Learning to Love Yourself

By Sam Jolman | February 7, 2012

“The act of self acceptance is the root of all things.  I must agree to be the person who I am.  Agree to have the qualifications which I have. Agree to live the with the limitations set for me.  The clarity and the courageousness of this acceptance is the foundation of all existence.”  Romano Guardini

“I care very little if I am judged by you… Indeed, I do not even judge myself.”  1 Corinthians 4:3

“Love others as well as you love yourself.”
  Matthew 22:39

This past summer, my father helped me rebuild my garage.  One morning while we worked away, the lumber delivery guy showed up and meandered his wide truck down our very narrow back alley only to be stopped suddenly by the corner of my neighbors roof.  That breaking and crashing sound made me wince.  It announced very clearly that the outcome was going to be bad.   

The driver put his truck in park right where it sat, shut off the engine, and eased himself out ever so timidly to assess the damage he’d just caused.  Sure enough, a mangled gutter system and a broken tree limb.  Now I really started feeling for the guy.  I imagined all the ripple effects on his day, his confidence, even his job security.  I could almost hear the creative string of expletives he must have been feeding himself on the inside as his inner war played out just out of view. 

To make matters worse, his company protocol went as follows:  He first had to call his boss and explain the situation in detail and let him know he would be delayed for quite awhile.  Next he had to call the owner of the house, break the news to him, and discuss how to make repairs.  Then he had to meticulously document the details of the event in an incident report.  He even had to include incriminating photos of the casualties: the downed tree limb, the dents on his truck, the twisted metal that used to be a gutter system.  For over an hour, he became intimately familiar with his own failure, akin to pushing his own face in the stink of his mistake.  This was torture.  It was a sure bet to me that this guy was a wreck on the inside, bloodied by his own self contempt.

Finally I got my lumber and we stood at his truck while I signed the paperwork.  “Bummer about the house, huh?”  I said unable to avoid the obvious topic at hand, yet trying not to pour salt in the wound.  “Yeah,” he said pulling my papers from the clipboard.  And then he looked up, looked right in my eyes, “You know, there’s an old proverb that says, ‘A barn is only clean when there are no oxen.’  I’ve come to realize that mistakes and a certain level of mess are a part of life.  If you want life, you just have to deal with its crap sometimes.”

I stood dumbfounded.  How did he just do that?  That was an incredibly kind and forgiving way of treating himself.  And his eyes seemed truly honest, not to mention full of strength and devoid of shame.  How was he not kicking the crap out of himself?  I wanted to ask him all this but instead I just stood there, too moved by what had just happened.  And then got in his struck and left. 

I talked last time about the insidious, destructive nature of self hate.  Its a sticky bomb that sends shrapnel throughout our whole beings, leaving us a divide mess.  I hope that helped you recognize self hate in your own life.  This is the first step in dealing with it, simply acknowledging and naming its presence.  I want to encourage you to articulate your personal version of this inner hate.  How do you specifically hate yourself?  Is it your chronic consumption of fast food, or unwillingness to break up with a guy who’ve known for a long time treats you terribly?  Maybe its realizing you actually blame yourself for how your dad hit you growing up.  Get specific and write it down.  Exposing it will automatically begin to dispel its power. 

But then what?  How do you achieve what this lumber truck driver did for himself?  And truly do it not just to save face in front of others? 

Your inner peace can only return when you’ve reconciled yourself with all that is within, with all that you are.  As with any war, getting people to stop shooting at each other will be short lived if the warring factions can’t reconcile their differences.  How many cease fires crumble because the peace talks never amount to much?  Similarly, you must learn how to accept yourself – to love yourself – if you’re ever truly going to end that inner civil war for good.

Self love is a funny sounding thing, I’ll admit.  For me it conjures up images of the old SNL skit Stuart Smalley.  I see him sitting there in front of his mirror reciting that little mantra, “I’m good enough.  I’m smart enough.  And doggone it, people like me.”  We laugh at this because its so pathetic, so obviously impotent to change Stuart’s character.  Like trying to give yourself a hug, self affirmation looks so pointless.  In the words of a friend of mine, its emotional masturbation.  Its working really hard to conjure up feelings you just don’t feel.  And how is that going to amount to anything?  How could it ever come close to helping someone face the powerful onslaught of self contempt?

Ironically, we cannot love ourselves unless we deeply know someone else loves us.  Someone has to accept us first before we can accept ourselves.  The reason Stuart Smalley is so laughable is because we intuitively know that its not going to do any good for us to be the source of our own love.  That’s called narcissism.  We need a love with more substance, one we can really sink our teeth into, one we can cling to like our life depends on it because internally it really does.  We need someone to pull us from the “hell of the self” as Leanne Payne calls it.  As the writer of Proverbs says, “Let another man’s lips praise you and not your own.” To which I would add, “…because stroking our own ego simply doesn’t work.”

All this points to our core design: We are absolutely and inextricably relational.  It is fundamental wiring, my friends.  Our sense of self is shaped by the love of those around us.  As Sue Johnson says, “We define ourselves in the context of our most intimate relationships.”  Self love then is really an act of practicing the love we’ve been given.  Its really the ritual of receiving and living into this love.  I can only know I’m lovable when I’ve been loved.  Then and only then can I be set free to love myself. 

