Do You Love Yourself? Or Just Not Care Enough?

A long time ago, people would say, “You need to learn to love yourself.”

Most of these people didn’t even know me but it seemed the “correct” supposedly “expert” advice to give. Sometimes accompanied by a pat on the head. We all, after all, have something in ourselves that we don’t like, even if we’ve come to terms with it. And some of us detest everything about who we are but put on a happy smile.

I never had that self-loathing for myself, the inner hatred that manifests in how some people treat those closest to them or how they mutilate themselves physically…though I suppose emotional self-destructiveness or choosing the wrong circle of companions can be mutilation at a metaphysical level.

Mine was always more listening to that inner voice that echoed what I often heard from my dad, that I was never good enough. I thought I had to work extra hard just to prove I was worthy of being loved and that it was a losing battle. Never good enough, no matter how hard I worked or how good I might be. It was the secret to my being an overachiever—I always had so much to prove and it was never enough for them and therefore never enough for me. I was told I was loved but the actions didn’t match the words, and the message was that there was something wrong with me because I had a different way of thinking.

I found members of my tribe here and there over the years and in time came to understand that “different” was pretty special and not a negative reflection of my worth among people who wanted bland reflections of their comfort zones. Eventually I came to relish being different rather than feel the need to apologize for it.

I undertook a protracted spiritual journey. I took a match into the darkness to drive out the shadows, then a small candle, a larger candle, a lantern, a flashlight, a blowtorch, each time driving out the next layer of shadows. Though a shadow still sometimes crosses my path or I find one that has escaped, I walk mostly in light now even though I can still walk comfortable in darkness. The shadows disappear both in bright light & in darkness, and appear only in the in-between, the murky doorways between epochs of my life.

“You need to learn to love yourself,” a stranger, some self-appointed guru, told me at a social event after I emerged from my journey. It was a generic directive as I’d said nothing about my life or past or the future I conjure. She was used to helping people who all needed the same thing, and that’s all she knew.

“I do love myself,” I answered.

I’d come through a long dark night of the soul, and I was confident in my answer. I’d come to terms with myself and all the reasons why I’d spent years questioning myself. I made peace with how I got here, and while I never hated myself, I was no longer neutral either, and understood my value at last. I had appreciation at last for myself and refused to settle for crumbs any more.

“No, you don’t,” the woman argued. “When was the last time you treated yourself to a mani-pedi?”

I laughed. “You’re not talking about self-love—you’re talking about self-care. Big difference.”

No, I don’t get my nails done often or get enough sleep. Sometimes I let my hair grow out before I can get back to the salon because I’m busy doing something I love and won’t break away from. Sometimes I don’t stick to the way of eating that makes me feel good.

And yeah, sometimes I overwork my injured arm because it’s just me and it has to be done and I push too hard so I can finish a task in time.

That’s not a sign that I hate myself. Often it’s a sign that I’m doing something I love and I’m not willing to stop until the physical pain far exceeds the utter joy of the activity.

It’s not because I don’t love myself but I can separate out those certain activities as self-care and promise myself I’ll do better. Get more sleep. Don’t overdo my arm. Don’t injure myself because I prefer the risk of hurting my body over not being self-sufficient or not being able to get everything done on time or I’m just overwhelmed with passion for something. At times in my life, that was small children and at other times, it was my work or my writing.

So it’s not a matter of self-love, but of self-care, of remembering to strap on my own oxygen mask first… and maybe try to temper my enthusiasm with being gentler to my body. Having been taught all my life that one should push through pain does not take into account when an injury or illness refuses to be pushed without further damage, especially when the opposite message of loving yourself is equally common and at odds.

So tell me I need to learn to love myself and I’ll shrug you off as someone who doesn’t know the spiritual journey I’ve blazed through shadows.

Tell me I need to take better care of myself, and I might promise you that I’ll try…as long as it doesn’t get in the way of doing whatever makes my heart sing.