Want to be Happy and Healthy? Stop Trying to “Love Yourself” and Do This Instead
“Love yourself first, and everything else falls in line.”
So echoes advice from innumerable personal development blogs, books, podcasts, and memes.
But why? Is there such a lack of self-love in society today that we need to be reminded of it?
When you look at the rates of depression, suicide, and self-destruction prevalent in culture, that appears to be the case.
But what if it’s not?
What if much of the self-love advice is actually hurting, not helping, people?
With the advent of the internet and “i” devices (there’s a reason the letter is “i” and not “u”) people have become more self-centered.
Or perhaps it is not so much that we have become MORE self-centered — human nature doesn’t change that much from era to era — but that it is more culturally acceptable to display self absorption.
There is a lot of “love yourself” and “accept yourself” messages out there, trying to counter the pernicious influence of marketing ads — many of which prey on our natural feelings of insufficiency and insecurity to sell us stuff (beauty products, experiences, etc).
But the “love yourself” messages aren’t helping that much. They are, in fact, making the problem worse.
Where does self-hatred come from?
“If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” — Corrie Ten Boom
“Look within, you’ll be depressed,” Corrie Ten Boom once said. And she was so right.
Ten Boom was a non-Jewish Dutch Holocaust survivor who had been thrown into the camps for daring to help save Jewish lives.
She lost her father Caspar and sister Betsie to the cruelty of the camps, and experienced first-hand the depths of depravity that human beings are capable of.
Ten Boom had been raised in a loving Christian family that took it for granted they would protect their Jewish neighbors, when it became apparent that Jewish lives were at risk from the Nazis.
So she knew that, as a Christian, she was supposed to forgive her enemies.
But after the war, when Ten Boom’s former Nazi guard came up to her after a speech, asked for her forgiveness, and asked to shake her hand, she froze:
“I stood there…and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?”
Corrie Ten Boom was distressed that after preaching forgiveness so easily from the stage, she found it impossible to actually practice it when the rubber met the road.
We’ve all had those moments: when we who think we are basically “good people” find out that we can’t live up to the image we have of ourselves.
It’s devastating, for some. “Why am I so weak? So unacceptable? So messed up?”
Some people start to hate themselves.
And when you hate someone, you try to hurt them. Self-hatred has led to a lot of suicide, cutting, and other forms of self-destruction.
The “love yourself” messages evolved to combat this self-destruction.
But much of the “love” described in the “love yourself” messages have an undertone of “be proud of who you are, whoever and whatever you are. You don’t have to change a thing.”
Yet when we come face to face with who we really are — the ugliness inside — we find that we cannot be proud of who we are.
So we turn to self-deception to maintain the mirage of ourselves as “basically good people (with only a few insignificant flaws).”
We repeat to ourselves: “You are beautiful, you are wonderful, no matter what.”
When we do something bad or wrong, we rationalize and explain it away, like a doting mother turning a blind eye to her spoiled child’s misbehavior.
We lower standards for ourselves in the name of “self-love.”
We indulge our desires, indescriminately.
And we insist that others “love us just the way we are,” as well, sometimes getting angry when they disagree or refuse to confirm our self-image.
What is love, really?
There is some merit in the “love yourself” message, at least insofar as it means: “stop bullying yourself, because it’s not helping.”
But there are still problems with the statement.
The main problem is in the way we define love.
So many “love yourself” proponents use it as an excuse to flaunt aspects of themselves considered by some to be undesirable (eg: body shape/size, behaviors, ideas/worldviews), even if, sometimes, some of those traits really ARE not good for you.
You are told to accept yourself, warts and all, and to not want to change:
“I am born this way, I am what I am, and I will love me like this, and you better do the same. If you don’t, then shame on you, not me.”
But there’s one critical problem:
Unconditional love is NOT THE SAME THING as unconditional acceptance.
In fact, many times, love is the reason for disapproval of certain behaviors.
Ex: No loving parent would happily encourage their child to do drugs and self-destruct.
Rather, their love for the child motivates their opposition to his drug abuse. Because drug abuse is ultimately not good for the child’s health or happiness
When you are trying to help someone in the throes of self-destruction (ex: addicts), unconditional love means appreciating their worth, and seeing their better selves under all the “gunk.”
