How do I love me? Learning to love yourself in the age of self-(hate)
“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” – Mark Twain
There’s no doubt about it: we are living in an age of self-love.
Now that I’m living out of Sydney, I’m almost overwhelmed when I come to visit the city these days, met with a mind-boggling assortment of billboards and bus shelters and electronic screens and packaged goods splashed with advertisements for luxury holidays, perfume, hair products, accessories, clothes, gourmet food, takeaway food, fast food, pampering, sex or sex products, music, data, mobile phones, streaming services, etcetera.
And all of these carefully and cleverly positioned as essential ‘needs’ rather than desired ‘wants’, so that running out of mobile data is tantamount to being marooned on a desert island (yep, been there and know the feels) or not going on annual holidays the equivalent of committing to a lifetime of monkish asceticism.
A visitor from another time period would probably find it difficult to imagine that any person living in the world today – especially the developed world – might have a problem with loving themselves.
For most of us in Australia today, what needs of ours genuinely go unanswered, in comparison to the rest of the world?
Mine was the generation – and I might be giving away my age here – that gave birth to Apple’s iPhone, iPod and iPad, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter – all of which in turn have centred historically unprecedented attention on the individual. Given the right platform, anyone can have a voice, and anybody can make record numbers of people stop to listen, providing they have something shocking or interesting or entertaining enough to say.
In what era of our history could the President of the United States – the most powerful nation on Earth – acceptably circumvent his Press Secretary by divulging foreign policy on Twitter, beside this one? (Not, of course, to put “acceptably” and Donald Trump together in the same sentence…)
It would seem that we are almost too in love with ourselves. So much so that the 2019 Australian Federal Budget’s further cuts to foreign aid – despite a projected surplus – has almost gone unnoticed.
Here in the developed world, there seems to be no lack of focussing on ourselves, no end to the self-love, greed, and narcissism, even and especially at a national level. And this, I believe, cannot draw enough criticism.
But behind this façade, behind this well-worn image of people who have unimaginable power to shape themselves and their world in a multitude of ways, I begin to see a different story.
As a psychologist, I hear from people who hate or even despise themselves – their personality, their interests, their bodies, their jobs. People who feel that no matter what they do, how much they achieve, or what they change about themselves, they will never be enough. I’ve come across people who are witty or intelligent or attractive or fit or caring or hard-working or kind, or even all of the above, who fundamentally do not like themselves.
What’s going on here? How can we be immersed in a culture so obsessed with “me” and “I” and still be discomfited by or even hateful of who we truly are?
Nearly two thousand years ago, a man called Jesus of Nazareth told his followers that the two greatest commandments were to:
1. “…love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and
2. “….love others as you love yourself.”
In these few words, every one of the previously given Old Testament commandments – all six hundred and thirteen of them – were fulfilled.
Every single one.
Let’s focus, for a moment, on that second commandment.
I believe we miss the last part of this just as much as we miss the first. We know a bit about what it means to love others – that’s what Mother Teresa did, right? Give to charity, visit those who are sick or in prison, help the homeless …. love the unlovable. We have problems with this at times, but surely that stems more from a lack of action than a lack of understanding.
But … loving ourselves as we love others.
Are we getting that just as wrong?
In the modern world, as in previous eras, we see the fruits of not loving ourselves in healthy ways – self-harm; suicide; social isolation; addiction to food, tobacco, sex, drugs and alcohol; and preventable diseases, some of which can result from our addictions, like lung cancer and obesity… there’s no end to this list.
We try to fill the emptiness inside ourselves with something that will make it all worth doing, and there are supremely good things stuffed inside that space too – family, relationships, sex, work, exercise. But everything that we stuff inside us or surround ourselves with is never going to achieve anything beyond a fleeting sensation of fullness – whether that lasts for seconds, hours, years, or even decades.
So what else is there?
As a follower of Jesus, I’ve watched people powerfully confronted and transformed by the knowledge that God loves them just as they are – and I’ve watched myself changed irrevocably by the realisation of this love.
