If you were to stand on a chair at a Carly Rae Jepsen concert and scream, “If you can’t love yourself . . . ,” every tank-topped twink and pink-glitter femme would immediately respond in unison, “How the hell you gonna love somebody else?!”
While RuPaul’s infamous Drag Race signoff catchphrase is seared into our collective queer consciousness, at the end of the day it’s worth noting that this popular but problematic host is increasingly becoming known for outdated takes. With a well-documented history of bungling issues related to transgender women and gender (including a rather toothless pseudo-apology), Mama Ru has another distressing, antiquated take insidiously Trojan-horsed in plain sight: the idea that you are incapable of giving or receiving love if you don’t love yourself.
Now, this mindset is in no way specific to RuPaul, though it is perpetuated at the end of every episode of one of the most popular LGBTQ shows on television.
Optimism is admirable, but demanding “good vibes only” is a slippery slope that ignores mental illness and very real systems of violence and oppression.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), LGBTQ individuals are almost three times as likely to experience a mental-health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the queer community, with trans individuals facing an even higher risk. Our increased likelihood of struggling with mental-health issues makes us particularly vulnerable to RuPaul’s version of wellness and the cult of positivity. Self-care is deeply important these days, but it’s also been commodified to the point of distortion as so many lifestyle brands weaponize their inspirational quotes and meditation mantras to push their laxative tea and keep you clicking.
The thing about the cult of positivity is that it’s ultimately rooted in silencing the sufferings of others. Perma-positivity is not just an unhelpful mindset, it’s downright dismissive. Lacking all nuance, it’s a polite way of telling people not to talk about the bad things that have happened to them because it’s a total bummer to hear.
We’ve come too far in terms of societal recognition of highly stigmatized conditions to try to trick people into suppressing their pain and hoping they’ll create a shiny diamond out of it. While self-love is something we should all strive for, it is not a static state. Even the best among us have bad days. Healing is not linear, and for those of us who already struggle with self-worth issues, there is no magic trick that uses positive thinking to catapult you into sublime, everlasting happiness.
Optimism is admirable, but demanding “good vibes only” is a slippery slope that ignores mental illness and very real systems of violence and oppression. The myth of being in total, metaphysical control of everything in your life means that when something bad happens to you, it’s somehow your fault. This line of black-and-white thinking doesn’t just teeter on the edge of victim-blaming, it screams “Cannonball!” and jumps right in—it’s an emotional bootstrap theory that puts unrealistic and sometimes ableist expectations on people who are suffering. This pushes the depressed and the traumatized back into the shadows, further reinforcing their isolation and their hesitance to reach out.
While the sentiment behind “You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself” is understandable and mostly good-hearted, in practice, that idea is damaging and exclusionary. And while it’s not anyone else’s job to fix you, professionals and loved ones can provide support and tools that can help. Other people are not medicine and it’s not fair to expect them to heal you, but therapy is more mainstream than ever as we continue to collectively shed the stigma of mental illness. The prevalence of supportive and healing online communities means that no one needs to be alone in their pain. People with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, depression, PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, and addiction are not somehow worth less because of their struggles. You are not a bad person if you cannot instantly emerge from your bed and transform into a glittering, ethereal Instagram vision of glowing self-love.
Sadness is not a moral failing. You are not owed happiness—it doesn’t work like that.
Happiness is a bare-knuckle brawl that you have with yourself every day upon waking. You will not always win. Self-hate is already so crushingly painful, and people who grapple with it don’t need further pain and stigma. You can still love and be a worthy partner, no matter how much you struggle yourself. Love is not split in half or rationed when you choose to love someone while struggling to love yourself. Pushing through your own pain to love someone else, making that much room in your heart, is profound and noble. To all those who are wading through the darkness, please know that your love is not broken or tainted. It is pure and inherently valuable. Thank you for giving any love you can spare. Thank you for loving despite a cultural narrative that tries to render you incapable. You are capable. Thank you.
This article appears in the December 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.