“When you understand the nature of a thing, you know what it’s capable of.” Blade, Blade
The “love yourself” slogan never worked for me.
When I was feeling down on myself, when my motivation and self confidence were at a critical low and I really needed some concrete help, I would often find myself hearing phrases like: “you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else” from well-meaning people.
I always appreciated the support and good intentions of these folks, but somehow their advice rang hollow. I was in serious trouble and I needed practical help, not platitudes.
This might sound familiar to you. While the “love yourself” motto may make theoretical sense, it doesn’t give you much to work with. “Love yourself” always seemed to translate to: “feel better about who you are.”
As advice, there are several glaring issues with that definition:
- It suggests that our problems aren’t legitimate or real
- It implies that our feelings are always under our direct control
- It offers no information on HOW to do it
In light of that, it seems like “love yourself” is a command to change a fundamental and unconscious emotion in unspecified ways. Not very practical on the surface.
I struggled with this seemingly useless advice for years before stumbling onto the answer. It turns out that, as with all cliche sayings, there is a kernel of deeply practical, intensely useful truth in it. Discovering that real meaning was life changing.
“You really want to know what love is?” Ron Burgundy, Anchorman
The true meaning of the phrase “love yourself” is closely tied to the words themselves, so let’s start with the first word. What is love?
The definition of love is very vague, but most agree that it is a strong positive emotion indicating attachment. But in reality, the feeling is only part of the equation. The actions that you take when expressing love are equally important.
I started to think about anyone I’d ever loved. I realized that the feeling of love was always expressed in some tangible way, be it through consideration, caretaking, or concern.
Without that expression of the emotion, love is just a word to describe a non-actualized mental state. As a force that drives action however, it’s very powerful.
Taking that into consideration, a good practical definition for love is: “loving actions taken out of consideration for someone important.”
That definition is tied to the act of doing something, and not only feeling something. As we all know, we have much more control over what we do than what we feel, so this definition also gives us something we can partially control.
So what about the second half of “love yourself?” What is meant by “yourself?” The answer might seem obvious, but it’s actually not!
“You’re not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank.” Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Before I had given it much thought, I had always defined myself as my body or my personality. But I came to realize that both of those things change drastically over the course of your life. My personality now is very different than it was when I was a kid. Likewise, none of the physical atoms that make up my body are the same as the ones I was born with. So how am I still ME? Maybe it’s mostly because I am the person that grew out of that earlier person.
Taking that into consideration, it seems important to recognize that “you” are not only your present body and personality, but also the body and personality that will exist in the future. Despite the fact that many things will have changed about you, you will become that person. What you do will also determine what kind of person they are. Therefore, in a very real way, they are you.
So a better definition of “you” might be something like: “The person you are, and the person you will become.”
As incomplete as that definition is, it still gives us much more to work with than the old one.
“Love keeps her in the air when she oughtta fall down…” Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity
So now we have better definitions for the words in the “love yourself” slogan. That means that the previous definition — “feel better about the person you are” — is no longer accurate. The new definition is something like this:
“Take loving action in the service of yourself, and the person you will be.”
That’s a much better definition, because it has very specific implications:
- Taking actual loving actions is necessary
- You must take those actions in the service of both you AND your future self
- You have control over who you will become
This implies delayed gratification, it implies a cessation of bad habits, it implies an attitude of respect for YOUR ideal self.
Anytime my motivation is flagging, or hopelessness starts to invade, or I’m tempted to do something I know is wrong that I’ll regret, I now have to ask myself a question:
Are my actions making life easier for the person I will become, or are they making his life harder?
Do the work now, or save it for him? Take care of my health now, or let him deal with the consequences? Pursue meaningful things even when they are hard now, or look back at missed opportunities?
When asked that way, the answers are immediately clear. Then it is only up to us to commit to choosing the path we know to be right.
Now, when people feed me the old slogan, I hear it in a different way. A better way. Perhaps even the way they always meant it.
Take care of yourself. Take care of who you want to be.