the art of thinking highly of yourself (without being a totally obnoxious narcissist or something)

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Confession. When I was a little girl (age 8) I would write obnoxious things in my diary. Things like:

Life is so great and exciting, especially when you’re someone like me, good at writing and school and sports!!!!!

One day (age 13) I came across that diary when I was cleaning out my bedroom, and felt mortified by my egocentric and deluded younger self. I threw the diary into a big black garbage bag with the other junk and never saw it again.

Recently (age 40) I came across a quote by singer Edith Piaf (1915-1963):

I had a very high opinion of myself. Perhaps with good reason.

That kind of blew me away. For a woman to not just think and believe such a thing, but to say it out loud? Dude. That takes ladyballs.

One thing I’ve noticed lately in my conversations about women, reading books and magazines about women, listening to other people talk about women, is that everybody seems to take it as a given that women as a group have low self-esteem. A lot of this seems to be attributed to the fact that, bombarded as we are by an insane beauty standard, most of us don’t look like supermodels – a.k.a. ‘genetic freaks’ – and don’t consider ourselves beautiful. Boo hoo.

(For the record, Edith Piaf didn’t consider herself beautiful either. “I’m ugly,” she stated flat-out. “I’m not Venus. I’ve got sagging breasts, a low-slung ass, and little drooping buttocks….But I can still get men.” Indeed. I was reading about her in a book called SEDUCTRESS (Betsy Prioleau), about the great seductresses and enchantresses of history, and Piaf could “get men” until the day she died.)

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I have struggled with self-esteem issues since my teens, but it’s clear in my first long-ago diary that I didn’t start out that way. I acquired my low self-esteem. I learned it. I learned to play down the fact that I was smart, to bend over backwards so as not to “intimidate” people, to feel ashamed of the fact that I read so much and had an odd-for-my-age vocabulary (and mispronounced words), to feel ashamed for reasons I couldn’t pinpoint or articulate. What’s more, it was good to have low self-esteem; anything else was to risk a big head, and who would like me then? Confidence did not endear me to my peers. Insecurity did.

Part of the problem had to do with my undiagnosed ADD, or the fact that I was growing up right-brained in a left-brained world. The right brain – holistic, intuitive, creative – has no sense of structure, details, or time. I could do things that other people couldn’t (write novels, ace certain subjects without bothering to attend class, get a black belt) and yet barely function on a day to day level. I was so disorganized and scattered that when a boyfriend once asked me, “Justine, how do you get through daily life?” I had no honest answer.

But I would say another, equally big part has to do with the innate human tendency to rise or sink to the level of expectation the culture holds for you. We like to claim that we’re not influenced by the world around us, but truth is we’re hardwired to adapt to the herd (which is why choosing your herd is so important). As a girlchild in the early-to-mid 1980s, I wasn’t expected to like math. So I stopped liking math. As a young woman, I wasn’t expected to have high self-esteem. As an older woman, I’m not expected to have high self-esteem either, but I’ve learned to say a cheerful, Fuck that.

I can’t speak for men on this – I’m writing from a deeply female perspective – but I can say that, as women, we seem to police each other when there aren’t men around to do it for us (or the men don’t care, are oblivious, or even supportive and nurturing, as many men are.) Online superstar Danielle LaPorte recently talked about the backlash she received when her star was rising and she was pronounced, by some, to be “too big for her britches”. They might as well have picketed her with signs saying: Danielle! Get back in your place!

Which is not to say that narcissism is, you know, a good thing (although it would seem to have certain advantages, and high-functioning narcissists can do some very good things for society), or that people are wrong to be on guard against it. It just seems that the label is so quickly applied to women who dare to declare their self-confidence, their sense of worth, their own self-interest, that women as a group learn to defend themselves against it by swinging to the opposite extreme.

