I came across a post by a Christian writer talking about how to love yourself. It was pretty indicative of the advice I got growing up and living within the faith. The advice is best summed up: “The trick is to think of ourselves less. Which is very hard to do – unless we get the bigger picture.”
Such advice always sounded like it came from a place of understanding and love. It made it easier to believe and internalize. On its face, the advice isn’t just to think about yourself less often. Rather, it’s to replace thoughts of yourself with thoughts of others (“One part – as we can see by reading the verses in Leviticus 19– is that we should consider the needs of others.”). This sounds like a way to encourage empathy.
It’s a good way to destroy your own self through neglect.
In effect, this line of reasoning teaches people that their only actual worth is in providing for the needs of others. Even self-care is limited to the bare minimum to keep you going. Otherwise, thinking about yourself and your own needs can spiral out of control into the very bad and awful state of being selfish.
It’s easy to believe you’re being selfish when other people around you complain their needs aren’t being met. There’s this constant demand to examine whether you did all of what you could have done for others. If their needs aren’t being met, it’s your selfishness to blame.
The other problem is that it encourages people to think less about how they can be healthy. If you’re worried about paying attention to others, there’s hardly enough time to stop and pay attention to what you need. Given a choice between contemplating your needs and the needs of others, the righteous one is to always think about others.
And the caveats to this advice don’t actually mitigate the harm. The post author acknowledges it is possible to hate yourself too much. But the biblical advice being offered doesn’t talk about improving one’s image. Rather, it talks about ignoring the negative image. Pretend it’s not there, and it will go away, right?
Not really. I did this for decades and found out the hard way that it doesn’t work. To this day, I’m hyper-sensitive regarding people around me. What are they thinking? Are they okay? Am I doing anything wrong? Is my presence helping them or hurting them? All that obsession is godly. There’s nothing wrong with it.
When you base your identity on others, you rely on them to tell you when you’re going too far.
There’s no guarantee that others will be able to tell you something’s wrong. They might not be good at explaining it. Or you could be so good at pretending nothing’s wrong that nobody can tell what’s going on with you. That latter part is dangerous, because it means a person can spiral out of control with neglect and nobody can stop it.
Here, also, the advice I got from my former faith didn’t help. All it said was that too much is bad. It never said what too much looks like. The only thing I could be certain about is that too much neglect is a sin, and that righteous people should feel bad about that. Thus, one can enter into a negative feedback loop without trying too hard.
Bottom line: count oneself in the number of people whose needs must be met.
There’s a reason they’re called needs. They’re necessary to function properly. This doesn’t mean that people should become narcissistic and self-absorbed. Rather, it means people need to pay attention to themselves and the people around them.
For the longest time, I avoided taking care of myself because of such religious advice. Every time I contemplated my own needs, I had developed this sense that I was being selfish. I felt like I was wrong for even asking what I needed for myself. It led to years of neglect to the point that I don’t function very well around others. I’m often afraid of other people because I don’t know if I can curb my obsessive need to manage the people around me.
There’s another destructive component to this advice, but I’ll save that for another time.
In addition to neglecting yourself, there’s also this idea that the only place you can find love from is within a religious framework. It’s in the post I was quoting, but it’s a separate thing with its own problems. I’ll try to get to it, because it is worth talking about.