Alright, I admit my title is a ruse, and yet…I really am sick of seeing motivational posts telling us to love ourselves. Why? Because we don’t need to learn to love ourselves.
We need to learn to like ourselves. In a sense, people who commit suicide love themselves too much. They love themselves enough to be obsessed with their dreams, and crushed when those dreams fail to come true. They can accept your failure. Or mine. But not their own.
Love flows like mother’s milk. But like is a hard-shelled nut. It doesn’t crack for motivational slogans (“You’re great!” “Oh, shut up! I’ve accomplished nothing today!”). We’re born with an inner compass that relentlessly points to true north, refusing to settle for happy-happy-sugar-candy faux-north.
I know a sweet-spirited woman, Michelle, who grew up during the peak of the self-esteem movement. Her mother told her non-stop how “special” she was, praising even the most insignificant accomplishments. By the time she’d reached young adulthood, Michelle was hopelessly jaded. She was convinced that, 1) nothing she accomplished mattered because “special” had no real meaning, and, 2) she was incapable of actually accomplishing anything, anyway. I have never met another person who disliked themselves as deeply as she does.
(There is one group that has shown a measurably positive response to baseless praise: criminals. One study reveals that imprisoned murderers have the highest rate of self-esteem of anyone. Happy-happy-sugar-candy faux-north.)
The slogan-driven self-esteem movement (“you’re special!”) started to crumble in the 1990s as more and more clinical studies showed that only measurable accomplishment has the ability to produce authentic self-esteem in test subjects. And yet the false premise—say it often enough and they’ll believe it—abides with us today.
I struggled with intense anxiety as a young adult. Each night I would lie awake, terrified at the prospect of being alone with the one person I least trusted: myself. I loved myself (too much, really), but did not like myself. There were several key developments in my healing, but the breakthrough came after a period of genuine personal growth. I remember lying in bed as a young husband and father striving to do right, suddenly realizing, “I think I actually…like myself…a little.” I hadn’t gotten to the full meat of the nut yet, but I’d cracked the shell.
None of this is news to God, of course. In the book of Genesis, He tells Cain, after the rage-filled young man has killed his brother, “If you do not do what is right, sin crouches at your door. Its desire is for you—but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7) And then God does something remarkable: he places a mark on Cain’s forehead, not a mark of guilt—as some mistakenly believe—but a mark of protection. It is God’s way of saying, “There’s a long journey ahead, but I am with you. So begin now.”
Yes, the sweet nut of self-liking is hard to get at, but it’s worth it. And, perhaps surprisingly, unlike the navel-gazing “love yourself” message, the key to self-liking is others. No accomplishment brings such inner peace as service. The number one weapon against depression is service. Which is one of the reasons Jesus commanded us to love others “as yourself.” He knew we already loved ourselves. The key was to turn that love outward. To accomplish something worthy, something that might even cause us to…