Self-love is not always selfish. Healthy self-care is responsible stewardship, not selfish indulgence.
In religious circles, it is often verboten to spend any time in self care, self exploration, self restoration, or self appreciation. “Focus on God, not yourself,” is the mantra, but that is a half truth.
Human beings are both broken AND beautiful, both sinful AND made in the image of God. When exiting a toxic system that has exclusively focused on the sinful, broken image of mankind, we often have trouble even examining ourselves, let alone loving ourselves. But there are some things we can do to remedy the thinking that holds us captive to self-loathing or personal stagnation.
1. Realize that self-development is merely responsible stewardship
Part of becoming a mature person is learning how to take care of your possessions and assets, instead of wasting them. The greatest asset we have been given is our very selves – our gifts, personality, and our bodies. It is foolish to abuse or ignore them, and wisdom to care for them.
Church teachings that only emphasize our brokenness often ignore the unique, created self that is also within us, beautiful, even if broken. We need to love and accept that self, without feeling like we are excusing our faults. We should know our faults, and think honestly about ourselves, neither thinking too highly NOR too lowly of our selves.
Let me hasten to add that only emphasizing our created beauty while ignoring our spiritual and moral brokenness may be an equal and opposite error, an error which is also corrected by presenting a balanced integration of the truths of our beauty and brokenness.
2. Realize that self-development is for the purpose of giving one’s self, not self-aggrandizement.
If we are investing in ourselves, (our beautifully created selves), what do we do with our nicely developed self?
The justification for such an investment, besides good stewardship, is that we develop ourselves in order to give ourselves in love and service to others, rather than to amass fame, fortune, or unending pleasures.
If we fail to develop ourselves, we have very little to give to others, in relationship OR in service.
3. Receive your created self the way you would a child
Here’s your first exercise. Imagine that you are given a child who is alone in the world and has no one but you to care for them. Wouldn’t you want the child to find their talents and passions, and wouldn’t you marshal your resources to get them lessons and schooling? Would you not enjoy and celebrate their personality, and guide them into being the best they could be?
You and I need to receive and love our own selves in the same manner. This does not mean that we excuse character flaws as ‘just our personality.’ But it does mean that, just as we can look at animals or the mountains and be in awe at the beauty, we ought to be able to look at ourselves and agree with King David, who famously said:
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
~ Psalm 139:14
4. Practice Non-judgmental Self Observation
One of the simplest forms of Buddhist meditation could be called ‘non-judgmental self-observation.’ Simply put, you spend some time sitting quietly, and observe your own thoughts without judging them, fixing them, or processing them.
Let me explain – have you ever done formal ‘brainstorming?’ It’s a method used to get the best solutions to problems. We all have an inner critic which constantly evaluates both our own internal world, and out perceptions of the outside world.
In Brainstorming, a person or group sets aside the critic, and makes a list of solutions to a problem without evaluating them. For example, let’s say we are trying to solve the problem of getting stuck in traffic on the way to work. In a Brainstorm, we make a list of every possible solution, including what at first seems preposterous, and then bring the critic back afterwards to evaluate. That way, we don’t cut off any good solutions without thought.
So, let’s make a list. To avoid traffic, we could:
- Commute at different hours
- Get a carpool buddy and use the carpool lane
- Take a small plane to and from work
- Work from home more often
Notice, did your inner critic see choice 3 and immediately jump on it? As it turns out, for some people, renting a plane with a few others may be an affordable and good choice, but if we threw that option away too soon, we might not have seriously allowed the idea to develop.
When practicing non-judgmental self observation, you sit and quietly observe your own thoughts, like a third person. You merely watch to see the answer to this question: “When I am quiet, what thoughts occupy my mind?”
But rather than judging of fixing, you just practice observing, waiting for that thought to play out, and then watch for the next, and the next.
The impact of allowing yourself to observe, and then know, experience, and come to appreciate yourself, is that you may find that the critical approach you’ve learned has kept you from this knowledge, and from love, including a healthy self love.
You will find that, as you practice NOT judging, but merely loving observance, that your deeper self and thoughts, both the hurts and the beauty, may begin to surface.
Your true self, or inner child, as some might call it, will only come out when it is safe, and the sad fact is, most of us have an adult self that is not safe to be with – full of self loathing, low esteem, and an anti-self theology, our true self remains hidden.
However, like looking for a deer in the woods, if we go stamping in loudly shouting “Come out!” we won’t get results. But if we sit quietly, day after day, releasing our aggression, and allowing our inner world and person to emerge, we will eventually gain a glimpse of the creature we are seeking, and as we gain its trust over time, we may even befriend and care for it.
Not only will non-judgmental self-observation make you a safe place for your own self, the practice will train you to treat others that way – that is, listening without passing judgment, allowing them to progressively show you more of their depth as trust is built.
Naturally, there will be issues which might come up that need to be fixed or addressed. But that time can come later, just like bringing the critic back in at the end of brainstorming.
In the meantime, learning to suspend judgment, to come to know ourselves, and then both invest in our true interests and gifts, and to then patiently and kindly address any real faults, will make us much healthier and happier.
We MUST leave behind an anti-self viewpoint to be free.