(If you’re a woman, what’s the one thing you can say online that will ensure you get absolutely massacred? “I’m beautiful.” Even supermodels, who make entire fortunes off their looks, aren’t stupid enough to say it, but will tell stories about what ugly ducklings they were growing up. Even Michelle Pfeiffer wouldn’t admit to it except in a roundabout way – “beautiful women get used a lot” – and complain instead about her bloodshot eyes, her mouth “like a duck”. That’s right. Put Ms Pfeiffer in the ugly corner.)

I don’t think it’s that difficult to distinguish between people with narcissistic disorders and people with high self-esteem. Narcissists – real narcissists – abuse and destroy the people closest to them (and those of you who know what I’m talking about, raise your hand). High self-esteem people, on the other hand, uplift, empower, inspire. They are the Oprahs of your personal world. They make you feel good about yourself, as if their own sense of worth is contagious.

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If you’re a woman (or man) with high self-esteem, what would you do that you’re maybe not doing now?

I have an answer for that:

You would trust yourself.

You would take good care of your health, for one thing, because you value your body too much to trash it. You would honor your strengths and talents – and also your weaknesses, your limitations. Instead of feeling threatened by your imperfections (and other people who might point them out), you would learn how to work around them and form partnerships with people who complement you. You would feel the fear but do it anyway – because you would know, come hell or high water, that you can handle it. You would go after the goals that are worthy of you. You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people think. You wouldn’t confuse their voices with your north-star inner voice. You would say no. You would say yes. You would bring all of yourself to your work, to your life, because you would recognize that every so-called vice has a virtuous flipside, every shadow contains a glint of gold. You would honor your relationships. You would seek your place in the bigger picture. You would empower others. You would look in the mirror and see the cellulite on your thighs, the sag to your breasts, and recognize that you are still innately fascinating; you don’t have to be “born beautiful”, as Diana Vreeland put it, “to be wildly attractive.” (Edith Piaf would agree.)

You would trust yourself.

You would educate your intuition as best you can, and listen to it, and let it lead you, step by step, day by day, even and especially when it takes you into uncharted territory. You would become the ultimate explorer of you. You would tell your story to the world through how you live it, and how you own it.

And this, I would say, is where women are at a disadvantage. We live in a culture that does not encourage women to be epic heroes of their own Big Stories, but the mothers and lovers and wives and mistresses and muses and personal assistants, the femme fatales and fantasies and manic pixie dream girls, in someone else’s Big Story, and this someone else is usually a dude. Even the smart, feisty, bookish girl (if she’s not careful) gets cast as the Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter.

There’s that saying: You have to see it to be it. If you don’t see how you’re entitled to your own Epic Story, your own Big Life, you might just smile and say, That’s all right. You go ahead. I’ll stay here and organize the snack committee. After all, somebody has to.

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Here’s the thing. We, as women, want to be sexy and beautiful and loved; we want to support and nurture; we would die for our kids without thinking twice. We want to be lovers and mothers and wives and mistresses and some of us make damn fine personal assistants and snack committee organizers and see it as good, worthy work that fulfills us.

But kids grow up. Not every marriage works out. Sometimes lovers leave; sometimes we’re the ones doing the leaving. Not to mention that men have this annoying habit of dying before we do.

We want, we need, our own fucking stories.

We want the feminine, but we want the epic feminine. The heroic feminine. The badass feminine. We hear our own call to greatness, and by that I mean: the right to create, to cultivate our own gifts and talents, to pursue mastery, to carve out a place in the world, and lift up the global sisterhood while we’re at it. To taste power for ourselves. To redefine it.

Which is why I don’t think it’s enough to pat women on the head and say, You’re beautiful just as you are! You’re amazing! You’re fabulous! You are YOU and that’s enough! We encourage women to be “selfish” but act as if that “selfishness” is about holding on to your sanity and taking better care of yourself (…so you can take better care of others).

