If Jillie Johnston could ask all the women of the world to do one thing, it would be this:
Write yourself a love letter.
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Identify what you love about yourself and get it down in words, images, song -- any way that suits you, any way you can.
Johnston, 25, of Naperville, wrote her self-love letter a year and a half ago. It sparked a project she's calling Love Letters to Yourself, a journey that has her seeking letters from women and men across the country to compile into a book.
The mission already has reached hundreds with a message of self-empowerment, telling everyone who will listen, "You have everything you need within you."
And it continues with a broader goal of funding women's empowerment programs and launching a center where women and men can come for counseling, healing, retreats, yoga and the luxury of being welcomed just as they are.
"I want every woman to write themselves a love letter and fill that void that everyone feels with their own self-love," Johnston says. "This letter is really just a symbolic commitment to yourself."
Johnston penned her love letter in April 2012, when she was a recent college graduate who working in the field she got her degree in, wasn't getting along with her family and wasn't happy at home.
What she thought she wanted was for someone to write her a love letter, tell her they cared for her unconditionally and that they weren't going anywhere.
But a letter from someone else would suffice for only a few days; the love she needed would have to come from within.
"I realized I need to write a love letter to myself because that is the only love that isn't going anywhere," she says. "No one else's approval will ever fill this void I feel inside myself."
Johnston got up from the bed where she found herself, low on self-worth from not using her degree in sociology and anthropology and down on love from her parents splitting up, and started writing. Those who have gained encouragement from her project are thankful she did.
"With my parents' divorce, it made me question what love really is and it sent me on this journey of defining what love is to me," Johnston says. "Through that, I found self-love."
Power of self-love
Romantic love tends to get all the attention, but Johnston says self-love can be the real superhero.
If people truly loved themselves, think of all the unhealthy and self-destructive things that would stop, she says during a visit to a downtown Naperville coffee shop. Eating disorders, sexual abuse, domestic violence -- people wouldn't impose or endure these behaviors if they realized they don't have to sacrifice who they are or what they believe in for anyone else's love, she says. "You have everything you need within you."
Johnston started Love Letters to Yourself as a blog and a few letters trickled in from readers across the country.
"But I realized people don't love themselves," she says. "They don't know how to write a love letter to themselves because they don't love themselves."
She started offering workshops, leading groups through exercises designed to kick-start their journeys toward self-love. She's presented to people ages 7 to 70, including clients of Mary Ellen Schoenjohn's health coaching project The Kitchen Remix. The business leads people on 21-day "restarts" using a vegan diet, yoga and journaling to cleanse the body and mind of unhealthy substances.
"What made sense was so many of the clients with whom we work haven't found that self-love yet," says Schoenjohn, 45, of Naperville. "You have to have that self-love component in order to make that change."
Meggie Zayas, 23, of Lombard, says she had written something of a love letter to herself before meeting Johnston. A North Central College graduate who is an office manager at an insurance brokerage and volunteers for causes against domestic abuse and sexual assault, Zayas says she has overcome struggles with eating and self-harm largely by affirming "I am confident; I am capable; I can do this."
It's a statement of self-love, if Johnston has ever seen one. "You have everything you need within you."
"I didn't think of it necessarily as a love letter, just catharsis, getting it all out there," Zayas says. "I can embrace my femininity, compete in the business world, handle all my nonprofit work. I can do all of this because I am all I need, I'm my biggest supporter."
Journey to love
Johnston says she always has been passionate about women's empowerment and leadership. But her own journey toward self-love has involved confronting fears of the unknown and learning to build a career combining a job at Lululemon Athletica in downtown Naperville with the Love Letters project. In her letter, she confesses doubts about worthiness for success, but commits to keep growing into the person she wants to become. Zayas, who helps post to the Facebook and Twitter pages for Love Letters to Yourself, says Johnston's self-awareness helps her identify the hurdles others face.
"She is very good at just sensing," Zayas says. "If someone starts talking about a topic that might be bothering them, she does a very good job at sensing that and directing the conversation to that."
Johnston's poignant and pointed questions have worked on Schoenjohn, too, although as a mother with past careers in marketing, college advising and coaching, she says, "I thought I had my stuff together."
"It's amazing how someone who is a couple decades younger than me could really show me some things about myself," Schoenjohn says. "I really like her message and what she has to say."
And what does Johnston's love letter say? "You are amazing. And the fact you care and realize the importance of loving yourself is a huge step; have strength in that."
"The thing with this love letter is it can't be rushed," Johnston says. "Some people might have to cultivate their journey and their relationship for a while before they can even get to the point of their love letter."
Book of letters
In about two years, Johnston would like to grow the 30 to 40 letters she has so far into a book of at least 100.
"It would be very motivating, very positive for women and men to have the opportunity to read that," Schoenjohn says. "The movement is very powerful at any age."
Johnston envisions a coffee table-style book in the same vein as the popular "Postsecret" series by Frank Warren, featuring artfully designed anonymous confessions on postcards.
People can submit signed or anonymous love letters in the form of poems, paintings, collages or in more traditional prose at loveletterstoyourself.wordpress.com. Johnston asks writers also to send a photo of themselves holding a sign that says what they love about themselves. Hers says "I love my passion."
"Besides just a book, I want to create a global movement to write letters and go on this journey of self-love," she says.
The global part will get started this year, when Johnston travels to Peru for five months to run a women's empowerment program through the Otra Cosa Network, and local efforts have been building in recent months.
On her cellphone voice mail, Johnston leaves callers with one question: "What will you do with this one wild and precious life?"
And through her Love Letters project -- with the blog, the workshops and the goals of a book and a women's center -- she hopes to leave them with one message: "You have everything you need within you."
"Just be true to who you are. Don't conform to societal standards just because that's what the norm is," she says. "Live your passions, live your dreams, live your love."