SELF-LOVE — GOOD OR BAD?
By Sister Ioanna
St. Innocent of Alaska Monastic Community, Redford MI
“Self-love”—along with self-love’s off-spring, “self-esteem”—frequently gets a bad rap from us Christians. But this is unfortunate and perhaps actually harmful to those who are trying to engage in spiritual warfare—the spiritual struggle—and grow closer to God. Why does self-love get a bad rap? The answer is simply because we use the same words to mean two totally opposite things. We confuse ourselves because we think that “self-love” means to be preoccupied with one’s self—to be self-centered— and that “self-esteem” means to be arrogant and puffed up with oneself—to be full of pride in the worldly sense. And we furthermore mistake “humility” with allowing oneself to be used as a “door-mat.” And indeed, if we accept these erroneous definitions as valid (as many of us do), we would be correct in believing that self-love and self-esteem are sinful and are to be rejected.
However, let us suggest that these definitions are invalid and that by accepting these false definitions as correct, we thereby lose the vital opportunity of understanding what self-love and self-esteem really are, and therefore fail to recognize their importance in spiritual health. Let us even further suggest that by rejecting what we mistakenly call “self-love,” we are consequently severely hampered and even disabled in our spiritual growth due to lack of true self-love and self-esteem. What do we mean by this?
We suggest that to be preoccupied with one’s self and to be self-centered, and to be arrogant and puffed up with oneself is the precise opposite of genuine self-love and self-esteem. Rather, we propose that people who are self-centered, preoccupied with their own self, and are arrogant and puffed up, are in reality, reflecting NOT self-love, but self-hatred. Furthermore, we propose that actually, self-hatred (that is, lack of self-love) is a wide-spread spiritual disease, a chief characteristic of the non-Christ-centered life, and that this terrible spiritual disease is extremely widespread in our modern world, due to its secular priorities, materialistic values, and its rejection of God as the center of life.
What then, is real self-love?
Self-love is a consequence and manifestation of a genuine love for God that fills our hearts and spills over to embrace all of God’s creation, including all of our brothers and sisters and the whole created world. Therefore, this MUST also include ourselves, as part of God’s creation! Christ Himself commanded us to love our neighbor AS WE LOVE OURSELVES. How, then, can we love our neighbor if we don’t love ourselves, and frequently, actually HATE ourselves? The victory of (self-) love over (self-) hatred is a life-altering consequence of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Characteristics of self-hatred
How can we determine if someone hates him/herself? What are some of the symptoms of this spiritual disease of self-hate? Here are just a few of the symptoms:
■ Being persistently angry, belligerent, arguing, hostile, fighting, violent, complaining, joyless, readily blowing-up — usually over little things; feeling threatened by others whom we view as superior to us in some way;
■ Being emotionally or physically abusive of others, putting others down, ridiculing others (especially publicly); persistently criticizing others — their opinions, tastes, ideas, appearance, behavior; treating others “like dirt;”
■ Being in self-destruct-mode: addicted to self-destructive and self-defeating behavior, including addictions of any kind, and acting/speaking in ways that are guaranteed to elicit negative reactions from others, including employers, family, friends, and others—at home, work, church and elsewhere; not doing or completing what is in our own best interests, such as completing school or studying for classes; aiming low—settling for the least one can get by with, and not aspiring to doing the best one is capable of doing; readily finding excuses for the self-destructive, self-defeating and ‘risky’ behavior typical of self-hate; having a fragile, easily-offended ego, that is readily threatened by the smallest criticism;
■ Doing things for one’s own self-aggrandizement, to make oneself appear important, better than others, and acting arrogant, superior; manipulating others, and needing to have control over others, be it emotional, mental, financial or physical or spiritual;
■ Having lack of respect for people and lack of reverence for life;
■ Feeling depressed, discouraged, no good, of little value, that we are failures, and deserve to be abused or sick, etc.;
■ Inability to apologize or accept responsibility for one’s bad actions — it’s always someone else’s fault; feeling like a victim; feeling like the world ‘OWES’ me; overwhelmed by self-pity.