Women don’t want to feel less-than, but we also don’t want empty lip service. Women want, I think, permission to pursue dreams and goals and greatness of our own, and when I say permission I mean a story that supports us, a story that manifests in the social and economic and political structures that make greatness possible without feeling like you have to sacrifice some or all of your womanhood, or that you’ll get massacred for admitting, out loud, that you have some greatness in you, you just need the time and space and energy, the fierce commitment to your own damn self , to bring it out (– and someone else can get the snacks). Women want a grand and inspiring call to action that points the way to a bigger, deeper life, even if it’s still unclear – in the year 2013! – what that kind of badass womanly life is supposed to look like.

Which brings us back to that issue of high self-esteem: important when you have only yourself to find the way, make the way or lead the way.

We need to trust ourselves.

We need to trust each other.

Jul 3, 2013
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45 comments · Add Yours

I’m a big believer in being the hero of your own story. I’m also a huge Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell nerd. But I had a bone to pick with both of these guys, is that all of their archetypes, and journey of the Hero – are told from the perspective of a (western, heterosexual) male. There is a whole section in the Hero with a Thousand Faces called The Woman as Temptress. Soo… what if you’re gay? So what if you are hetero woman and that symbol means jack all to you?

I’m a believer in the power of Mythic stories – and I think we (as a society, as ourselves) need to write new myths for ourselves. If the old stories aren’t working – re-write them. Which is where us artists and writers are more than just entertainers, but shamans. Healing soul wounds and getting rid of outdated stories.

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@Melissa I agree about the Hero’s Journey. I believe that women’s stories are more cyclical, it’s not just one direction forward into the future. It’s seasons of life and going through things in waves and then coming back to them later on in life. Whether it’s with relationships, careers, or kids/parents.

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Fuck, YES! (and I’m not just saying that because you mentioned me in this piece. That would be narcissistic.) Trusting xo

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I love this article. Lately I’ve been trying to express what I love about myself and my life. One of those things is that I love my body. I’m no supermodel but I work to keep it nice and healthy and feel good about how I look. But everyone I express this sentiment to has been incredulous and from the follow up questions I receive it seems to be because I’m naturally introverted and reserved and the assumption in our society is that people who love their bodies are loud and wild and show it off constantly. But I think it is peoples own hangups that lead them to make assumptions about others, and I will continue to be even more open about what I love about myself

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Thanks for this, a friendly reminder sometimes makes us stronger in our own strength. In my strength. I am getting there, but it is inspiring to have sisters who believe this is the right path.

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I think I’m going to devour this a second time because it’s too juicy not to. The strange and beautiful thing is I’m seeing this type of message all around me. Maybe it’s because I’m wildly fascinated with confidence and sexuality and sacred seduction as of late or maybe it’s because there’s a shift happening. Either way, it’s good. Very, very good and empowering and all that. So yes, cheers to you and thank you, sweet rebel angel.

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I think that the self-trust emerges after facing our inner Abyss(es) and making friends with ourselves there. The Abyss is that terrifying freefall place where one sees that there is no support outside of oneself. It’s in the Abyss where you learn to sit and have a quiet tea in order to learn how not to run away from ourselves. And the Abyss provides the framework with which we can grow our true selves.

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Once again you have shone – it’s funny how we believe others when they say that what we have written is so true, yet we don’t have full confidence in ourselves. It’s time. Time for us all to stand up and stand proud. Cx

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@Melissa @Nathalie Lussier The irritating thing about Campbell — and I am a big fan of his — is that he just wasn’t interested in the idea of a heroine’s journey. He didn’t even think women needed to go on a quest — we were instead the “goal” of the quest, the damsel in need of rescue, the arriving place for the hero. (Reminds me a bit of the whole Kabbalah idea that women are spiritually “perfect” and it’s our job on earth to help men spiritually evolve, to channel and reflect their light. Once again, woman defined as helpmeet, in terms of her influence and impact on men.)

But there are some great women writers who have done some really fascinating stuff on the heroine’s journey — Valerie Estelle Frankel, Maureen Murdock, Marion Woodman.

