On Self-Love

If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?  
-Maya Angelou

It’s taken me a lot of work to learn to love myself. I often describe myself as a “recovering perfectionist.” I can be hard on myself. My expectations are high. I’ve often felt like my voice doesn’t matter.

As a Christian, I’ve shouted from the rooftops about how much God loves us (meaning all of you) but I’ve had a hard time believing it for myself. That sounds so sad to say, but I know many people have felt that way too, because they’ve told me. After all, we’re taught to put others above self.

In Philippians 2:3, Paul says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

I understand that the point is for us to imitate Christ’s humility, but I wonder if we’ve taken that message and used it as a weapon against ourselves.

Several years ago, my spirit brought me to the river that meanders through the acres of forest behind our home. That river’s name? Mount Hope. Overwhelmed and completely depleted, it was there that I first learned to sit with myself before I even knew what that meant. As a constant “do-er,” I didn’t understand this stillness that my spirit was calling me to. But I’d later understand that this moment was the beginning of a transformation for me as I began to sift through all of the chaos and overthinking and expectations that ran through my mind. It was like pulling items out of a backpack, taking a good look at each piece to determine what I still needed to carry and what I could leave behind.

This “thing” that’s causing disruption, can I set it aside?
This expectation that doesn’t feel right, can I loosen its grip?
This problem I can’t solve, can I let it go?

It was the first time I dug deep to find out who I was and what I wanted; an unexpected act of self-love. I’m doing the same thing now as I dive deeper into my faith – sifting through what I’ve been taught about God, deciding what beliefs stay and which ones I can let go. But this time, I (mostly) know how to listen to myself and trust her. The Christian faith has often discouraged us (women) from trusting ourselves, because “our hearts can lead us astray.” That’s one belief I have set aside. In my experience, that message has mostly been used to silence us. But Jesus told us to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds, so he doesn’t actually call us to check our hearts at the door.

As I do this inner work, I find myself re-reading the gospels to remind myself of who Jesus is. After all, we are Christians, not Paulians and sometimes I think Christians place the words of Paul over the teachings of Christ. They make Paul’s words an idol. In the past few years, part of my practice has been to read different translations of the Bible. I’m inspired by Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Great Commandment:

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’” Matthew 22:37-40 MSG

As Christians, we are conditioned to put others before ourselves. But that’s not actually what Jesus commands here. Of course I believe in the sanctity of community. Of lifting one another up. Of helping where we’re needed and making the world a better place. I believe in being on the receiving end of that love, too. All of that is holy work. We were made for healthy community, connection, and belonging. But we can honor others as the unique people they are – created in the image of God, while also honoring ourselves, created in that same image. I think we forget that.

Love others as well as you love yourself. Not more than, not less than. As well as. It’s not enough to love our neighbors – we must learn to love ourselves, too. Only then can we better understand how to love those around us.

Perhaps that’s what is missing in this world full of fear, anger, heartbreak, and injustice. If we were kinder to ourselves, would we be kinder to others? If we were gentler to ourselves, would we be gentler to others? If we extended more compassion, grace, and forgiveness to ourselves, would we do the same for others?

I suspect most people avoid this kind of work – to learn to genuinely love ourselves. I mean, it’s not exactly easy. It’s much easier to scroll, to numb out, to escape; to be consumed by work or to focus on “fixing others,” or even “helping others.” But perhaps we all need to abide by the sacred calling to sit with ourselves. Only when we get quiet enough can we hear the still small voice that guides us.

I’m not an expert by any means, but these are some of the self-love practices that have been helpful to me:

Practice gratitude. Make a habit of writing down three things you’re thankful for each day. In these days of human suffering, heartbreaking headlines, and half-truths, we can start to feel pretty low. But there is always something to be grateful for, even if we have to squint our eyes to see it.

Practice the reframe. For those of us who tend to fall into negative thought patterns, or who have perfectionist tendencies, reframing our thoughts is key.

Thought: I can’t do this.
Reframe: I can’t do this yet, but I’m still learning.

Be gentle to yourself. Drink water. Eat a nourishing meal. Have an epsom salt bath, take a nap, read a book, light a candle. Speak kindly to yourself, as if talking to an old friend. Forgive yourself for past mistakes and learn from them, vowing to do better next time.

Engage in joyful movement. If you can combine this movement with the outdoors, even better. Walking and yoga are gentle exercises with tremendous health benefits. I once took an outdoor yoga class on a llama farm! 🦙

Accept the compliment.
Friend: “You look so nice today.”

Resisting response: “I washed my hair today.”
Better response: “Thank you!”

Take time to be still. Meditate, spend some time in silence even if it’s just for a few minutes. It’s a noisy, messy world; we need to regulate our nervous systems. Don’t know where to start? Try this Meditation for Self Love.

Set boundaries. Learn to be okay with disappointing others. Honor others yes, but honor yourself too by asking yourself what you need.

Get outside support if needed. Find a therapist to talk to. (I acknowledge the privilege here in saying this. Not everyone has access to good healthcare and skilled therapists often don’t take insurance.) Talking with a friend and/or finding online support can be helpful too.

Spend quality time with yourself. Make time to engage in activities that bring you joy. Go on a “date day” with yourself: visit a museum that inspires you, find a new hiking trail, take yourself to lunch. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money; you just have to be alone.

Learn to let go. For those of us with squirrely brains, this one can be a challenge. It has been life changing for me to ask myself the question, “What do I have control of here? What is my responsibility in this?”

What do you think? Have any of these tools been helpful for you? Do you have any other suggestions? I’m always looking for more tools for the toolbox!

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