I used to think that self-love was just a pretty way of excusing selfishness. As a child, I knew Christ told us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” but I was going to do better. I was going to be more Christian than Christ! I would pray that I would love my neighbor much better than myself. I hoped that Jesus would be duly impressed.
I picture him up in heaven now, smiling, and shaking his head.
The concept of “sharing” is a big part of a kid’s world. It means that when it’s your turn to play with the Power Ranger, I have to wait. We don’t both get the good thing at once. So I think I assumed that loving another should mean that loving myself has to wait.
And I was afraid. I was afraid that if I was gentle and loving to myself, I’d become a monster. Wouldn’t it make me prideful? Wouldn’t it distract me from my own sinfulness, and make me forget my very real and pressing need for repentance? I didn’t want to risk it, so I wrote off the idea of self-love as being much too dangerous for the likes of me. Being as hard on myself as possible seemed safer.
The diary I kept as a 15-year-old gives plenty of examples of how abusive my internal dialogue got after this idea took hold. “What a little sissy you are, Anna” jumps off the page. “Self-centered idiot” and other like characterizations and attacks are there, over and over again.
I wonder what difference a little self-love would have made. Eventually, my habit of speaking so harshly to myself caught up with me, and I became anxious and depressive. I knew something had to change, and started speaking gently to myself. As soon as I did, it was clear that the fruit of authentic self-love couldn’t be sin, since self-love is grounded in truth.
This is the bottom line: if God loves you (and he does) then you must be worthy of his love, somehow. This doesn’t mean we deserve His love, that we could possibly merit it. Our actions and choices have literally zero effect on that love. But God is Truth (John 14:6). He couldn’t love you if it weren’t true that you are worth loving.
So how could it be wrong to follow God’s lead, and love what he loves? I thought that loving myself would catapult me headfirst into the sin of pride, but it turns out that pride, like every other lie, contains just enough truth to be convincing. Pride says “you are worth more than him.” Truth acknowledges my worth, but not my superiority.
I thought self-love would make me selfish. It actually made me much more inclined to be loving to the people around me. I have to keep remembering to be gentle with myself, just as God is gentle and merciful with me. This helps keep God’s mercy at the forefront of my mind, and mercy does not breed selfishness.
I thought that I would forget my own urgent, constant need of repentance. But self-hatred was much more likely to cause me to despair and forgo confession. Authentic love of self is a reminder of hope. It says, “There must be something lovable about you, even in the darkest sin. So go to God. He hasn’t given up on you. He can fix this.”
Loving yourself, just like the virtue of loving others, is a habit that needs to be fostered. You can’t flip a switch and achieve it overnight, but you can start working towards it right now, if you want to. You can pray for the habit. We’re completely reliant on God for any way we might grow in virtue, and self-love is no exception. You can run as often as possible to the sacraments, especially confession. You can use your words carefully. We believe what we say, so habitually speaking harshly to yourself fosters self-hatred. Luckily, the opposite is true as well. Reminding yourself aloud and often that you are loved and lovable is anything but an empty cliché—it’s a powerful tool in service of the truth. Finally, you can try to love others, not for what they do, but for who they are. Soon you might begin to extend the same standard to yourself.
The Year of Mercy isn’t over yet. Let us not exclude ourselves from that mercy, for all love, even love of self, is from God, and will lead us to its source.