In our culture, there has long been an inordinate and destructive focus on self-love. Every week a new self-esteem boosting campaign is launched encouraging us to “love ourselves” and “embrace ourselves” and “accept ourselves” and so forth. This is the message we hammer into our kids’ heads from a young age, and then we wonder why they turn into narcissists and egomaniacs.
The most prevalent myth about self-love is that it is the starting point of a healthy human life. You will often hear some wise sage (who’s probably been divorced multiple times) announce: “You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else!” The idea is that you can’t possibly know how to love another person until you have mastered the art of loving yourself. And “loving” in this case almost always means “feel good about.” Your ability to love other people hinges on your ability to conjure up affectionate feelings about your reflection in the mirror.
This is a very bad way to approach life and a catastrophic way to approach relationships. To make matters worse, we have come to believe that the Bible endorses, even commands, this view. I have often heard “love your neighbor as yourself” trotted out as an argument in favor of the “love yourself first” philosophy. But Jesus does not tell us to love ourselves first. He never actually tells us to love ourselves at all. And “love your neighbor as yourself” is, we should note, only the second greatest commandment. The first and ultimate commandment is to love God. It is through our love for God that all other love flows.
The point of the second commandment is entirely contained in the first three words: love your neighbor. For whatever reason, we tend to get hung up on the “as yourself” addendum, which is not the portion that Jesus intended us to focus on. Back in older times, there wasn’t this sort of confusion. People naturally understood that “love your neighbor as yourself” meant, in essence, “keep your neighbor’s interests in mind just as you keep your own in mind.” Jesus wasn’t recommending that we prioritize ourselves. He was taking the fact for granted. We instinctively see to our own interests, but the key is to concern ourselves with our neighbor’s interests as if they were are own. Self-love is the opposite of the point.
Thomas Aquinas says that love is “to will the good of the other.” Love, then, is an act of the will. It is a thing we do, a choice we make. It has very little to do with our emotions. In fact, the rawest and purest expressions of love are the ones which are not necessarily accompanied by and rewarded with warm feelings. A man loves his family best when he comes home from a hard day’s work, and, though he feels like sitting on the couch with a beer and watching TV in silence, he puts those feelings aside and engages with his wife and his children. If he only acts loving when he feels loving, there is no evidence that he really loves his family at all. Even an abuser can have affectionate moments when the mood strikes.
This is the difficulty self-love presents. When we talk about loving ourselves, we usually mean “love” in the merely emotional sense. “Working on loving myself” translates to “sitting around and hoping that positive feelings develop out of the ether to soothe my soul.” But the real “work” of love is actual work. It means acting and doing and giving. Self-love, if it means anything more than feeling nice, must therefore mean acting and doing and giving — to myself.
But isn’t that just selfishness? In many cases, yes. It’s only different from selfishness if I am pursuing what is authentically good, holy, and wholesome, even when it isn’t immediately pleasurable or desirable. You could call this “self-love,” in a certain sense, because it’s to my greater benefit. But it’s probably better to call it “self-denial,” because the ultimate source and object of my love is supposed to be God, not myself.
So, how exactly do I focus on loving myself without making myself the object and source? It would seem the answer is: I can’t. The moment I try to love myself is the moment I fall headfirst into vanity. Self-love is a byproduct of loving God and my neighbor. It’s not something I should focus on at all, and it certainly isn’t something I should “try” to do. My efforts must be always directed externally, toward an Other, because that is the nature of love. It is meant to emanate outward like rays from the sun. Or maybe, in our case, it is more like sunlight reflected from the moon. God is the Sun pouring light out from Himself, and we are little moons reflecting it and shining with a light that comes from beyond ourselves.
In a very particular, qualified way, “self-love” can be understood as something good and healthy. But it is probably best to dispense with the term entirely. I’ve never met a single person, and I doubt a single person exists on Earth, who has really focused on loving themselves and become a better person for it. There may be a truth buried somewhere in the idea of self-love, but it is covered under too many layers of confusion and pride to be of any use to us.