After My Breakup, I Had to Learn How to Be Alone — and Self-Care Didn't Help

I didn't start loving myself until about seven years ago. That was when I went through my first major breakup as an adult.

What few people talk about when you're going through a breakup is how much you have to do alone, starting with coping with the heartbreak. My friends and family were incredibly helpful, of course. But I've found that after a big breakup, while people talk a lot about the importance of community, they don't often mention that the people in your community typically have their own lives. That's especially true when you're going through a split as an adult, which, at 28 years old, I was. But even when you're a kid with fewer responsibilities, no one can really heal you but yourself.

So for months, I dragged myself through my stages of grief; cry, cry, cry, block, unblock, and repeat. Until one day, the crying stopped, and the number stayed blocked.

Once I got back to eating and showering regularly, I started the difficult journey of learning to be alone. At some point over the last few decades, I'd gotten accustomed to filling my time with other people: family, then friends, then my now-ex spouse. I hadn't even tried to be by myself in years, and now that all I had for company was a dog — whose side eye could speak volumes but still wasn't enough to silence my inner thoughts — I found myself extremely uncomfortable.

So to deal with the silence, I distracted myself with everything.

I binged social media and watched enough HBO Max to consider paying for the subscription. After a couple of weeks, however, I got bored and started to hate the feeling of scrolling for hours. My brain cells were depleting between "Jersey Shore" clips and people making sourdough bread. For my mental health, I decided to start self-medicating with a strong dose of self-love.

The internet makes "self-love," the act of loving yourself, look easy. I'd watched hundreds of clips of people finding self-actualization through cleaning their homes, arranging flowers, following a multistep nighttime routine, reading self-help books, journaling, and even ordering expensive takeout, all in aesthetic homes and set to soothing soundtracks.

So I bought the flowers, splurged on the skin care, and Grubhubbed the food. I soaked in the bath until I was soggy and couldn't stay awake to finish the book. I journaled my feelings, cleaned the house, and even lit candles for aesthetics. I was so "self-loved" that if I sat in another tub, I would burst into a bubble. Surprisingly, the only thing that changed was my bank account after doing what the internet recommended; broke and, yet again, bored.

I had hoped I would learn how to love my time alone. But instead, I found myself repeatedly muttering, "I don't get it," as I plucked my eyebrows and did a hair mask for my new routine "spa day."

Finally, I broke and admitted the truth to myself. This wasn't love. This was torture! I'd assumed doing all the things online would immediately make me different, but they didn't, and I wasn't.

Instead, I was tired of cleaning the bathtub every day. Petals from the dying flowers were getting everywhere. My journal needed a break from all the drama. And I kept worrying about forgetting to blow out the candles before I left my house.

I assumed the self-love part would eventually kick in, but it never did. "Taking care of myself" in this way felt more like a job or requirement, instead of something I enjoyed.

So I stopped.

Of course, I felt like a failure at first. I can't even love myself right? But if I was being honest with myself, I'd never liked any of the stuff I'd been doing. So why had I expected it to make me feel good? And what did I think "feeling good" would actually . . . feel like, anyway? I realized I didn't actually know what I'd been hoping to achieve.

I could see I'd been going about my self-care experiment all wrong. But it had given me one useful outcome: I was able to start eliminating what self-love didn't look like for me.

For example, baths. I'd sit in a steaming-hot tub for a good 10 minutes, and instead of having an "I love my body" moment, I'd spend the time looking at my unshaved legs and wrestling with the uncomfortable experience of sweating while sitting in warm water.

Once I allowed myself to stop doing the things that only made me feel good in theory, I began noticing what things did make me feel good, and in what ways. For me, hanging out with a friend who I hadn't seen for a month did more for my mood and sense of self than buying myself flowers. Finally opening and paying the bill that had been haunting me from the corner of my kitchen table lifted a load off my shoulders that no amount of Grubhub would ever have been able to replace.

As I went about my regular life, I got into the habit of regularly asking myself, "How does this make me feel?" I started to gauge my sense of comfort and peace when around new people, exercising, walking my dog, and going to work. I became more aware of what made me feel good and what didn't, and I naturally began to move more toward the former and away from the latter.

That included mundane tasks like taking out the trash as soon as it was full and changing a lightbulb as soon as it burnt out. But it also meant taking extra workout classes once I realized that exercise made me feel better than skin care ever did, cleaning up the house during the week instead of saving it for a mega-wash-up on the weekend, and walking an extra half-mile on a sunny day just because I was enjoying the movement and being outside.

Once I was able to make the small efforts daily toward improving my life, the days seemed to flow a lot easier. I didn't need to smell like a Bath & Body Works, buy better products, and live vicariously through Instagram influencers. Although that may work for some people, for me, self-love was doing more of the things that already filled my metaphorical cup.

Eventually, I landed on this definition: self-love is the small efforts to consciously improve your current state of being.

Seven years into my self-love journey, and there are still times I struggle with being alone. It's not easy to spend years with a person, then make one wrong mistake that changes your life forever — but here we are. Some holidays are harder than others, and while I can spend months or years being very happy on my own, at times, I'm overcome by waves of wanting the comfort you can get from having that one specific person in your life.

But that's something else I learned about self-love over the years: it's a journey with rediscovery built in. Showing up for myself looks different from day to day and month to month, and I often have to let go of practices that I once loved but are no longer serving me and find new nourishing activities to take their place.

I'm also not immune the the latest internet trends, but while trying them may be fun, I have to remember doing something for the sake of others is never going to make me feel whole.

Ultimately, I've come to understand that loving myself looks different every day, and being able to accept that makes the whole process a lot easier.