I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates…it doesn’t just hold, that’s ego. Love liberates.” – Dr. Maya Angelou, 2011.

As I sit in my quintessential, cramped New York bedroom on a frost-filled January night and watch old online videos of Maya Angelou speaking about the liberation of love, I feel like I’ve been given wings to fly my way through this concrete jungle. These are wings I’ve prayed for. Absorbing her words I’m blessed with an inexplicable boost of gratitude, bore from a simple teaching by the ever-good doctor on a word and letters we all yearn and need to hear, to know, and to feel: L-O-V-E.

She spoke of the “clouds” that have dimmed the lights in her life over the years and then boasted about all of the “rainbows” in forms of love and support from the most unexpected individuals peering through those clouds that showed her the sun again. She spoke of being mute for nearly seven years of her life due to molestation as a child and then finding her voice again through the love that enabled her to express herself via her now vastly-acclaimed words. She spoke of doubters, “haters,” and the great debaters who debased her intelligence and her spirit time and time again. Yet, Dr. Angelou still managed to sit in this interview, 84 years young, more proud than any human could be, because it was as apparent as could be to me, that besides God Himself, no one loved Dr. Maya Angelou the way she loved herself.

You see, I’ve learned in my nearly 25 short years of living that those brief, sometimes seemingly fleeting moments when rainbows appear outshining the darkest clouds, to be reminded that limitless love is available to me in life. I am a faith-filled, unapologetic black woman in training, living and learning to love myself as I go day-by-day, instance-by-instance in a world that desperately needs rainbows. My presence is an offense to some for whatever peculiar reason, clouds hover over me (especially when I have to pay rent on NYC wages), and so many in this world are pervaded with flaming hate, yet I see the rainbows. I see the rich, multi-colored light blaring and cutting sharply through those grim clouds because I know love.

I grew up in a family of regular folks. My parents are two of the most brilliant people to ever walk this earth. My mother came from comfortably, stable beginnings and my father, not as much. Both are complex, yet ease-filled individuals who believe and know love. That has always been the foundation for them, for us. And they have showed me nothing short of that and sheer adoration from the moment I moved into this world. My parents raised my two siblings and me on solid ground, and I owe my love for myself and my deep-rooted belief in my capabilities to them. When Dr. Angelou spoke of those rainbows in human form like her mother and grandmother, who led her through the worst and most tragic times to the light, she was speaking of people like my parents.

A few weeks have gone by since I stumbled upon the video, and that compact, little, four letter word has bred and will continually breed more significance and importance in my life than anything. I am clear that it is ALL. It is the basis and foundation of each and every person, place and thing. Nothing is well without it. I look at our world, faults, challenges, problems, and say, “This all stems from a lack of love.” To some that statement may seem filled with naivety, but I don’t believe they know the all-encompassing and encasing abilities or power of love.

When I stand outside of myself and look at my life as a spectator, every self-sabotaging, or flatly bad decision I’ve ever made stemmed from a lack of self love. When we don’t care enough to take precious care of our whole selves, spirits, minds, bodies and souls, we do not feed or fuel ourselves with the ever-pertinent nourishment that it needs to survive. WE NEED LOVE. And as much as some would like to deny, every breathing thing needs it.

As a child, adolescent and a teenager, I knew I was loved by my family and closest friends; it was like an obvious thing. While I required it, I was also very entitled to it. The expectation at that point is that because they are close to you, they must love you. I took advantage of that at times, as we all do, and in some cases remorsefully learned that love is earned as much as it is given. I had no cohesive, established thoughts on self-love at that time. And though I was interested in the idea of self-love, my naivety only linked self-love as a love that came through a romantic relationship.

But with time, I learned that self-love is actually antithetical to romantic love. If romantic love is dressed up and dolled up, self-love is bare and naked. If romantic love is ethereal and entranced, self-love is sometimes heavy and requires clarity. That said, I consciously began my journey to self-love when I was about 19 years old and there was a defining moment that I can point to. I cut off all of my hair into a short hairstyle maintaining only a little bit of bangs. I had been in college for a few months and remember distinctively asking my mother multiple times if I could. She finally gave in to my pleads and let me do it on a random trip home from school. It was a moment that I felt I had literally shed a layer. And honestly, it was also the first time I saw myself as beautiful. It wasn’t the hairstyle that did it for me, but the moment of confidence, bravery. Then I felt comfort at making a decision I felt great about and altering my appearance to reflect who I wanted to project. That was BIG.

That seemingly insignificant change in my appearance marked a change in a girl who was finally learning that she didn’t need to fit in with all of the people she had been so hopelessly trying to be like for so long. I realized I could step out of the boat of conformity and walk on the uncertain waters of life and still be worthy of love – and most importantly my own love.

Six years later, I look back and could not be more grateful for that teaching that came before I exited my teens – one so many never learn, even in an older age. Today, I am clear, self-love shapes one’s existence and how you present yourself to the masses on this earth. Long after your physical attributes change or disappear altogether, the core of who you are: your beliefs, your values, your behaviors will be what people remember and are impacted by most. And dare I say, as it has been said before, love is infectious. So if you’ve encountered and engaged people with love, that will have the most lasting impression.

I remain inspired by Dr. Angelou’s spoken liberation. And I continue to seek and master it daily. If you carry anything with you in this life, know that your time in this body is limited, but the love that you feel for yourself and give to others is everlasting. If this message has touched you, I urge you to join me on this self-love quest. This is a love that will take you places…

M_V0xWhkAlexa Palacios is a Los Angeles-bred, New York-based fashion, lifestyle and culture journalist. She’s feels purposed led telling others’ stories and can be found consistently talking about the latest in fashion, style inspiration and Beyoncé and the entire Knowles family. Follow up“IDressThereforeIAm.com”. Instagram: @IDressThereforeIAm