I’ve said for quite a few months now that I haven’t done well at all at loving myself; that I need to start focusing on my own self-care. It’s been definite that something needs to change, quickly. As soon as I tried to start, though, I found out that I’m pretty terrible at being kind to myself. In fact, in the last few weeks I’ve come to a startling realization that I don’t actually know how to love myself.
How is it possible to not even know how to love oneself?
As I’ve been thinking about it I realized that I’ve always assumed knowing how to love oneself is a natural thing that everyone knows how to do and that my problem is simply that I haven’t been loving myself and I just need to start. However, I’ve found the truth is a bit different: I actually literally have no clue how to love myself, because no one ever really taught me how. That sounds dramatic and terrible, but once I backtracked and thought through life it actually makes a lot of sense.
I think it’s largely due to the fact that I grew up in relatively fundamental Christianity which teaches one to not think of oneself, to “die to oneself,” to let God control one’s spirit, to lose our lives so we can gain eternal life “in Christ,” and that God loves us so our primary focus is to love God back and to love other people. The spiritually-worded catch phrases go on, but rarely is the focus on loving and accepting ourselves for who we are naturally as human beings; I’ve never heard any teaching or sermon on that during my 23 year acquaintance with the Christian church.
Of course I find all those things to be interesting and counter-cultural ideas, but ones that need to be in balance, as I feel that in hearing and having those ideas presented to me over and over by Christians throughout my life I’ve noticed a reoccurring pattern of well-meaning people almost in a panic wanting to change who I am to fit their prescribed ideas of what a good Christian is supposed to be.
As a human being trying to participate in Christianity, I have always been made by others to feel completely inadequate.
From the words and actions of others over the years I’ve been given the strong message that:
-Good Christians are extroverts, and I’m an introvert. I need to “die to myself” and “break out of my shell.” If I don’t, I’m being selfish.
-Good Christians are winsome and outgoing, and I’m too shy and reserved. I need to smile more.
-Good Christians are called to love all people, which [according to church culture] means to spend time with and be friends with as many people as possible. If I’m not spending time with people then I’m doing nothing to love them. If I’m not good in big groups of people then I’m failing. I’m literally disobeying God by not acting like an extrovert.
-Good Christians don’t get too physical in their romantic relationships before marriage. I’ve failed. I’ve been told that I’m “forgiven,” a word that carries with it that familiar pious attitude implying that I’ve failed and the other party [whether it affected them personally or not] is oh so humbly giving me some sort of pardon.
-Good Christians aren’t anxious or depressed, but trust God. My anxiety and depression is sin that stems from rebelliousness, independence and not putting enough faith in God.
Religion teaches people that they are sinners, and children are raised to believe that they are broken, were born broken, and need to be fixed. It’s been ingrained in all of us who grew up in the church. From the beginning we are never enough without God, without the church, without the massive list of things to avoid in order to be pure.
Within the narrative of the Bible and the reasoning behind it, I get it. I grew up with it, I understand the story, and have read the Bible cover to cover. But Christians are so quick to emphasize our sin and brokenness and selfishness that they don’t give people any credit ever. They say we can do nothing on our own; it’s all God’s grace and blessing. People only get in the way of God’s work and so must give up their rights to themselves in order to let God work through them. This translates into not thinking of oneself or especially not taking pride in oneself or one’s achievements. There is nothing to boast about except for what God has done. We ourselves are nothing and deserve nothing.
This background is why I have no clue how to love myself. Not only did I start out as a miserable, broken sinner, but even my natural personality is just all wrong for what’s been expected of me. No matter how hard I try, I will always mess up on most of the above points because I was just. not. made. to be a people person.
So now that I got that figured out, I’m trying to backtrack, kill the lies, and wrap my mind around that fact that who I am as a person is ok, fantastic, that I have many good qualities and have value as a person simply because I exist. I have to start sending myself strong, consistent messages to blast out the previous messages I’ve received.
I am teaching myself that:
-I am an introvert, and that is the coolest thing ever. I think about things and notice things that a lot of other people don’t think or notice. I don’t need to change anything and my personal shell has been a lifesaver quite a few times. There’s nothing selfish about being my natural self.
-I am shy and reserved around people I don’t know or don’t like, and there is nothing wrong with that. People who know me know how warm and friendly I am toward those I love. I don’t owe anyone anything, and don’t need to drain myself to reach out to every single person I encounter. Smiling isn’t a mandatory action, and there is nothing wrong with not smiling. It doesn’t mean anything is the matter—this is also a social construct.
-I don’t spend time with a lot of different people, but the relationships I do cultivate go very deep. My few relationships are so much more meaningful than having a ton of surface friendships. I show love in those relationships in ways I never could if I tried to reach out to every person I meet. It is also possible to love without spending time with multiple people, but simply my life work and what I ultimately contribute to the world can be an act of love.
-I have a huge capacity to love within romantic relationships. There is nothing that happens within those relationships that will ever define or change my value or who I am as a person. Enough said.
-I struggle with massive anxiety and small bouts of depression, and that has nothing to do with my spiritual life. I have every logical reason and right to believe those things have to do with how my brain works. That doesn’t make them ok or fun to deal with but they aren’t wrong and they aren’t my fault. There’s nothing wrong with feeling melancholy and I actually even appreciate that aspect of myself. Spirituality certainly helps with my anxiety at times, but to tell someone their anxiety is sin is spiritually abusive and no one has any right to say that to anyone, ever.
I have done my best with the religion I was raised in, but the fact is that all religion is a form of brainwashing in a way, and it’s pretty sick and twisted to raise a child to believe that they are sinful and broken. I don’t blame anyone for teaching me and my peers this; it’s completely engrained in Christian society and is a major part of the doctrine. However, with it comes shame, self-doubt, and a constant feeling of inadequacy. I don’t need to beg God for forgiveness every day for sins I supposedly committed just from being alive. I don’t need to apologize for my own sexuality and desires that come with it; I don’t need to apologize for the fact that I have a beautiful body and that I love how it looks.
I don’t have to feel shame for most of the things I’ve felt ashamed about for most of my life.
I don’t need to listen to what other people tell me is right or good. I can decide that.
It’s ok to not know where I’m at with religion right now, or how I feel about God right now. I’m going to take all the time I need to deal with that.
I’m going to take all the time I need to care for myself, to learn to love myself.
I am free to be.