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This is inspiring. With such great timing, too. I am not a lawyer, but I was in court yesterday acting as my own attorney, surrounded by men that already thought I was incapable of day-to-day functioning. Having not only overcome that environment, but also succeeding, I had to give myself many pats on the back.
I am not ashamed to be proud of myself.
I am badass and so are you!

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This post is truly AMAZING! What food for the female spirit. Thank you

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Yes, yes, yes. Thank you Justine!

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Amazing and inspiring post. Thank you so much for writing this, I will be sharing! xoxo

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@Justine, I promise you I do not live under a rock, or any other hiding place that would act to seal me off from the information flow of society. But, until today, I did not know your name. Today, I know your name and much of your story. The path I followed to learn of you was because your words captivated me to chase down each pink path, each hyperlink to learn more about this woman who sings this song of my heart, my desire to trust in me, my intuition, my own inner worth, my own right journey. Today I embrace the word TRUST.
Oh happy I am to know that you will continue to write and write and write. Your message is delivered with such perfect intensity – I want to read it again and again and again. Yes, I AM your newest fan. (Now don’t go all narcissistic on me!!)

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Thank you Justine for sharing that.

I’ve been battling with that fear of not being accepted as a powerful woman for all my life. I’ve always known I had something special to share but somehow felt not good enough and that people would envy me even destroy me if I had the audacity to show my light…. so I looked into what I call “the deeper truth”. I looked at that story that isn’t even my own, a story of women who envy and belittle female power because they don’t believe they can ever have it… a story of men who are afraid of female greatness.

My conclusion, just find the ones that support your growth, make the choice to risk your life or embrace the life of a meager, diminished woman who lives in constant fear that her greatness might be seen of that someone might feel threatened by it. It may seem not like much of a choice but it’s a choice. The choice to raise above victim-hood and just say “f*** it! That’s their problem if they can’t handle it because I can. I’m going to enjoy this and I’m going to delight in all my accomplishments. I’m going for the life of my dreams…”

I demand this World to grow up and grow out of fear of the female hero. It’s the fear of the man who fears not to be loved if he’s no longer needed. What if he could be loved any way for who he is and not what he has to offer. What if all women made the choice to embrace the hero in them? Who would be envious then? We have much evolving to do but like you said it starts within. I will do my best to keep my eyes fixed on that vision.

It feels good to know that I’m not alone.

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@justine musk Here, here. A good reminder that we can still enjoy things and be mindful of their faults. I will definitely be sure to check out those authors that you mention.

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Definitely worth a second devour. I want everyone want to read your post. Oh, wait. That’s probably narcissistic of me. I loved the Edith Piaf anecdotes. And I so appreciate you being male-inclusive. No matter the chatter, we all need to follow the north-star inner voice (love that).

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I’m doing a session on Self Esteem in Decorating and several of your points fit right in.
http://thecentrichome.blogspot.com

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Justine Musk – this is excellent. How could we change the world if this subject became a school subject, taught to girls all over? Radically – that’s how.

Wonderful stuff!

Greetings from the alpine air of the Swiss Alps,
Ali

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I feel a bit like a broken record every time I comment on one of your posts, but I cannot get over how often your writing touches a deep core in me. My parents were always telling me that I was getting “too big for my britches” (and I suspect they still feel this way). It’s only recently that I realized those britches must really, really tiny! So tiny in fact that only disappearing would make me small enough for them to fit. Actually, I may have understood this on some level, explaining my deep and often suicidal depressions…

This loud, larger-than-life, “too smart for her own good” (another present from my parents) woman is going to spend some time thinking about her own heroine’s journey today!

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Absolutely loved this!
Its far too easy in this world to stay tucked safely in our comfort zone of wife/mother and play small so as not to upset the apple cart of others opinions of us. I’ve recently bumped up against this with a friend repeatedly questioning me as to why I think I am worth what I charge my clients. It has really helped me to clarify what it is I am doing and why and to hell with others opinions!
Thanks for the timely article

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Ok this is the first of your posts I’ve read and although I could rave and contribute my own extended comments, I just wanna say…..I like your style. A lot. Thanks for the inspiration!