This idea of being lovable is not just a matter of preference or opinion.  If it were so, then my self esteem could rise and fall every minute, based on who liked or didn’t like me at the moment.  Being lovable has to be a matter of fact as well if its ever going to help us.  This is why we must know at some point where we stand with God.  I come alive when my wife tells me she loves me.  She helps me know I am lovable.  But she can’t pardon my soul and set me free from my sin.  The only true lasting antidote to my self contempt must include hearing God say, “I love you.”  Again and again.

Let me make that crystal clear:  Armed with the love of God and others, we can finally be set free to love ourselves.  Once we’ve heard it, we can believe it.  And then, my friends, we need to go for broke, pig out on this feast of love, stuff ourselves full, savoring every morsel of it down to our toes. I regularly ask God what he thinks of me and write it in my journal.  I do the same with what I read of his love for me in the Bible. And I do it with words others have said about me also.  For a long season, I used to go on solo hikes and recite these words written on note cards to myself, turning them over in my mouth like fine wine. 

Now this idea of self love goes by a lot of names.  Some consider it “forgiving yourself” or “being kind to yourself” or “practicing self compassion” as a friend Chuck Degroat likes to say.  Even the ideas of “self esteem” and “self respect” describe a posture of self love. Writer Leanne Payne robustly calls it the “Virtue of Self Acceptance,” because it is an actual ancient virtue, listed along with all the other greats like temperance, prudence, courage, and justice.  Call it what you want.  Just live it out.

Writer Anne Lamott describes it in the best way I’ve ever heard.  She calls it “being militantly on your own side.”  I love this! Once you understand the dark and sinister nature of self contempt, the call to be militant – to arm yourself for war – is not far from the truth.  You will be waging war when you love yourself.  As John Eldredge says, “The first battle we must all fight is for our own heart.” 

I frequent a neighborhood coffee shop by my house.  Its a little place, which makes it cozy at times and awkwardly close when its busy.  The other day it was the latter and I found myself sitting next to, or rather on top of, another gentleman.  We kind of both muttered an awkward hello, as my anxiety screamed, “Someone’s in our personal space!” 

Trying to distract myself, I put in my headphones and got right to working on something on my computer when I started to hear mumbling.  I turned down my music only to realize it was the man next to me, talking to himself.  Now he was plain freaking me out. I tried not to pay attention, but couldn’t help eavesdropping on his self directed conversation.  He was talking about work.  A project coming up.  And his tone was so calm and kind.  There was such a patience to his way with himself.  It went something like, “We’ll get it done.  Don’t worry.  We’ve done it before.  Be patient here.”  Though more than a little weird, this man had learned to practice the virtue of self acceptance.  Drawing from his success in the past and may I guess the affirmation of others about that work, he was being very reassuring with himself.  And I realized this man was more than sane.

Whatever you do, learn to love yourself, to be militantly on your own side.  Go ahead and be the odd guy talking to himself if need be.  As Jesus makes clear, if you’re ever going to love others well, you must also learn to love yourself.


  • I kind of feel like this is all about the chicken or the egg. Does God's love come first… In all reality it does, it is woven into our very existence… to every cell. The question is when does it enter my soul? There are times I would have said certitudanally, "oh yes God's love comes first – has to come first" But it would have been, at that point, a very religious origin. Now I am not so sure. I agree in that in recent years have affirmed the you cannot love yourself until you are loved. I would say the love of others and of God go hand in hand. I cannot know love until the love of God is expressed to me. All love is of God and comes and goes from him. I dare say I could not have known his love until I felt loved thoroughly by someone else. It is as though God's love does not exist, was not true,could not be true, until I felt truly loved by someone. I don't know that I am explaining myself well but what comes first? The Creator of Love or the love he delivers.Obviously the creator comes first but he does not become real or 3d until he is present in his people. I think the first battle is to open your heart to others…

    I posted this on face book yesterday…

    I am reminded how much my abuse is designed to keep abusing, by making me fearful of those I need the most. If I keep seeing my abusers in everyone I get close to, I will never move forward. I will sabotage all that is good in me and others. Today, I choose to trust… If I do not I will stay right where I'm at…

  • Lee, totally agree with you. I'm going to make a quick edit because of your comments. My story certainly required that people loved me first also. But at some point I realized I needed God's love more directly… so to speak. Certainly the love of others came first or embodied God's love.

    Just to say, I completely agree.

  • Sam, I appreciate your blogs! Have just joined and have read through several. Planning to refer several of my friends to it.
    thank you for your vulnerability, openness and wisdom.
    many blessings,

  • Thanks Sam. So true. I've had so many experiences with negative feedback from people around me (getting fired a couple times tends to make you look in the mirror and really wonder… Your conclusion that God is the one solid, consistent opinion my soul can find rest in is a helpful one. I suddenly have this sense that I can release everyone else to their own opinions, but still stand firm on what Father has revealed to me, about me. Blessings.

  • Glenn, yes, yes yes! What the Father says about you is the truest thing about you.


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