“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
I was 17 years old when I read those words from Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time, but I don’t think I fully understood them until now, more than 15 years later.
When I look back—as one does at this time of year—it feels clear: 2020 was a year that asked a lot of questions, and 2021 was a year when I started finding some of the answers.
The years that answer are harder.
The years that answer challenge us to confront hard truths about the world, about the ways we live our life, and about ourselves.
And this year, one of the answers I found was that so much of who I am and how I interact with the world was built on a shaky foundation because it was all external—it was all about appearing perfect and seeing myself through the eyes of others. I defined myself using the words other people had used to define me, which feels good when the words are good but also means you’re constantly looking outside of yourself for answers to the big questions asked in years like 2020: Who am I? What do I want? Am I worthy of love? Does my story matter?
At times this year, I honestly didn’t know the answers to any of those questions.
But then, this year answered back in a big way.
It gave me BTS.
And somewhere in the middle of countless YouTube videos and car singalongs in my bad attempts at Korean and talking to my best friend about these seven men who’d stolen my heart, some of those answers, which had been evading me for so long, started to become louder and clearer. The part of me that had always known those answers—that voice in my gut that has stubbornly stuck around even during years when I didn’t want to listen to her—grew more confident.
Maybe it was the therapy I finally decided to commit to. Maybe it was the self-compassion journaling and the hard work I started putting in to understand myself and to be gentle with myself instead of always looking to shame and punish.
It was all of that.
But it was also BTS.
Because it can’t be a coincidence that the year that taught me that I hadn’t ever learned to love myself as I am in an internal way—independent of how other people perceive me—also brought me into the orbit of a band who sing songs with lyrics like:
You’ve shown me I have reasons I should love myself…
I am the one I should love in this world…
You can’t stop me loving myself…
That’s the big lesson I learned from BTS this year—and it’s the answer to one of the questions asked by years like 2020, years when I felt isolated from the other people I always looked to when I needed to see what about me was worth loving, why I should love myself:
Loving myself doesn’t require anyone else’s permission.
And there are times when that seems easy and times when that seems like such a lofty concept that it’s impossible to put into practice. But luckily, BTS has illuminated the path not just for the big picture of self-love, but also for the million little ways we can actually put it into practice. From each of the seven members of this band, I’ve learned lessons about what it means to love yourself and why that should be the most important resolution I make going forward—to commit to a practice of truly, completely learning how to love myself.
From Jung Kook, I’ve learned to show the world exactly who I am and to find the bravery to be a little rebellious when it comes to defying society’s expectations of who I should be. With his full sleeve of gorgeous tattoos and shiny new eyebrow and lip piercings, this was the year we saw JK fully embrace the version of himself he wanted to show the world, and it was beautiful (and let’s all be honest, hot as hell). He knows who he is, and he feels brave and strong enough to show that to a world that can sometimes have strict ideas about what a “good” young idol should look like. And as someone who got her first tattoo this year (and in a visible place, which was more than a little scandalous for some), watching JK embrace his ability to claim his body as his own inspired me to feel more confident in my ability to do the same. Loving yourself means showing yourself to the world on your terms—as you choose. And if that means some people’s opinion of you changes because how you see yourself doesn’t match who they think you should be, then that’s OK. Because what matters isn’t how other people think you should look, act, or present yourself; what matters is being as authentic as possible and doing what feels right for you. If it’s not hurting anyone, it’s your life and your choices. And JK has shown me the beauty that comes from loving yourself enough to let that self be seen and embraced by the world.
From Taehyung, I’ve learned to embrace the moments of happiness as they come, to always look at the world with eyes of love and to seek out what brings my soul joy. No one in the universe loves with a purer heart than this man, whose warmth touches everything around him until it’s all glowing and golden. But I’ve come to see that’s a choice—a conscious decision. And it’s a gift I can give myself. From learning to play the trumpet to painting and visiting art galleries to developing a love for whiskey and continuing to deepen his love for both his fans and the six fellow BTS members he apparently would like to marry, I’ve loved watching Tae chase his happiness this year. And it was even more beautiful to watch that chase lead him to Los Angeles. Whether it was his infectious joy at a Harry Styles concert where he was able to let go and live in the moment or the pure adoration and gratitude on his face when he looked around the stadium at the concert I went to, Tae’s time in LA was a celebration of being in the moment and how that is the best gift we can give ourselves—to allow ourselves to be really and truly happy, even in years that are hard. Finding and holding onto joy is an act of self-love, and it’s often contagious. When we see the universe with eyes that are always looking to embrace, to marvel, and to love, so much of that comes back at us. Because for as much as Tae loves, he is also incredibly loved himself. And the comfort inherent in that lesson—that the love you put into the world is reflected back at you in so many different ways—is one I am holding onto in the coming year.