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Love this post, thanks!

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Justine, definitely resonate with this post. Especially section 3. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Stepping up into our power and feeling good in it. Listening to the “north-star inner voice”, I call it my inner compass, is so important. And yes, yes, yes to being the Epic Heroine in our own story. Rock on.

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Narcissistic bitches; all of you. The “man” too. Just to be male inclusive.

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Brilliant post. You’ve just summed me up and the next stage I’m in. Thank you for writing so simply and freeing up ridiculous thoughts from my being. It took a long time to learn when to say when to mistreatment of myself from others, and therefore to myself. Now it’s a piece of cake to recognize when something is not serving me.
The thing that made me change is I wanted my boys to see a woman. So I had to become one. I truly hope others embrace who they are and make no apologies.

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@Panza Choens You know, Panza, comments like yours remind me how necessary it is to write posts like this. Good luck to you, it sounds like you’re hurting.

Thank you, everybody. Means so much + is deeply appreciated.

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I wish you knew just how much this affects me as much as you. I’m dying to say ‘men’ and not ‘women’ but I don’t really think I’m in a position to speak for men in a generality. I know how I feel… and how I’ve struggled with feeling enough, even when deep down I know how talented I am and what a gift I’ve been given.

Women to me (for the most part) seem so confident and together… and even if you’re saying they’re not…. or at times you’re not. It almost makes me feel like there’s something in the water….. I’ve talked to friends about being hypnotized out of this bullshit that says that others deserve “X” but I don’t…. as if my success in a field would take away from another. Absurdity!

I love this post and thank you for writing it. I hope that men ALSO read it though because I really believe it applies to us all. (again.. I don’t know that… but it applied to me…. so thank you :) )

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It makes me sad that we have been conditioned to believe in every relationship there is only one “hero” that in order for one to shine, the other has to be the supporting role.

My husband and I are trying hard to show our little ones that you are the hero in your own story, the supporting cast in a number of others and the extra in a multitude of other people’s stories. Especially our girls, who are wild, strong and aggressive naturally. .

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I love, love , love this article! Damn right, I want my Epic Feminine. Bring it on!

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Fantastic post, Justine; found it via Danielle’s FB post (so thx to DLP for sharing). Great reminders. Bam!

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I have been reading Bill Plotkins work on soul craft and the authentic self which I highly recommend. It sounds to me that that is really all that you are advocating. Our culture doesn’t want us to be authentic because then we would not be anxious, pill popping, nip tucking, frenzied consumers hoping to be beautiful enough to be accepted someday. Acceptance can be a powerful sword to hold over others unless you let it go. Thanks for the great article.

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This is so important. Thank you! I found you through Shauntelle at http://beingisaverb.com/ and she raved about you so I had to come read for myself. Wow, talk about divine intervention. THIS. THIS is the story of personhood and heroism I want myself, my daughters and all the Womens to live. Great words. I think I’m gonna go reread them now. :)
-Nicole

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Made my day! Maybe the rest of my days. You capture this beautifully, as always.

I want to print and frame this for my granddaughters, ages 4 and 7. You are so so right on so many levels.

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This is an amazing post and a fantastic way to start my day ;-)

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Thank you. Blogs like this help me raise my 9 year old daughter in the correct way. Being a part-time dad I need to try to pack in as much positive influences in her life as I can as well as saying the right things when I see her and as the clichés go, there are no manuals. So any tiny little thing helps as in the long run it all adds up. She’s at that age where she’s just put on the puppy fat as she heads in to puberty. Given her mother’s figure she’ll have no problem later in life but she is extremely conscious of it at the moment. Everything a parent does is picked up by the children from how good you say you were at Maths at school to being a chubby teenager. the key is letting them find their own way whilst you gently guide them. It’s big role & I’m relishing it. That being said her kid brother is a piece of cake as he’s only ever bothered by whether his Kindle/iPad/3DS is running low on power…

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I have a lot to learn from a narcissist.

