Last week I spend a few days gathering with 4 dear university friends almost 20 years after we all lived together.
And I confess that leading up to the gathering, I was nervous. Not at first, but then the conversation of us all bringing our old photos from that time came up and I found myself really bothered by the idea of looking at them.
And the closer it came, the more my nerves rose about it.
Now, it wasn’t that I was worried about reacting to how my body looked in it. That would have been the case even just 10 years ago but is at the heart of the work I’ve been doing around body image and photos so I’ve become well practiced in supporting myself (and others) around that.
But I was nervous about seeing her. The one in the photos.
The 20-year-old Vivienne who I know would be waiting for me there.
It’s not that I don’t think about her. I do think of her often, that year of my life, and then I try to get it out of my mind. You see, that year these friends and I lived together, in particular, was a really really tough year in a variety of ways.
I didn’t want to look in her eyes and know what she was feeling. It was becoming clear that I had been avoiding her for a long time.
I’ve been doing a lot of work around photo resilience lately and so it was on my mind, knowing that what was coming up for me…this resistance, was a part of that journey for me. Photo resilience, to me, doesn’t mean that we ONLY feel good about our photos. It’s about how we respond and work through the tender emotions and responses that come up around photos.
It’s about showing up in a conversation with ourselves and staying when the conversation gets tough. And this was most definitely a place where I had 100% been resistant to my own photo resilience, where I hadn’t even let myself engage in the conversation with myself about this era of photos.
So as we all gathered and opened up the piles of photo books and envelopes of printed photos. Stories flowed out and some of the photos made me crack up, but there was that underlying element I had been nervous about. Because there she was awaiting me just like I remembered. I looked her in the eye, the 20 year old Vivienne I had been avoiding. And I knew what I needed to do. I let myself feel it. I looked her in the eyes. I didn’t run away from her this time.
Because to me, that is photo resilience. Feeling it all. Before, during and after seeing the photos and giving ourselves tools for support along the way.
To not try to force myself into feeling positive, but instead, to let the natural emotional progression I’d been trying to repress be free to be felt.
I sat with my resistance, the vulnerability of looking at myself in these photos. What became clear to me though is that I’m not her anymore. I knew that of course, which is why I was trying to distance myself from my 20 year old self.
But I realized that what was at the heart of what I was resisting was also where I could access my resource of compassion for her.
So offered her the compassion that my 39 year old self does have for her. I sent her love. I showed up for her the best I could because ignoring her wasn’t doing me any good, just building up anxiety.
Sometimes looking back isn’t easy. But that’s how we heal those parts of ourselves that feel tender about old photos, the ones that stand out as the pivotal moments.
And by looking ourselves in the eye and welcoming in that conversation we can help neutralize the charge around it, to ground the energy. Of course, this is not something we need to force or demand of ourselves. To me, that resistance and nervousness was actually a sign that the work was asking to be done (and of course, for some of us, we might also need the support of a therapist to do this work of looking back). But photos truly don’t have to be a place of anxiety or sadness. They can be a place of neutrality and exploration if we let them.
What happened after surprised me even more. One of my friends brought out a bunch of old letters I had written to her and other momentos from that time and our connection. Oh my, had I known this was coming too, I would have been equally as nervous as I was about the photos. Looking back is hard work. But there it was, this stack of letters in my familiar script.
I opened the first letter I just started to weep. Sitting with the photos had cracked something open in me and these letters were taking me deeper in.
The words and the photos brought me back to a self I was just learning to love. I think that is what a lot of the anxiety was about too. I didn’t love myself then and even though I’ve done such big work on learning to love myself now, I hadn’t gone back to how it felt to be in the midst of that process at this really pivotal time.
I had to go back and learn to love her too.
And while I didn’t put that expectation on myself in this process of looking at old photos and opening up these old letters I had written, that is what happened. The words and the photos held this incredibly open-hearted 20-year-old (and yes, as vulnerable and messy as being so open-hearted brings).
I saw her incredible capacity to love others that would later become her capacity to love herself too.
I saw her visions for herself for the future.
I saw her learning to be loved and learning about heartbreak.
I saw her in the midst of perhaps an awkward stage of figuring out who she was.
I saw her awakening to her self-critique and how with support, she was starting to try to shed it but was still very much in the depths of it.
I’ve spent so long trying to not see her, knowing that she FELT SO MUCH and not wanting to go back to all that emotion.
I walked away from a few days that I had been incredibly nervous about, feeling like I found something unexpected in these photos, letters, and conversations. I had found a part of myself again, amongst those friends and our dynamics.
And yes, amongst the photos that told that story, even if it was a hard one to see.
I left this gathering feeling seen in a way I didn’t expect. From others, but maybe most importantly, from myself.
I had been trying so hard not to see her, for years but it was time to start that conversation with myself again, with my history.
I’m grateful for 20 year old Vivienne patiently awaiting me in those photos and in the memories that surround them.
It was time to see her again.
To look at the young woman in the photos eye to eye nearly 20 years later. So I put my camera on the patio ledge and let myself be seen now too. I let myself just see what needed to be heard, which is one of my resilience practices. I may look sad in that photo but that’s not what I see.
I see a woman stepping up to her old stories, to her photo resilience and letting herself feel it all again.
So, in case you’re reading it and know that feeling all too well and are having some old stories come up, here’s a few jumping off points to explore:
- What do you want to say to the person looking back at yourself in the lens? Write them a lil’ note and see what flows out.
- What is the context of your life in this time? What was going on that could help you see YOU in these photos more clearly rather than just notice the body stories coming up now?
As well remember that this was one photo taken in one quick moment, probably in an era where we were using disposable cameras and didn’t take as many photos as we do now so it really is a snapshot of one moment in your life! Invite in compassion for the person awaiting you in that photo and remember that they are as worthy of your love looking back as you are of your own love here in the present.
This is the kind of work we’re doing in the upcoming Photo Resilience class running August 7th-18th. I’m sharing the tools that I used during this time of healing how I saw myself (and continue to use to remain resilient).
Get more details about the Photo Resilience class here. Or if you haven’t experienced the Be Your Own Beloved class or are looking for an even more gentle emergence into seeing yourself with compassion through your camera, there is a session of that program running this September!