Just Reflections
Just Reflections Podcast
"Love yourself" is not good advice

"Love yourself" is not good advice

People do not need to be reminded to prioritize themselves, but rather, the issue is that they tend to think about themselves excessively. which can lead to negative self-perception and unhappiness.

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As we enter the new year, some of the loud messages you’ll hear online are, “love yourself”, “choose yourself”, and “prioritise yourself”. The implication here is that many of the bad things that happen to us are because we don’t think about ourselves enough when we make decisions. As a result, we make decisions that are not in our self-interest that harm us.

Now, I don’t know how long you’ve been a human being, but in my experience, people don’t really need to be reminded to think about themselves first. If there’s one thing we’re naturally good at without training, it’s thinking about ourselves ahead of other people and being self-serving.

“What about the people who keep making poor decisions that cause them harm? They need to love themselves, right?” Well, the failure of people who seem to continuously make decisions that turn out badly for them isn’t a lack of self-love. In fact, they’re also just as self-serving as the rest of us. They’re just bad at it. Sometimes people have very wrong ideas about what’s in their best interest. Or they get outmanoeuvred by others who are more adept at being self-serving. But at the start of the day and at its end, we’re all seeking our own self-interest. Few things are certain in life, but if there’s one thing we can be certain about, it's that people are selfish. For better or worse, that’s one thing we all share.

Besides, telling someone who is struggling “love yourself” is like telling someone who is upset to “calm down”. It is vague and often patronizing.

We think about ourselves too much.

The problem with us human beings, especially in current pop culture, isn’t that we don’t think about ourselves enough, it’s that we think about ourselves too much.

Sometimes that is the reason our happiness is so fleeting. We all have things going on in our lives, and if you think about yourself too much, you’ll inevitably end up at all the things you do wrong. Next to selfishness, we’re adept self-critics. When you dwell on your issues long enough, they’ll eventually appear too big and insurmountable.

It’s like when you overthink breathing. Suddenly, this thing that you do autonomously becomes a task and you wonder whether you’re breathing too fast or too slow and before you know it, you’re tripping yourself in your breathing. But if you focus on other things, breathing just happens, you don’t have to train yourself to do it.

Love your neighbour as yourself.

You probably know the Bible verse Matthew 22 verse 39.

“And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” — Matthew 22:39 (NKJV)

And if you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard someone interpret this to say you cannot start the project of loving your neighbour until you have developed sufficient affection for yourself.

First, that’s not what the verse is saying at all. Jesus—who said these words—was clearly taking it for granted that you already love yourself and is advising you to use that as a model for how to love your neighbour. He is saying we should keep our neighbour’s interests at heart like we keep our own interests at heart. We don’t really need help with the second part. He is building off of the fact that we all naturally value our own interests and work towards fulfilling them. So take that mentality and apply it to your neighbour. Don't worry about fortifying it in yourself, just apply it to your neighbour. Unfortunately, we've taken this command and we've done the opposite, which is another testament to our selfishness.

We don’t even need to be good people to love ourselves. We all know that we haven’t been the best of people all the time. In fact, we know that we’re nasty people sometimes and we look at things we’ve done in the past with loathing and yet we still love ourselves, regardless. Here’s how C. S. Lewis puts it.

“For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later, it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact, the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.”

— Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

Second, you don’t have to love yourself first to love others. In fact, when you focus on loving others (and on loving God, which is the first commandment according to the previous verse) loving yourself just comes as part of the package. You don’t have to focus on it.

It’s patronising and vague.

Often in pop culture, when we talk about loving yourself, we mean you should have more self-acceptance. Know who you are, look in the mirror and accept what you see. Accept that you are who you are and that will not change.

On the surface, this sounds like brilliant advice. Of course, we should all be accepting of ourselves regardless of the traits we don’t like about ourselves. But if you think about it, this is saying nothing about what the person should do exactly. Should they look in the mirror and will acceptance into existence? Should they close their eyes and make a wish? It also assumes that the person hasn’t been wanting to accept who they are, and this is some grand insight. In reality, it’s just fluffy advice that offers no actual solutions. When we force positivity on someone who’s struggling, we minimise their experience, undermine their emotion and make them feel guilty for not having thought of this simple solution.

Worst of all, when it comes to accepting undesirable physical traits, it might lead to the very opposite of what it tries to achieve. At the risk of sounding simplistic in the same section where I’m saying this is vague advice, the best thing to do about physical qualities about yourself that you don’t like, things you can’t change, is to ignore them and focus on other things. Focus on helping other people. You will either realise that there are people dealing with much worse things or that we all carry some kind of burden and life is not targeting you and your focus on yourself will disappear slowly.

This is part of why people who are suffering from depression are sometimes advised to spend more time helping others or volunteering for charities as part of their treatment. There’s something about focusing on other people that heals our compulsive worry and anxiety about our own issues.

Besides, you’re never going to reach a state where you feel good about yourself all the time. It shouldn’t happen. Sometimes you need to feel bad about yourself. When you do things that are cruel or manipulative, or cowardly. You should feel bad so that you do better next time. Feeling bad is part of the positive feedback loop. It doesn’t mean you should hate yourself, you shouldn’t go into despondency and despair about it, but you shouldn’t feel good about it either.

A better way to live.

Like many things, the self-love train has derailed. The expectation that love of oneself alone should be equally fulfilling as love from others is unrealistic. Humans are communal. We need our community and we love to feel love from others. It is important that we find others to share our lives with. No amount of loving ourselves will meet our needs for community and love.

The more we learn to love others and move focus away from ourselves, the happier we will be in life. As you make your resolutions this year, think beyond yourself. Think about the changes you can make in your life that will benefit others, even if they have no direct benefit for you. Forget about yourself, love other people, serve other people and then magically you'll find that your opinion of yourself improves. That’s a better way to live.

Just Reflections
Just Reflections Podcast
Impactful ideas that challenge my thinking. I hope they'll challenge yours too.