It does not mean withholding your kindness and regard until they deal with their “gunk,” nor does it mean telling people that the “gunk” is part of them and therefore they should embrace it and stay in it.
It means caring enough to stay with them and support them as they work through and let go of the gunk that is holding them back from being their best selves.
This is the way we should love others, AND ourselves:
We want the best for people, and that means caring for them in spite of their problems, but not letting them wallow in or embrace their problems either.
And that applies to the way you “love yourself.”
If you really loved yourself, you would want to be the best version of yourself
So if you have a quick temper, for instance, don’t just brush it off (“well that’s who I am, take it or leave it”) or redefine it (“I don’t have an anger management issue. I stand up for myself, that’s all. Nothing wrong with that”)
Don’t abuse yourself for your problems, but don’t deceive yourself into minimizing or denying your problems, either.
Having a quick temper (or an addiction, or an unhealthy lifestyle, etc) is never a good thing, and the best version of you would not have that trait.
So don’t celebrate and embrace and “accept” every single aspect of yourself, indiscriminately.
But don’t abuse yourself if you are not as wonderful as you want to be. None of us are. There is always room for improvement.
There are better things to think of besides you
It’s important to learn to have a humble, accurate perception of self — not to be overconfident in your perceived “goodness,” nor to be discouraged into self-hatred by your lack of it.
In general, thinking too much of yourself — whether you “love” or “hate” yourself— is not helpful at all.
We all do it by default, and we do it too much.
Even when we are “thinking of others,” we are often really thinking of ourselves: “What does this person think of me? Am I coming off as a witty conversation partner? Does my volunteering make me look good?”
Learning to truly NOT think of yourself and to honestly care for and help others is one of the best antidotes to the dangers of self-absorption.
It’s extremely challenging because it’s not natural to us. We like to think about ourselves, obsess over ourselves — either by picking apart our own faults or by taking pride in our strengths.
But that just leads us in circles. We have to take our eyes off ourselves to be truly happy and healthy.
And one way to do it is to focus your attention on someone else…
Don’t try to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps
When Corrie Ten Boom was confronted with the Nazi guard who had perpetrated so much evil on her and her fellow prisoners, she could not forgive him.
Yet, Ten Boom knew she had to:
I knew [forgiveness] not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
So she prayed: “Jesus help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And as Ten Boom willed herself to lift her hand to shake the former Nazi’s something amazing happened:
The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
A drowning person cannot save himself. Someone has to swim out and get him, or throw him a lifeline.
Likewise, we can’t become our best selves without the help of God and others. And, interestingly, that help often comes when we love and serve them.
Focus on someone else
Jesus once said the two greatest commandments were:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.
We all already love ourselves, by default, to start. Even self-hatred is a form of twisted self-love. We expect better of ourselves and when we do not measure up, we get angry at ourselves.
Thus self-love becomes a curse when it’s all we have to focus on.
When we take our focus off ourselves and focus on God and others, self-love and self-hatred become totally moot points.
Self-love (or self-esteem) is like happiness, like success. It doesn’t come when you pursue it directly, but as a side effect of working toward a greater mission.
As Viktor Frankl, another Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning (affiliate link), once said:
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
When you think about it, loving yourself is a bit of a misnomer — love requires at least two beings: one to give love, and one to receive it. How can one singular person do that adequately to himself?
The best way to love yourself, then, is not to focus on yourself, pat yourself on the back, or try to convince yourself of your own goodness…but it is to find someone else to lavish selfless, giving love on.
Then that love will rebound on you, like light hitting a mirror.
When you learn to truly love others, you will never have to worry about your self-love or self-esteem again.
You won’t have to force yourself to stop beating yourself up, or look at your reflection in a mirror and mouth words of affirmation you don’t fully buy.
You will stop feeling inordinately bad about yourself for every mistake you make, and you will never feel unloved.
In fact, you will have love it in its fullest, most powerful form:
Because when you love others, you are simultaneously loved.
And being truly, deeply loved by someone else — another free, independent being who chooses to love you of his/her own free will — is one of the best feelings in the world.
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