I was raised in a strange faith. It took me years to see the contradictions and inconsistencies. One of our favourite statements of faith was “God is love!” But this God of love would also send us to hell if we didn’t do exactly what he (God was always ‘he’) commanded. This loving God would inflict eternal torment on anyone who didn’t believe exactly the right things.
Oh, we had all sorts of great platitudes to explain away the inconsistencies in our thinking. My favourite was this: “God will never send anyone to hell. But if you choose to go, God could never keep you out.” And of course, choosing to go to hell meant believing or doing anything that contradicted our faith.
On a personal level, this belief system very effectively undermined any sense of self and any real capacity to love the self. Often when I followed my curiosity, fascination, or passion I would be asked, “Is this really what God wants? Or is it what you want?”—usually with a raised eyebrow to ensure I knew what the right answer was. The implication was that God would never want for me what I wanted for myself. My own needs and desires were clearly directly opposed to God’s will. This was not a recipe for developing strong self-esteem.
RELIGIONS DON’T LOVE SELF-LOVE
Self-love does not seem to be a high priority in many religious communities. My Christian upbringing used language that communicated the exact opposite. We didn’t just neglect loving ourselves; we actively condemned it. Denying ourselves was good. Our flesh—meaning our bodies—was bad. We were all ‘just sinners saved by grace.’ When we were good, that was all God’s doing. When we were bad, that was all our fault. It’s no wonder I struggled to feel good about myself for much of my life.
A few years ago a colleague of mine raised an important question about the impact of religious rituals on how we feel about ourselves. He drew my attention to a prayer from the liturgy for Holy Communion that is used by several different denominations. It’s called the Prayer of Humble Access and the version I learned goes like this:
Lord, we come to your table trusting in your mercy and not in any goodness of our own.
We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy and on that we depend.
So feed us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your Son, that we may forever live in him and he in us.
My colleague suggested that perhaps this prayer was less about humility and more about humiliation. It certainly wasn’t designed to make us feel good about ourselves.
WHY IT’S GOOD TO LOVE YOURSELF
In my years in ministry, I witnessed far too much pain and self-loathing to sustain this negative attitude to self-love. Too often loving ourselves is equated with a destructive narcissism. But a healthy love for the self is not narcissistic. It is essential to our mental and relational health.
Unfortunately, religious communities usually overlook biblical passages that encourage us to value ourselves more highly. The Bible teaches that we are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27); that God wants us to know abundant life and joy (John 10:10b and 15:11); and that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27). We cannot experience any of these things without a strongly loving relationship with ourselves. I’ve said this before: any spirituality that teaches us to loathe ourselves, or that undermines our love for ourselves, is cruel and evil. One of the criteria I now use to define a healthy spirituality is that it should nurture a healthy and vibrant love for the self. We cannot love others or make a positive contribution to the world if we believe ourselves to be damaged, broken, or unworthy of love.
If we can accept that we need to love ourselves well, we can be intentional about nurturing and expressing that love. Like any other love, love for ourselves is a choice, and it takes work. I have been surprised by how difficult this work can be. But over the years that I’ve been working on learning to love myself, I’ve found a few practical strategies that have worked. That doesn’t mean I now live in a blissful state of self-acceptance—I still have to work on this every day. But perhaps you will find something useful in the following ideas:
Get to know yourself
One of the first things that self-loathing does is alienate us from ourselves. To avoid the shame lurking within us, we turn our attention away from our inner world, and we become strangers to ourselves. Loving ourselves means reversing this pattern and becoming well acquainted with the person we are. There are so many ways to do this, and it’s a lifelong journey.
- Use personality assessment tools like the Enneagram or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
- Listen to your feelings and internal dialogue. Use what you hear to connect with yourself—your strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, sense of humour, interests, and passions.
- Become familiar with your own body and its needs, desires, feelings, rhythms, and unique shape and composition.
Identify the good
Make a list, mentally or in writing, of all the things in you that you feel good about. Celebrate your achievements and unique perspectives. If necessary speak to close friends and family and ask them what they appreciate about you. Write yourself a letter expressing gratitude and celebration for who you are.
Develop a regular and intentional practice of self-love. Find out what makes you feel comfortable and at home in your own skin, and schedule regular time to do it. When you have time and space to practice self-love, make sure to express compassion, appreciation, acceptance, and love toward yourself. Avoid criticising yourself. Give yourself a break from the constant babble of the internal critic.
Be sure to take good care of yourself. Get good nutrition that includes foods that you love. Do exercise that is energising. Get enough rest and sleep. Play well and learn things about which you are curious.
Find the Divine
Make a point of seeking out the Divine within you. Notice any moments when you become aware of a Divine spark inside you. Learn to be aware of your moments of insight, intuition, creativity, nobility, courage, beauty, kindness, and grace. Do not let your best self go unseen.
Learn to commune with the Divine within you. Outward rituals and spiritual practices can be helpful, but sometimes we need to look within and give ourselves space to connect with the Divine Spirit in our own souls.
There is much in our society that teaches us to trust gurus, peer groups, and culture over our own wisdom. Too many of us have learned to silence our voice and do only what we’re told. We won’t find healthy lives, and we won’t build a healthy society that way. That’s why learning to love yourself can be revolutionary and life-changing. But it can also be a way to make a significant contribution to building a healthier, more compassionate world.
So what’s stopping you? Why not start trusting yourself and loving yourself right now?
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Finally, if you know anyone who is struggling to love themselves, please send them the link to this post and share the love. And if you have any ideas to help others be more loving toward themselves, please add them in the comments. Over to you!
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