Characteristics of self-love
On the other hand, what are some of the ways that one who has genuine and true self-love acts? Here are just a few ways:
■ Acts with love, patience, gentleness, caring, joy, self-control, respect, courtesy, politeness, concern for others’ feelings and well-being; doesn’t readily take offense;
■ Avoids doing things that offend or harm others, and readily apologies when he/she accidentally offends someone;
■ Treats one’s own body with respect and self-control, and does not defile or harm it;
■ Avoids complaining, arguing, putting others down, criticizing or ridiculing them;
■ Strives to do the best he/she can, and does not just settle for the least he/she can get by with;
■ Seeks to arouse others to do the best they can, to fulfill their potential, to aspire to higher things;
■ Does not seek to manipulate or control others, but treats others with respect as human beings—as being made in God’s image;
■ Does not seek or need power, honor, prestige or wealth, but can accept them if they come without getting puffed up;
■ Can accept his/her sins and weaknesses, repent and apologize for them, not reacting with self-pity and blaming others.
We can see from identifying and inquiring about the characteristics of self-hate and self-love, that self-love is actually a necessary component to living a Christian, virtue-seeking, Christ-centered life— a necessary component of the spiritual life and of spiritual growth, not something to be rejected as sinful. Basically, it boils down to the fact that we can NOT love others if we do not love ourselves. Therefore, in order to fulfill Christ’s commandment to love others, we must start by loving ourselves. In fact, our ability to love others is identical to our level of self-love, which proceeds directly from our level of love for God and how close we are to Him. Of course, we are typically a mixture of self-hate and self-love, and the nature of our life’s spiritual struggles is to gradually overcome our self-hatred (the source of our sins), and to grow in our ability to love — ourselves and consequently, others. Our sins are a result of our lack of love, and our spiritual growth parallels our increasing ability to love God and His creation, including ourselves. The spiritual life is a gradual process of growth.
Characteristics of self-esteem & humility
An important consequence of loving ourselves is having self-esteem. Self-esteem is the polar-opposite of being self-centered. Those who lack self-esteem sometimes try to compensate for it by lording it over others, manipulating, dominating and controlling others, being arrogant and puffed-up with themselves, and self-centered. When we have self-esteem, we can have the courage, faith and persistence to overcome obstacles to achieve what we believe the Lord wants us to achieve. With self-esteem, when difficulties arise, we can have the faith and trust in God that He knows what He is doing, and learn the lessons He wishes us to learn, trusting in His wisdom. With self-esteem we can stand up for what is right and struggle against what is wrong, including abuse. With self-esteem we can have the persistence to aim for the stars and achieve the most we are capable of. From self-love proceeds self-esteem, and from self-esteem proceeds humility. With self-esteem we can be humiliated, and rather than being devastated, we can learn humility from it. With self-esteem one can engage in the major spiritual struggle — to overcome our ‘self,’ our ‘ego,’ and empty ourselves of our ‘self’ — and then we can be receptive to receiving God’s gift of humility. As self-esteem is the child of self-love, thus humility is the child of self-esteem. With humility, whether we are lauded or ridiculed, it makes little difference: if praised, it does not go to our heads, and if corrected, criticized, ridiculed, or even humiliated, our egos are not threatened. Whereas everyone appreciates being appreciated, the humble person isn’t driven by a need for praise, prestige, influence or power. (This is why the only ones who can be trusted with power are those who don’t want it.) When we continually practice the Presence of God and live God-centered lives, we can walk on water in the midst of the storms of life and not sink, but when we focus on our ‘self,’ (I am afraid of the storm), we sink. Actually, the more we overcome our ‘self,’ the greater our self-esteem. The Blessed Theotokos/Birth-Giver-of-God could readily acquiesce to the Lord’s will and say, “Let it be to me according to Your will,” because of her humility, which came from her self-esteem, which came from her self-love and her dying to her ‘self’ in order live only for God.
How do we acquire self-love?
Now, the million-dollar question is, how do we acquire self-love? It is the rare person who has been so blessed by having been raised in a loving and non-abusive spiritual environment so that he/she already has self-love and self-esteem as a child, teen and adult. (The greatest gift that parents or other adults can give to children is the unconditional love that promotes self-esteem.) If one hasn’t been blessed thus, then one must depend totally on God Himself to fill one’s heart with His love, so that we can come to love ourselves and to acquire self-esteem. And this depends, in turn, on us being willing to co-operate with God by letting Him fill our hearts and become like Him. In addition, we can acquire self-esteem and humility by accepting the trials and tribulations and hurts that come to us as opportunities to overcome our ‘self,’ recognizing that when we feel hurt, it is the ego–the self–that hurts, and Christ told us to let our ‘self’ (ego) be crucified with Him on the crosses of our daily lives—to die to our self. Only out of self-esteem and humility can we join our voice with St. John the Baptist/Forerunner’s voice and say: “He must increase and I must decrease.” This is true self-love.
By Sister Ioanna, St. Innocent of Alaska Monastic Community, Redford, MI. March 2014