Your workshops are legendary. So many women have talked about how Dr. Brenda Wade has helped them learn to love themselves. Why is self-love so very crucial?

If we don’t have self-love, we will have the opposite—a steady stream of poisonous thoughts and feelings. I believe that depression is made up of a negative downward spiral of thoughts, and if you reverse those negative thoughts and they become positive, self-affirming and self-loving ones, you can heal depression. You can enhance physical healing and transform your life. Not having self-love robs us of our energy and power, and we’ve got nowhere to go. So we become sick and depressed. You don’t get to not love yourself for free. You’re going to pay a price.

Thank God we can’t ignore our deep need for self-love and wholeness. But how do we change ingrained negative thoughts and patterns?

The first power choice is investigation, because often we don’t even know we’re in danger. I was very depressed, but I didn’t know it. I thought I liked to sleep a lot, just couldn’t get my energy together, and that I was having a stretch of bad luck. We have to investigate—not in a critical way, but with compassion. Knowing we can find a better way, we have to ask, Where am I? What’s not working in my life?

The next choice is initiation, taking action, because if you don’t initiate it, life will initiate you. Life will kick you in the butt. And if you don’t get moving, you’ll get kicked harder. If you don’t get that one, something catastrophic will happen.

Black women know how to look good while we’re feeling bad. So our pain may not be evident; on the surface things may seem to be in order.

I have a sister who came in recently to see me with a catastrophic medical diagnosis. I told her, “There’s still work you can do, and if you do it, you just might live,” and we rolled up our sleeves. Initially her response to my helping her investigate was, “Oh, no, no, my life is fine.” When we started to dig, out came major trauma she’d never looked at or realized she had. She’d reacted to it, though, by trying to be perfect. She looked perfect, had a perfect education, a perfect house. No matter how tired she was when she came home from work, she’d clean her house. Overcompensating and seeking perfection is what made her sick.

Our culture has taught us women to believe in the consequences of selfishness, but not in the consequences of self-negation and underestimating our value. What in your life caused you to work so passionately at trying to love yourself?

I was in so much pain there was no way around it, and I was making devastating choices. I went through abusive relationships because I grew up as an abused child. Had I not addressed the pain, by now I would be dead. And people look at me today and say, “Oh no, not you, Dr. Wade, I’d bet you’ve always had it together.” No, I haven’t. I don’t think there is a Black woman anywhere who doesn’t have a story to tell. We’ve all had our scars, our pain and anguish. Many of us didn’t get enough love. But the question is, What have you done about your pain? It led me early on to work with some of the greatest lights in the field of mental health and helped me transform my life.

Some of us are having a wonderful life, and some of us are so sad that happiness seems like an impossible dream. What are the foundational changes sisters need to make to have inner peace and joy?

The most important thing is to choose to gain deep insight. We need to go as far back as we can in our family history. And if you don’t know it, you can make it up. Because generations ago, somebody in your family was enslaved, and we have to understand that daily trauma of being degraded, humiliated, treated like an animal, treated as if you have no rights and no feelings. The luxury of being depressed or taking a day off didn’t exist. So we’ve incorporated in our own mentality today that no matter how tired I am, no matter how bad I feel, no matter how much pain I’m in, I will keep moving, keep performing, keep working. But if you’re in pain and you keep pushing, you’re going to reach for anesthesia. It’s going to be drugs, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, gambling. For us it’s often eating and shopping and sex that hurt us.

Sex that hurts emotionally and physically?

Yes. We will find a partner to have sex with who degrades or hurts us physically or emotionally. Women have to know that there are many things worse than feeling lonely and horny. One of them is being with somebody who is degrading you and tearing down your self-esteem.

Why would we subconsciously seek pain?

I don’t have to face my pain if I’m busy out here worrying about what he’s doing, thinking, feeling or needs. Or if I’m shopping and spending my money. We have patterns. Think of it as a blueprint. The blueprint came from slavery. I’ve talked with thousands of African-American women and have found that the thoughts and feelings we have are consistent: My feelings don’t matter. My body isn’t my own, so I don’t have the right to say no to sex that hurts me. No matter how hard I work, I’ll never get ahead. I’ll never have anything to show for it. These are slavery beliefs. Slaves could work all day long and have nothing to show for it years later. Our ancestors’ bodies weren’t their own. Black women were degraded sexually, raped at will.

It’s crucial to understand that if the blueprint existed in your grandmother and neither she nor your mother changed it, you got it. If you don’t change it, your daughter will inherit it. If she doesn’t change it, it will be passed to your granddaughter. We can only pass on what we know.

So intergenerational trauma is passed down through the generations until we become aware of it and heal it?

That’s exactly right. But we can heal it. We just have to be willing to make the power choices—investigation, insight and so on—to ask why it is that every time I look up, I have the same kind of man in my life. Or why it is no matter how hard I work, I am still broke. Why it is that every six weeks I feel as if I can’t move, I’m so depressed, or feel so deenergized. Or why do I always have yeast infections? Why do I always have bladder infections? Why do I always have something going on? A lot of young, healthy Black women have chronic ailments that can be emotionally related. When you clear up your emotional pain, start to feel your worth, start to feel you can say no to sex that dishonors you, you get well and stay well.

So a good place to start our investigation is asking our body what’s going on and what it’s trying to teach us.

Your body will talk to you. Ask what feelings you have more often than others. Do you feel tired, sad, angry? A primary symptom of depression for Black women is not “I feel sad,” it’s “I feel mad.” We tend to manifest depression by getting angry because our ancestors could not get depressed and stop. So when you see an angry Black woman, you’re seeing a depressed woman. But we don’t have to live in pain. We’re the first generations who have the time, money, technology and mental-health services available to help us heal. There are books and Web sites everywhere. Black women can start their own support groups and do a lot of healing. One of the hardest things for us to ask for—support—is crucial to our health and well-being.

Why do we sisters rarely ask for help? Why is it so important for us to feel we’re strong and self-sufficient? We’re the last to say, “I need….”

Again, it’s slavery. Our women couldn’t say, “I need some support.” To not acknowledge our feelings and needs became the way for our people to survive. We told ourselves to carry on, no matter what. We got used to being what we consider strong. But we’ve actually misdefined the word strength to mean we don’t need anything, when it’s really about the ability to say we have feelings, we have needs and are going to meet them.

It’s critical for us in this society, which bombards us with images celebrating a European aesthetic and negating an African one, to learn to love our lush bodies, our facial features, hair and Black skin.

Black skin is the most beautiful, but if you don’t learn to love it, nobody else will. Love your skin, your African behind and lips, and project that love. There’s nothing more magnetic than love. A woman I work with weighed 400 pounds when she first came to me. So far she’s lost 100 pounds. But she learned to love herself and has met a man who just worships her. She started oiling her skin every day, and she would ask a friend to oil her scalp just to get that nurturing touch. We need touching, we need love. Once you start caring for your needs and learn to love yourself, you can let somebody else love you.

This is something I’d love for us Black women to do every single day: Touch your naked body, and to any part of your body you’ve been degrading, say, “Thank you for all that you do for me. Thank you. I love you.” The body is the temple of the soul. We’ve got to love and honor the temple first.

Susan Tayor spends an afternoon of sharing with Dr. Brend Wade, a veteran contributor to ESSENCE and coauthor of the seminal works Love Lessons and What Mama Couldn’t Tell Us About Love: Healing the Emotional Legacy of Racism by Celebrating Our Light.