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I was sent your post by my daughter. I loved it so much ! I was surprised to read all the stuff you have written. I am from India and pretty well educated , but have been the victim of all the prejudices that you have described so beautifully. In fact, we in the East feel that the women in the West have it so good as they don’t have to go through life with all the road blocks that we have to go through.
I have been a single mom and have earned my living for over thirty years. While I was married I was facing these same prejudices from my husband and my in -laws and at other times from my own mother . It has been so difficult to fight the efforts to pull you back and try to move ahead. Self -esteem has definitely taken a hit. My jobs have not been all that I would have liked them to be , as I was constrained by my circumstances. I have not earned as much as I believe I was capable of . But at 58 , I have decided that I will take charge of my life and try again and see what I can achieve now. I am now trying to fulfil my potential and as much as I can.

What’s important, which you have reiterated , is to believe in your own instincts and your intuition and think for your own good, which society does not allow you to do.

Thank you once again for putting together our angst so beautifully. We do need the Epic Feminine !!

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I love this post. This is a subject about which I care deeply. I write often about power: mostly what it was like to give it away, and what it is like taking it back. I feel the Epic Feminine in me all the time now. She will not be quieted, she will not be patronized, she will not go back to sleep. She knows how dangerous she is. She knows what it means to wield power, and she is part of the hidden primal scream of the whole sisterhood: wild and furious and ready to change the game.

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U R soooo FN insightful and cool…LOVE IT…ALL of it…Keep doing all that you’re doing… Perfect!

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Advice that I believe in and attempt to follow in the quest for “LadyBalls”:
**Never let how others think, talk or what they do, define how you choose to love and accept who you are.
**Media’s expectation on the beauty and sexiness of a women is nothing more than a learned behavior.
**There is no reality in that what-so-ever except the obsessed way of thinking in which you allow.
**Food is not your enemy, it is in the allowing of messages from others dictate to you, their ideas on what perfect is.
**There is a belief that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, if there is any truth to this, you must not have your eyes open when looking at your own reflection.
**A positive self-image is vital to our own reflection, as we will never be able to see ourselves through another persons eyes, only our own.

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I don’t know how or why I was suddenly on a list to have this sent to me but it was just what I needed this moment.

Ladyballs. Love it and I will use it and help it become next year’s new dictionary word.

Epic strong heroines that aren’t stereotyped and patterned after the few kickass females in literature, yes! We need them desperately for certain.

I am finishing up a small novel and the main character is a young woman coming of age, Anna. She is like nothing you have seen before. She learns to respond not in fear for fear is discordant and interferes with the song the universe sings but rather to be governed by love because love is the currency of heaven.

I am a writer, artist, scientist, font of useless information, extrovert and glad to have found you.

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Love your bad ass, in your face attitude, Justine. Interesting how the older we become the more we resemble our feisty, smart, headstrong, 10-year-old tomboy selves that refused to take no for answer. You will love my story http://pattymackz.com/wordpress/

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The idea of being the hero of your own story really connected with me. I used to genuinely believe that my role in life was to be other peoples sidekick. That if I was in a movie, I’d be a secondary character.

I don’t believe that anymore, but it’s definitely a hard thing to stop acting like a doormat when you’ve been doing it for so long.

My parents, whenever I’d show them a thing I’d done that I was proud of, would compliment me but then whenever I talked about all the great things I was going to be – a writer, an illustrator, an animator, they ‘reminded’ me that it was unlikely that I’d get in since the industry was a challenging one and maybe I should go for something more realistic. They were right, the industry is challenging, but the people who get into it were in exactly the same place as me at some point or another, the only difference between myself and them is that they believed in themselves and kept striving for their dreams.

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Impressive post. Hadn’t thought about Campbell’s take on women before, learned something there.

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