From Jimin, I’ve learned that having a big heart in a tiny body is a gift—but it’s not just a gift to be used for other people; it’s a gift I can give myself too. Jimin was my first “bias”—my first favorite. And it was because in him I saw a reflection of so many things 2020 had taught me to hate about myself—how much I love people, how much I need people, and how big my feelings are. Loving this person who loves deeply, is open about how much he likes praise from other people, and has struggled publicly with perfectionism has shaped my sense of self-love more than perhaps anything else. Because Jimin has been beautifully honest about his own journey of self-love and about how it took him time to realize that loving himself more helps him love other people more; it makes him a more open, warm, and loving version of himself—the version I admire the most. For so much of this year, I resisted the concept of self-love as selfish and as something that would make me love others less, but from this man who loves from the depth of himself, I’m learning that I’m also better able to love other people when I approach my interactions with others from a place that’s grounded in self-love. Because I deserve to give myself the same love I give everybody else. I deserve to use some of my big heart for myself too. There’s nothing selfish about that. It’s made Jimin a warmer and brighter person, and I can feel it doing the same for me. It can be hard to be someone who feels deeply and cares intensely, but it’s also a strength. When I’m at my “most Jimin,” I’m also at my “most Katie,” and that’s a very good thing. It’s me at my most open, most caring, and softest—and not just toward the people around me, but toward myself too.
From Namjoon, I’ve learned the power of two words: Speak yourself. I will never forget when he went live on his birthday, and instead of being in a festive and celebratory mood, he was honest about how hard the last two years have been. He talked about fighting every day against depression and losing hope, and in that moment I felt seen. I thought back to hiding in my work bathroom on my birthday a few months before, crying because every day felt like a fight and I just wanted to stop fighting. I’ve spent so much of this year not wanting to be vulnerable, not wanting to say how hard this year has been for me—especially when I knew the hard things everyone around me has been going through. But Namjoon’s honesty has helped me let people in a little more—has reminded me that the hard chapters in my story deserve to be written about and shared too. Because there’s power in vulnerability. And that’s why crying right along with him in Los Angeles felt so cathartic—because they were tears of relief and joy and pride, tears brought on by the realization that for a moment, the darkness had lifted and the questions were answered and the future looked better, not because of something outside of him but because of the realization that he’s only going to keep growing and becoming a better version of himself. And he made me believe the same was true for me too. I’m only going to keep getting better. This man changed so much in the last couple of years—and it makes me less afraid of change in myself. Because he’s looked at his own darkness and has grown from that pain by making the conscious choice to fight for himself, and it’s helped me understand that growth doesn’t happen unless you’re willing to change. Namjoon and I share probably too many similarities—we can’t cook and think people who do are magic, we are very self-aware but usually more about our flaws and the things we lack than our strengths, and we both put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be everything to everyone. But my favorite similarity is that we have the same superpower: our words. The songs he’s written and the words he’s spoken in concerts and speeches have shown me the power of opening up your soul—the light and dark, the good and bad, the inspiring and the messy—and letting people love all of you as you learn to love all of yourself too. The whole world is better because this man speaks himself—shares his voice and his story with us. And the way he encourages us to do the same—to lead with honesty and to take pride in every chapter of our story—has helped me make peace with these more challenging chapters in mine and has made me more ready to share them with the world. To love myself by speaking myself.
From J-Hope, I’ve learned that I serve no one by making myself smaller to make other people more comfortable. J-Hope and I share a very similar energy that can be described in two words: a lot. I spent most of the last two years wishing I was less extroverted, quieter, and smaller in every way. But then I saw this man and his huge personality that fills whole stadiums and acts like the sun, drawing people to him. He’s at his best when he’s at his biggest—whether that’s giving elaborate gifts to his loved ones or laughing with his whole body or dancing down the street and calling it an occupational hazard. And he is surrounded by people—including a lot of quiet introverts—who love him for that huge personality. He never tones down his enthusiasm or shrinks himself to fit in, and it works. Because it takes all kinds, and J-Hope reminds me that my kind has value too. And the right people will never see it as too much; they will love me for all the ways I’m a lot. But J-Hope has also taught me that we make ourselves smaller when we try to fit ourselves into a box, including a box of our own making. Sometimes we can’t be sunshine; sometimes we can’t be the world’s hope. And watching J-Hope be a little more honest about his feelings and struggles and times when he has felt less like sunshine reminded me that loving yourself isn’t just about freeing yourself from the expectations other people place on you; it’s about freeing yourself from the expectations you place on yourself—to always be cheerful, to always be positive, to always be sunshine. Letting people see and help you through your harder moments matters, and you get to take up space with your sadness and struggles as much as you do with your loud laughter and enthusiastic hugs. That’s how you marry the version of you that exists internally with the version that you present externally—and true self-love comes from being completely yourself; honoring all of the pieces that make up your puzzle and making space for all of it outside the box.
