'You're so up yourself." As far as insults go – and as teenage girls, we knew how far they could go – this one was right up there. To be "up yourself ", or worse to "love yourself ", was most unwelcome, implying that you thought you were better than everyone else. And that, as determined by the self-appointed arbiters of appropriate conduct (which every high school seems to have), was simply not cool.
As a teenager, I went out of my way to display no confidence. This applied to everything from my looks (no risk there: I knew that pale skin and freckles were the least appealing combination possible), to any talents that started to reveal themselves, however mild (see, there I go again). I batted away compliments with frantic, forced humility. I played small – smaller than I could have done – so as not to draw attention. Self-worth of any kind just wasn't a good look.
"Don't get too big for your boots," adults would caution. A friend's mum would tell her to "play it down" (her intelligence, that is) lest she become a target for other kids who thought she might think she was a step up the ladder.
You wouldn't dare be caught looking admiringly at yourself in a mirror, or brushing your hair for any longer than was necessary to get the knots out.
A friend studying photography asked to take my picture. "As if," I retorted. Not because I didn't want to her to, but because of what might others think. You wouldn't want to risk any inference that you might have "tickets on yourself ". At my Catholic high school, modesty was valued above all other attributes.
This learnt capacity for self-deprecation, the decades of conditioning to appear less than we are, takes work to unravel. I still apologise for my vanity, playfully refusing to be snapped for Instagram posts until I have a minute to apply make-up and tousle my hair.
A friend pulled me up on this recently, not for the make-up (no less censoring than an Insta filter) but for feeling the need to explain myself.
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to look your best," she said.
We're so conditioned to having to be all nonchalant about ourselves (inwardly and outwardly) that it took me aback. To be comfortable with embracing yourself takes a lot of getting used to. Blessedly, the self-love tide is turning.
We now know that a healthy sense of self-worth is a prerequisite for a contented existence. "Research shows that if you don't have the capacity to be in a loving relationship with yourself and fully accepting of yourself – talking kindly and compassionately with loving acceptance to yourself – it's virtually impossible to be those things in relation to another person," says Eloise King, founder of The Self-Love Project, an online program which teaches people to cultivate self-worth from a scientific basis.
It takes work and attention to undo what she terms the "critical inner dialogue" from our childhoods, then to rewire our brains to love ourselves.
"New science tells us that the brain is the centre of our daily thoughts, behaviours and actions," says Eloise. "The only way to actively and systematically become more self-loving is to make it habitual. Then you begin to reprogram neural pathways to experience self-love. Over time it becomes your MO, your way of being."
Thankfully, our children are blank canvases, able to start from scratch.
"Remember who you are," I say to my boys, placing my hand on their hearts, reeling off a gushing list of their endless attributes (the innate ones, not the learnt ones) and hoping the words will lodge deeply enough to be indisputable.
The challenge for parents is to imbue our kids with robust self-confidence – teaching them to love and honour themselves deeply – while being careful not to tip them into narcissism and the trap of quantifying their worth via Snapchat likes. To realise their greatness without being a tosser.
The crucial difference is that authentic self-love needs no outside validation. And the best way to teach that is to live it. Hence my slow and tentative journey into a celebration of the self, the hardest kind of love there is.
"It takes energy and effort," says Eloise. "Catch yourself, do the work." She's right. If not for our ourselves, then for our children, who deserve to see how it's done.