A few months ago, I stumbled across an Instagram account that was just irresistible. Mary is a strong, creative, energetic, authentic woman talking about the benefits (and challenges) of practicing self-love, and I adore her style. She offers resources at her website, Uncustomary, including blog posts, a podcast, a fun (and affordable!) membership service, a book, much more. We had a couple conversations and now, OMGOSH are we friends. I’ve written before about how we can rock our look as ChronicBabes; this babe rocks it Every. Dang. Day.

Today, she’s hosting me over at her Uncustomary podcast, and I’m hosting another conversation here, too—because we both believe women with chronic illness deserve to love themselves deeply, no matter how sick they are. And have fun while they’re at it!

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Jenni: You’re all about the self-love and its impact on leading a happy life. What brought you to this work?

Mary: The short answer is knowing what it’s like to be on the complete opposite end of the spectrum! I started developing multiple mental illnesses at just eight years old, and it seriously impacted my adolescence in terms of self-esteem and overall happiness. Feeling like I wasn’t in control of my body made me hate my body and myself which spiraled deeper and deeper. I finally got to a point where my symptoms were controlling my life and I knew if I didn’t at least try to do something about it, I was going to end up in a place I didn’t want to be. So I started cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is one of the huge stepping stones I pivoted on and feel changed my life.

I basically learned how to deal with some of the most obtrusive symptoms in my life, and by doing that I felt this mental space open up in my mind. I finally wasn’t totally consumed by just getting through the day; going from one symptom to the next… I had room to wiggle around! I could even get creative! I dove back into crafty stuff I had missed from my childhood and started documenting it. From there emerged a blog, and that blog chronicled the progress of the journey of my self-love exploration and discovery that is ever-growing.

mary england holding a big sign that says "honk if you love yourself"

Essentially, I realized that if someone who had five mental illnesses, a palm-full of pills to take just to function, and a panic attack metaphorically scheduled on her Google Calendar could start loving the body that had gained a hundred pounds in the process (from medication side effects) and herself, that it was possible for other people in better and even worse situations. I wanted to provide my perspective in hopes it would be useful to someone, and I believe it has so far.

Re-defining self-love and conquering obstacles

What do you think are the biggest or most common obstacles for women who try to achieve a deep sense of self-love?

I think a huge misconception is that self-love is a box you can check off your to-do list. There are no quick fixes in self-love—it’s all a deep dive. It’s scary, but if you want that beautiful shiny result you have to work for it.

In addition to that, I find people fail to do two very important things when embarking on their self-love journey. One: Create a personal definition of “happiness” for themselves, and Two: Focus on overall contentment instead of euphoric spikes. Happiness is different for each of us, and if we’re making a goal of any kind, it should be as “measurable” as possible, so why not decide to literally spell out what happiness means to you? Secondly, amazing jumps of ecstatic joy on your happiness scale are great and fun, but ultimately, your goal is actually to cultivate a life that gives you satisfaction, contentment, and happiness on a daily basis as much as possible instead of chasing a great feeling that might only happen once in a blue moon.

mary england sitting among toys and colorful decor

How important is our support system—our “team”—when it comes to nurturing love of self?

Self-love sometimes incorrectly implies the work you’re doing is alone, but don’t let the semantics fool you; no one accomplishes anything alone. I am a happy, satisfied, more-successful-by-the-day woman, but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support of my friends, boyfriend, father, followers, etc. You don’t have to be alone sitting atop a rock in the woods to be a self-love expert. In fact, I think the best self-love advocates do regularly engage with people (on whatever terms feels best to them), and encourage them to love themselves as need be as well as ASK FOR HELP when they need it.

There is nothing wrong with asking for advice, support, help, whatever. It doesn’t mean you’re a fake, a phony, a poser, a loser. It means you’re human and you have a goal in sight, would like to reach it, and recognize the best thing for your mental and physical health would be to enlist the help of someone else to finish up that goal.

What kinds of little things can we do day to day to slowly build up our self-esteem?

Self-esteem, by definition, is created as a result of how other people have treated us. So all the bullies, negative comments, and shitty looks have affected your self-esteem. What sucks is it’s your job to negate all the adversity of the other seven billion people you can’t control and try to build yourself up as much and as often as possible because you’re the only one in charge of that task. I like to think that if we build up enough “positivity reserves,” when adversity hits us, we won’t go into the negative because we have this shield ready to protect us. Your job is to build that shield with self-esteem.

Ways you can build your self-esteem are infinite. Journaling is an incredible tool, especially with listing. List your strengths, the compliments people give you, and a bunch of positive affirmations that you can start saying out loud every day (or write them down on sticky notes that you post around your house, slap on the inside of your kitchen cabinets, or on your car’s sun visor). Take yourself out on a date, just you and you, doing whatever you want to do; you don’t need anyone else. Do something silly or crazy in public and declare once and for all that you don’t give a crap what people think about you because this is what you feel like doing in that current moment. If they want to watch they get that privilege, but if they think you’re crazy, that’s their loss. Check out this list of 50 Ways To Boost Your Self-Esteem.

confetti spelling out "self love"

I LOVE your sense of color. What’s your FAVORITE color? And why is it important to you to incorporate lots of color into your work? (Like, your book is in full color, which is awesome!)

