For years, my relationship with my body was that of extremes followed by cycles of abuse and neglect. If I binged, I’d feel shame and guilt then punish myself with excessive exercise or periods of food restrictions. And then I’d binge again.

Emotionally starving for love and attention, I had the belief that the only way I’d be worthy to receive attention of any kind was to become “perfect.”

In 2012, I found myself on stage in a silver hologram bikini, five-inch heels, bronzed with a spray tan, looking out at a panel of judges at an Ohio Natural Bodybuilding Competition, they were about to judge me – for my body.

In my innermost thoughts, the better the body, the more worthy and loved I’d be. And I would be enough. Recognizing the irony of being judged by strangers for the very essence of my worth, backfired on me.

I stood behind the stage, the music pumping, feeling the vibrations of the bass on my skin, as the audience filled with friends and family cheers roared above the music. At that moment, all I could think about were my flaws and insecurities, the stretch marks and cellulite – all the things that were not pretty and accepted about me.

As I crossed the stage with as much grace as possible in my high heels, I plastered a smile on my face. I imagined the judges and audience finding every little flaw on my body and could see through my facade. With every step and pose I performed, I felt my smile fade and confidence weaken and the mask began to crumble.

I waited for the winners to be announced, but my name was not recognized. I trained for months and months, and the only thing I walked away with from this experience was my head in my hands. All the embarrassment, anger, and disappointment came pouring out in sobs, only to provide temporary relief.

After the show, I pulled out the 4.8 pounds of peanut butter cups that I had collected from each missed holiday and binged on as much of it as I could stomach, and then went to bed. The next day, I replayed the competition and filled the shame by putting another nice dent in the remaining chocolate and peanut butter cups.

After the fitness competition, my binging and extreme cycles of self-sabotage worsened and I fell into a deep depression. Within a matter of weeks, I gained a lot more weight than I’d lost back, which only added to the painful cycle of punishing myself for not feeling worthy or loved.

I quit the gym because I was embarrassed to be seen. Not only was I a loser, but I had also gained all the weight back plus more. The time I spent exercising and lifting was replaced with nights out with friends indulging in food and drinks. I found comfort in the company of those who didn’t know me or my story.

The more I went out, the more friends I made and the more anonymous I felt. I loved getting lost in the crowd even though I never felt more alone, ever. I didn’t recognize who I was or who I was becoming. I just wanted to numb out and no longer feel.

When I did allow myself to feel into the present, I was overcome with hate and anger and found myself lashing out at those around me, hurting the people I cared for most.

Gratefully, I recognized enough was enough and I needed to make some serious behavior changes so that I was treating and caring for myself and those I loved better.

Here are three ways I healed myself from the abuse and neglect I put myself through while searching externally for love, worthiness, and validation.

  • Self-Awareness: I took myself on a soul quest. I spent time alone in deep thought, reflecting on the woman I grew into. I could see patterns in my life that lead me to different stages and actions and behaviors that hurt me and others. In my head, I made a list of the behaviors I wanted to change. I turned to the internet in search of inspiration and change, discovering books, mentors, coaches – anything related to personal development. One of the biggest self-awareness tools I gained was learning the difference between React vs. Respond. How to find peace in the pause and respond to circumstances in my life more positively instead of reacting in your old ways, simply out of habit.
  • Gratitude: I was so focused on the negatives in my life, myself including all the flaws and insecurities within me. On my soul quest, I bought myself a little gratitude journal and my first exercise was to list out three things from the day that were beautiful. The first exercise was incredibly hard at first. I hadn’t taken time to think about the blessings in my life before that moment. My list that happened first was: Myself, my cat and the weather. I wrote down the word “myself” just to see what it would feel like and followed with the sentence: I have learned to love and accept myself as I am. I am beautiful inside and out. Reading that sentence back to myself brought on the recognition that I had to love myself first before anyone else could.
  • Forgiveness: As part of my healing journey discovered the true meaning of forgiveness. Forgiveness is for you, not the one who’s done you wrong. It does not mean you allow the offender an excuse or pass for their actions; it’s a way of letting go and moving forward. I had to make room in my heart to receive the greatness coming to me that I spent so long resisting. Harboring feelings of anger, bitterness, resentment, guilt, and shame confine you to a self-made prison. Once I forgave myself and others, it allowed room for love, joy, and peace, to enter and I became free.

The lessons I learned about worth and love are ones I share in my story, Chasing Perfection: A Journey to Healing, Fitness, and Self-Love.

Today, I help women learn how to love themselves, wholeheartedly and forgive themselves of guilt and shame to undo the hurt and pain inflicted by self and others. To truly know, love, and respect oneself, because you are love, you are loved and most of all, you are worthy!

Rachel is a Fitness and Lifestyle Enthusiast, Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, and Host of The Confident Woman Podcast. She empowers women to become their best and most confident selves by getting fit from within through the practice of creating a positive mindset, a healthy body, and a soul filled with self-love, self-acceptance, gratitude, and forgiveness.