I’ve heard it said many times by moms much older wiser than I that the most loving thing I can do for my children is to love myself. But what does that mean – that I should take a bubble bath when the kids are hungry for supper? (Actually, that sounds pretty tempting some evenings!)
I’ve recently engaged in some lively discussions with Facebook friends on the topic of love of self, self-care, and selfishness. It has really helped me hone in on exactly what I mean when I say “self-love,” because not everyone shares the same definition.
By self-love, I mean good stewardship of the temple in which my soul has been given to dwell. That includes my body, my mind, my emotions, my serenity. Clothing, food, adequate rest, a reasonably peaceful, clean and comfortable environment, friendship, exercise, education, recreation, and of course, prayer and spiritual nourishment. I personally do not believe I can adequately serve others if I do not love myself in some of these ways first. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without the inner peace that comes from tending my own temple, my spirit will suffer and I will likely cause harm to the very ones I aim to help.
I’m not saying I have to be completely “fulfilled” before I begin serving others. I just need to be covering the basics and keeping my life balanced in my approach to giving, or the well will run dry and I’ll be of no use to anyone.
If I attempt to serve others without tending first to my own temple, I have to question my motives for “loving” them. I have found that when I am “helping” others at my own expense and neglecting to take care of my basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs, it is usually motivated by my ego’s need to feel important and better about itself, or some misguided attempt to punish myself for some hidden guilt or shame. That’s not love, that’s selfish, no matter how selfless I look on the outside. Being altruistic is often a wonderfully deceptive guise for selfishness. Motivation matters just as much as the action issued forth.
By loving others, I mean good stewardship of the relationships God has brought into my life. My first rule in relationships is “First do no harm.” That means harm to others, and also harm to myself. Rarely is it loving to give so much to another that I do myself long-term damage through prolonged self-sacrifice. Nor is it loving to do for others what they can do for themselves. Continually tying my son’s shoes may be easier for both of us, but it robs him of the learning experience and the sense of accomplishment and worth that comes from mastering a new task. Sometimes it is more compassionate to let the ones we love struggle than it is to swoop in a save the day.
Just as a car needs gas to run and maintenance to have a long, useful life, I need to love myself. Washing the dishes is an act of self-love. Going to bed early is an act of self-love. Eating in a regular, healthy manner is an act of self-love. My nightly bubble bath is an act of self-love, as is getting up early to read scripture and pray. Without doing these things, I can’t really “show up” emotionally and be present to my kids or my clients. Loving myself means putting first things first.