Thank you! My favorite color since I was a baby is bright yellow! It stands out to me more than any other color by 10X. I think having synesthesia plays into it (a neurological condition where different wires in your brain are crossed and you experience one physical sensation as a result of a stimulus of another physical sensation). Colors are associated with emotions, moods, letters, numbers, etc. And I’m convinced I experience them slightly more vividly than average.

Regardless of the synesthesia, I’ve always loved color! I gasp at rainbows. When I made a list of 100 Things I’m Grateful For, first thing I wrote down was, “Being able to see in color.” I’m a very visual person and color just makes me happier. (It works in reverse, too! I don’t even realize it, but if I’m depressed I’ll dress in dark colors and that’s a cue for my friends to ask me what’s wrong.)

As far as color and my work, I don’t really do anything I don’t feel. I make sure that if I’m writing a blog post, doing an art installation, or publishing a book, that it’s not only something that I would enjoy experiencing as well, but that it feels like a tangible version of me. I’ve never had a problem with branding because of that. I just do what feels like me and it ends up looking right.

Publishing a book was the number one thing on my Bucket List, but I would have rather not published it than create a black and white piece of text. It doesn’t represent me, and if I’m going to sign my name to something, you better be sure it’s gonna be rainbow.

mary england holding a membership card

I also LOVE your sense of play—I can tell that’s important to you. I also love to be silly and playful! Is that an essential component of loving yourself? What about babes who are a little more shy and introverted?

I honestly think there’s about a dozen “pillars” or whatever you want to call them of self-love that equally contribute to self-love, and play is one of them! Play is something we forget to engage in as adults, even if we’re enticed to. It’s something we’re told is for a specific age group, and participating in play outside of that bracket of chronological age is childish in a bad way. Well, I think it’s necessary.

Children laugh hundreds of times more than us every day and they have a sense of wonder and imagination most of us envy. What if we were to all schedule time for play as adults the same way we schedule errands and appointments? I think we’d be happier, lighter, and more ready for problems as they’re flung our way. It’s a huge stress reliever and a great way to practice self-care.

Also, play is different for everyone. There’s a ton of different ways to play. For you it might be being in nature, for someone else it might be writing poetry, for me it might be drawing on the ground with sidewalk chalk. It doesn’t have to be in the aisle at the toy store for it to “count” as play. But if you enjoyed it as a child, think it sounds fun still, and are choosing not to do it, I recommend carving out 45 minutes this week to dedicate to that activity and see how you feel afterwards. I bet a bunch of money it’s not worse.

You’ve written before (and recorded a podcast episode about) chronic illness and the importance of self-love when living as a ChronicBabe. Can you share a few strategies you think are most impactful for women with chronic illness? (Maybe you’ve learned some lessons from friends who’ve encountered illness or disability, even temporarily.)

Yes! Like I’ve said, the reason I recorded that podcast and created the group blog post was because I didn’t want to speak on behalf of a group of people whom I know nothing about (their struggle). I have mental illness, which can definitely be categorized as a chronic illness, but when I realized so many of my followers were struggling with chronic illness of the physical variety, I really wanted to provide a resource for them that related to self-care and I didn’t feel comfortable being the voice that gave that advice, so I outsourced it. (You wouldn’t want an AA sponsor who never had an addiction, right?)

you got this

Conducting those interviews on something I felt I knew very little about was very eye-opening for me. (And I think that’s a lesson in general for everyone—all we have to do is ask!) Some of the things I learned that stuck with me the most have been how differently people treat you when you have a piece of equipment that represents that you’re sick or injured in some capacity. It’s alarming how rude and ridiculous strangers can be when someone has something as simple as a broken ankle.

I think the most eye-opening thing, honestly, is how quickly an illness can take hold of you, actually. I know people who were like the Energizer Bunny and then all of a sudden it’s physically painful and a mental chore for them to even think about taking a shower. That’s really stuck with me. It can happen to anyone, at any age, with no warning. No one knows what anyone else is going through, and if I hear someone say, “But you don’t look sick!” to someone, I might just lose my no-violence policy. 😉

For babes who are just meeting you, what’s the best next step for them to take if they want to dive into your world? (I mean, who WOULDN’T?!)

I would love to have you ChronicBabes dive over into the Uncustomary Babe Universe! There’s a support group, digital downloads (100’s of lists + images), a membership card, and happy snail mail every single month waiting for you if you become an Uncustomary Babe Member. I’m so happy to have shared this space, and I hope to meet you very soon!