active. Peak physical condition. Back then, as a very young person, dancing was my world.
If you had seen me back then, twirling on my pointe shoes, dazzling audiences with my long hair flying behind me, and a big “performance smile” plastered on my face, you might have thought to yourself, “Wow. Incredible. Such discipline and poise. She must really love dancing!”
But you would have been wrong.
It’s very unfortunate, but back then, I did not dance because I “loved” it.
I danced because there was an emptiness inside of me that I did not know how to fill.
I danced to get praise, attention, validation — all of which would temporarily soothe my feelings of anxiety, loneliness and worthlessness.
Every drop of praise — “You’re so good!” “So beautiful!” “What a perfect dancer!” — was like a dose of powerful pain medication.
Unfortunately, it was never powerful enough. The good feelings never lasted for long. I needed higher and higher doses of my “meds.” More frequent doses, too.
Like an addict, I needed my praise-fix again… and again… and again.
That empty space inside of me never, ever felt full.
So I would practice harder, spending more and more hours at the ballet barre and twirling on my toes in the studio, faster and faster, bleeding underneath the satin ribbons of my pointe shoes from hours and hours of grueling practice. Striving to do better and better. Striving to be better than my best.
My grim determination brought “rewards” — like winning a major dance competition and getting featured on the cover of the local newspaper. Still: not enough. More. Harder. Faster. I pushed my body to the edge. Needing to “top” myself again and again.
The pace was unsustainable and eventually… I toppled.
I entered another competition and my legs buckled beneath me in the middle of my performance. A crushing disappointment.
Later that same year, I failed my ballet exam. Total shame.
Even though I was in the best shape of my life, my body would not perform.
My desperate need for validation, my “emotional injuries,” had finally caught up with me.
I learned, the hard way, that “praise” is not a substitute for “love.”
Not even close.
In fact, there is absolutely NO substitute for love.
If there is a space inside of you that feels wounded or empty, perhaps you’ve tried to “bandage it up” or “pack it full” with all kinds of experiences and substances. Drugs. Food. Booze. Busyness. Work. Praise. Money. New gadgets, clothes, and toys.
These are powerful ‘pain medications’, no doubt about it, but — as I can assure you, from personal experience — they are not powerful enough.
The only thing powerful enough to bring lasting comfort, peace, and wholeness is love.
Specifically: the kind of love that you give to yourself.
Kind words. Kind thoughts. Kind actions that leave you feeling stronger, not weaker.
Love has no substitute.
A few questions to reflect on:
What have you used as a “substitute” for self-love in the past? How about today?
How would it feel if you didn’t need to rely on that particular form of “pain medication” any longer? How would your life change?
And: would you like some help getting there? Then consider consulting with a therapist, life coach, or health care provider of your choice. It is never too late to heal, grow, and change.
Dr. Suzanne Gelb is a clinical psychologist, life coach and family law attorney. She believes that it is never too late to become the person you want to be. Strong. Confident. Calm. Creative. Free of all of the burdens that have held you back — no matter what has happened in the past. Her insights on personal growth have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews and online at TIME, Forbes, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, and more. Step into her virtual office at DrSuzanneGelb.com and sign up to receive a free meditation and her weekly writings on health, happiness and self-respect. You can also follow her on Twitter and FB.