We can discover the joy of the Gospel in putting others before ourselves and loving one another as we love ourselves. Consequently, a disordered love of self, both in excess and in defect, can hinder our mission to love others. While there will often be a temptation toward either extreme, balanced love of self is possible and will bear abundant fruit in the harvest of our lives.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of another and seeking out what is best for them over our desires. For instance, a mother might make her child eat vegetables against his wishes out of love because they hold the nutritious value that is best for him. Or a friend canceling a vacation to console a close friend who suffered a terrible, unexpected breakup.
This vision of love is modeled by Jesus Christ and many saints who, even while accepting suffering and mistreatment from others, saw themselves as worthy of God’s love just as much as anyone else. Seeing that spiritual needs are of a much greater value than the physical, we have many images of men and women who, while they may have neglected their physical needs, always sought their spiritual good, which Aquinas would affirm as accurately loving oneself.
Every person is here for a reason and is unrepeatable, irreplaceable, unique, and is owed “to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.” This is how we need to treat others, however, it is also how we need to treat ourselves. We need to view ourselves as persons who are worthy of love.
Excessive Love of Self
St. Thomas Aquinas says, “self-love or egoism is manifestly the source of all sins.” This excessive love of self involves too much of a focus to be placed on oneself, which can cause the inversion of Christ’s Gospel message. Persons with this egoist self-love seek to put themselves before others, and instead of “love one another as you love yourself,” they hope others will love them as much as they love themselves. This is simply narcissism and inhibits the Christian from exercising the true love we are called to show one another.
In 1 Peter 5:8, St. Peter instructs, “let your love for one another be intense.” Narcissists cannot put others before themselves and will only seek another’s good when it is convenient or comfortable for us. While we might sometimes succeed in a diminished love, St. Peter says “intense,” not diminished, which helps us understand the trajectory we must aim for if we are serious about our faith.
St. Augustine also clearly identifies the danger of excessive self-love regarding our relationship with God. He said, “there can only be two basic loves…the love of God unto the forgetfulness of self, or the love of self unto the forgetfulness of God.” A narcissistic love of self tends to push God out of the picture. He is always ready to ascend the throne of our hearts, but He will never remove our free will and take our hearts by force. However, when we come to realize that we have put ourselves on the throne of our hearts, God will help us with the revolution to win them back for Him.
St. Francis of Assisi said, “above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” There is abundant direction on how to overthrow our tyrannical selves in the wisdom of the Church found in scripture and tradition. Besides scripture, I recommend The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Imitation of Christ, and The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena for starters. Furthermore, making our desires for a revolution known to God is an excellent first step toward opening the door to the grace and gifts Christ longs to give us.
Defective Love of Self
While it is a great good to seek self-sacrifice and self-denial in our relationship with God and others, we also want to be wary of debasing ourselves to self-hatred. Scripture does say, “it is better to be lowly in spirit” (Proverbs 16:19). However, this is lowliness in which we still retain our value, recognizing our place before God, we realize His power and our need for Him. We want to reject the effects of our brokenness in fallen human nature, i.e., our weakness, sinfulness, and failures in love; however, in our lowliness, we must still embrace the value given to us by our Father who made us good.
St. Paul lives this out as he recognizes that he hates not himself but the effects of his brokenness as he says, “we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…Now if do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me…Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ Our Lord.” (Romans 7:14,15, 20, 24, 25).
In this way, St. Paul shows us how to apply to ourselves the adage, “Hate the sin, not the sinner.”
He further recognizes that, even with the baggage of doing what we hate, we still preserve great value as children of God as “those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14, 17).
As God’s children, we are close to God, who cannot love anything contrary to the good, and, because God made us inherently good, our sins aside, we can too say with St. Paul, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).
If we are Christians, we cannot hate what God loves. Whether this refers to others around us or ourselves. Furthermore, we can counter the temptation to self-hatred through recalling God’s infinite love for us. This includes not only the amazing gifts we can find each passing moment that He gives us, but also the very fact that we exist now, and the fact that Jesus took up the cross, giving Himself up for us so that we may be with Him forever. No matter how abstract these truths might seem to us at times, there can be no doubt that God loves us.
Remember that the truth of God’s love for us reminds us of our value as humans. When we keep in mind our worth, it helps us to love ourselves in the balanced way that we are meant to. However, we should not misconstrue this love with the modern-day notion of self-esteem, which is merely a superficial “good feeling” about oneself.
This balanced love of self is not feeling good about the nice things we can do. This is a love of self in which we seek the true good for ourselves, forgive ourselves when we fail, and accept ourselves totally with all our talents and weaknesses, realizing that we are not perfect but also not hopeless.
Love for God’s Sake
It is necessary that we love ourselves, and others, for God’s sake. Simply stated, we want to love what God loves. This includes loving others even after a great fault, but also we must love ourselves even after a great fault we commit. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in the realm of forgiveness and, holding a grudge against ourselves, project our feelings onto God’s Mercy. The proper understanding of God’s Infinite Mercy is, in one aspect, what differs between the response of St. Peter to his betrayal of Jesus and that of Judas.
To love ourselves for God’s sake means seeing ourselves as God sees us, with true humility and mercy. Furthermore, we look through ourselves to God with great gratitude for how amazing He has created us and everything around us. Like all things human, balance in the love of self can be difficult; however, through this balance, we can love more perfectly and be who we are meant to be, which, St. Catherine of Siena tells us, will set the world on fire.
How to Love Yourself
If you are seeking some ways to love yourself better, here are a few tips:
- Focus on what is good about you and your life. Make a list of positive things in your life. What is good about you and your life? Once you have the list, focus on a different one each day to either appreciate it or work to make it even better.
- Rewire your brain. Over many years, you probably have been telling yourself untrue negative things about yourself. This has trained your mind to automatically think negatively about yourself. Undo this by telling yourself good things about who you are and what you can do well. Take some time every day to speak these things, out loud even, so that your brain may learn the truth about how good you really are.
- Talk to Jesus. The Lord has a lot to say about you. Ask Him what He thinks about you and give Him some quiet time to respond. He may tell you, give you things to think about, or good emotions. Make sure to test what you hear and remember anything that does not encourage is not from Him.
- Remember the Holy Spirit. God has found you so worthwhile that He has given you the Holy Spirit to live within you! Pray and ask God to lead you to receive more from the Holy Spirit and remember that this is a tremendous gift. If we have the Holy Spirit, then we have everything. The fact that you can receive such a gift means that you too are tremendous! Furthermore, the Spirit will give you the proper vision of seeing you as you are and loving yourself as you deserve to be loved.