When I was a teenager, my church at the time held a women’s outreach hosted by a Christian singer-songwriter, who performed songs from her albums and gave a short talk. Though my memory of the event is now hazy, I remember several things very clearly. I’d gone to the talk with my Mum, and at the beginning I’d been depressed, struggling with chronic sleeplessness and body image problems. I’d been sharing with my Mum how sad I was about everything. Probably the last thing I wanted was to slap on a smile and socialise with other women.
At the end of the talk, the singer-songwriter invited any women – young or old – to come to the front for prayer. Summoning my courage – or maybe my Mum sent me careening down that aisle, I don’t remember – I went. Before I could say a word, this godly woman looked me deeply in the eyes – more deeply than anyone has ever looked at me – and said to me two things: “you’re beautiful”, and “I’m going to pray for your sleep”.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen myself in the same way since that day, because I believe this woman showed me a little of the way that God sees me. And there isn’t space here to list the miracles I’ve witnessed since then, the powerful ways that God has transformed those who had no love for themselves, and filled them with His Spirit so that they can go on loving others.
That, dear friends, is the love that changes the world. That is loving others as one loves oneself.
I said before that I’m a psychologist. I couldn’t be a psychologist if I didn’t see powerful changes in peoples’ lives on a daily and weekly basis. Through the process of therapy, people are able to process their difficult and often traumatic lives, and learn how to accept themselves as they are. Seeing the changes in someone after X sessions of therapy is – I won’t lie – one of the greatest adrenaline rushes there is.
But as a Christian, I know that this is only a shadow of what God can do for the wounded person’s heart. It is God and God alone who shows us what true love is really like – through Jesus, fully God, who became a man and experienced what human life was really like. Jesus, who took on the sins of the world in order to bring us back to the fold.
For those hunting for a reason to love themselves, this is the source: that you love because the Author of the universe first loved you (1 John 4:19).
If you are worthy of God’s love, are you not then worthy of your own?
It is only the knowledge that God loves us when we are unlovable – and yes, we can be very unlovable at times – that allows us to love others who may seem unlovable. This knowledge pushes us to look deeper, to see the inner beauty in the pinnacle of God’s creation ... us.
It is this love that has carried me through every day of my practice as a secular psychologist, this love that helps me to look beneath the surface of anger, frustration, and even violence to what the person sitting in front of me has suffered. I have come to realise that I do my job best when I love other people as I love myself.
“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren't more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”
– Dr. Kristin Neff
I love this quote from self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff. I think it strikes at the heart of why we perceive ourselves to be so unlovable … because we fear the other extreme of self-love (and given the state of our world, perhaps rightly so).
Right now, you might be struggling with a part of yourself – maybe even your whole self. You might hate the shape of your nose, or the way that you sweat like crazy in social situations, or the sound of your laugh. You may be struggling with a case of good ol’ imposter syndrome, thinking that one day someone is going to find out how incapable, incompetent, unlovable, broken, or just all-round not good enough you really are.
Or, you might be wrestling with the call to love someone else – maybe even someone who’s hurt you badly.
So I invite you to consider two questions:
In your life right now…
1) What would it look like to love yourself in the same way that God loves you (if you believe in God), or the same way that you love others?
- Would you see yourself as deserving of other peoples’ attention, time, energy, money, emotions?
- Would you answer someone’s “how are you?” honestly and meaningfully without quickly shooting back your own question?
- Would you take time out to recharge your batteries, reflect, reconnect… guilt-free?
- Would you give yourself a second chance when you've made a mistake (even a really, really bad one)?
2) What would it look like to love others in the same way that God loves you (again, if you believe in God), or the same way that you love yourself?
- Would you give the person who’s hurt you a second chance? (or a third, fourth…tenth…?)
- Would you, when you're with your friends, make up your mind not to say anything hurtful about anyone that you would hate to hear about yourself?
- Would you pick up your phone to text, call, Facebook message or arrange a catch-up with someone who’s been on your mind, instead of letting the next Netflix episode roll?