From Yoongi, I’ve learned to embrace and love the fact that I can’t be defined in an easy way. We all contain multitudes, but perhaps none more so than this man—who doesn’t talk much but is also powerfully open about his own mental health struggles, who enjoys solitude but also never appears happier than when he’s cooking for his favorite six loud idiots, who wears skirts and is great at basketball and goes to UFC fights, who is quiet but loves louder than anyone, who seems to hate physical affection but always wants to hold hands, who raps with intensity but softens anytime he takes care of someone he loves, and who blends into the background in groups and interviews but has so much confidence onstage that you can’t look anywhere else but at him. Yoongi never tries to fit himself in a box; that’s his superpower. And he doesn’t ask that of other people, either. He has a deep understanding of the messy complexities that come from being human, and it makes him good at loving people for exactly who they are—including himself. He’s walked a long road that’s featured depression and OCD, and he’s made peace with those parts of himself, which allows him to see and embrace others when they’re going through hard times. When I think of Yoongi, I think of the peace that comes from knowing yourself—and the safety that gives other people around you to know themselves better because you paved the way. By living as his most authentic self at all times, he sets an example for how to be steady and sure—both in his sense of himself and his love for others. Human beings are messy and difficult to define, but it’s only in embracing all the ways we defy stereotypes and simple explanations that we can settle into ourselves and give ourselves the sense of safety to show our full selves to the world. All of the different facets of Min Yoongi look good on him, and it makes me believe all of my complexities can look good on me too.
From Jin, I’ve learned that loving myself is an action. It’s not just pretty words. It takes work and choices, but they’re good choices—even if they don’t seem to make sense to anyone else. Jin has walked through the dark forest and come out on the other side, and it’s made him understand the importance of building a life he wants to live in—a life that feels good. And sometimes that means picking up a yoga mat and hitting a punching bag with it for no reason other than the fact that it makes him smile or wearing very loud clothing because he likes it or enjoying some time to drink alone and meet people along the way when he travels because he likes spending time in his own company. Jin loves good food and laughter and playing video games and sleeping. And he doesn’t deny himself those things or save them only for special occasions—he knows they’re not treats but are the bedrocks of self-love; the conscious kindnesses we give to ourselves because we know we inherently deserve them. It’s why he’s the one Namjoon and Jimin go to when they have trouble letting themselves rest—because he will remind him it’s good and they get to do it without justification or explanation. And as someone who falls much closer to those two on the “let yourself have nice things” spectrum, that’s a lesson I am trying to take to heart this year. You don’t have to earn things you love, things that make you happy. You can just do them. And you don’t need to justify them to anybody else. Does it make you feel good to eat takeout or to go to sleep early or to wear loud clothes or to enjoy a day on your couch? If the answer is yes, then you should do it—and you don’t need to explain why to anybody else. Jin is the one who tells us “I am the one I should love in this world,” and he shows us how to do exactly that. There is often so much shame surrounding rest, food, and other parts of life that seem indulgent, but watching Jin find peace and joy in those things, I’m reminded that it’s fun to spoil the people we love and make them feel good. So shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? Jin reminds me that I deserve to love myself without shame in whatever ways feel best to me in the moment, and letting go of that shame and embracing that joy is exactly how I want to walk into 2022.
Each member of BTS is unique, and their differences make them not only a better musical group but a better group of friends (let’s be real, of soulmates). And in a year when I have cried more than once about feeling too different from the people around me, seeing them embrace each other’s different strengths, flaws, personality styles, and love languages reminds me of the power of standing out instead of trying so hard to fit in. I’m not like anybody else, and that’s a good thing. I bring something different to the table just like each of these seven men do, and that’s something to love—not hide.
This was a year that answered in surprising ways. But the biggest answer—the one that I’m carrying into 2022 and beyond—is naturally the title of a BTS song.
Answer: Love Myself.