I have heard this in multiple ways:
Here we go again. I can’t hear these platitudes anymore: ‘Love Myself’ and ‘I Can Do Anything.’ I’ve been told to recite those phrases to myself. To strengthen my insecurities. I was told friendship wouldn’t come until I loved myself. To no avail.
Where do these two phrases come from?
Let’s look at Self-Love first. Actually, let’s look at the whole Bible verse that this phrase ‘Love Myself’ is taken from (even if people are not aware of it):
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no teaching greater than these.” – Bible, Mark 12:30-31, similar in Matthew 22:37-39
These verses want to tell us the foundation of humanity. Relationships on the basis of love in three directions: towards the transcendent divine, other people, and yourself.
This teaching first was given during a very special time. It is part of the original teachings of Moses in a time when Israel was led out of Egypt. The relationship they were used to was one of master-slave, and they had to become a people.
The teaching was written down and reformulated in another defining time for Israel: the Babylonian exile and shortly after. Again, Israel had to redefine its understanding of relationship after being in exile.
And here, it is uttered by Jesus in yet another defining moment: Israel had become a legalistic society driven by feelings of guilt under the rule of Rome.
These verses are about our need for relationships carried by love, and not about self-love only. Granted, self-love plays a part.
The ‘as’ in ‘neighbor as yourself’ can be translated ‘and’ or ‘in the same way’. It never means ‘in the same amount’. We made it to mean that and tell people that they could only love others as much as they have learned to love themselves.
I think the right way to approach this verse is as a process:
First, look at the love relationships you have or lack. Then, try to balance them out: there are people who love others but hate themselves, and vice versa. They best read the verse as ‘neighbor and yourself’.
It becomes apparent that there is a time to focus on every part of the three-fold relationship on its own. But do not forget the context and the whole picture and be aware of the situation you are in. If somebody tends towards narcissism, practicing more self-love is problematic.
Another step is to look at the kind of love you have for others and yourself and start to heal this love to ideally grow to be unconditional love for all three relationships.
We live in a qualitatively different time from the three mentioned above. We are in an individualistic time full of egoism and therefore focus on self-love far too much. Well-adjusted people to this time see the importance in self-love, and, being materialistic consumers, translate ‘as’ as ‘in the same amount’. They make self-love and love of others kind of a competition and tell people who are struggling that the cure is to up self-love as a prerequisite to love others.
These verses are not the cure for loneliness when seen as commandments or prerequisites. Love cannot be commanded as it stops being love when done from a place of obedience. (This is why I replaced the word ‘commandments’ with the more accurate ‘teachings’. Even better would be ‘utterances’.)
A hopeful aspect of these verses is this: The verb forms both in Hebrew and Greek in these verses are ambivalent. The verses can be translated in two ways:
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’
I added the ‘must’ to show the imperative nature clearly. This is the version we choose when we see this as a command.
The alternative is this:
You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’
This is hopeful and a mere utterance of a future fact: there will be a time in which you love God, others, and yourself. And I notice no condition here. This is why I chose this to be a teaching.
I think that both translations have their time. There are times we need some external motivation and people in primary integration do not understand anything else. Thus, the commandments provide a positive environment for them to grow. At other times, we need hope and an ideal to grow into.
Trustfully invest the love you have into others, receive from them as much as they can and are willing to give, and search for the divine with a loving heart, and this will grow in all dimensions.
Let’s turn to the other phrase as well: ‘I Can Do Anything.’
Again, this has a biblical background:
I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. – Bible, Philippians 4:13
This is a poor translation. A much better one is this:
In every situation, I am strong in the one who empowers me from within to be who I am. (ibid, Mirror Translation)
It’s much less about being omnipotent than being able to carry on and come out on the other side.
An interesting question is who the one is who empowers me. Christians today default this to Jesus being ‘the one.’ This is a reflection again of our individualistic times.
The first translation used Christ, and sadly enough, most Christians equate Christ and Jesus. But the Bible tells us differently.
Christ is the whole body, with Jesus, the head, and we, the body. Christ within us and between us to make up a whole. I am in Christ, and we are in Christ.
And we are back to the three relationships to the divine, others, and myself.
The Beatles saw the necessity of others in the equation when they sang “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends”. Add in the divine, and you are set.
Thus, both the phrases some rightly react negatively towards have been shortened and crippled to fit this age of individuality and made pointless and powerless.
We need God, the divine, meaning, purpose, ideal, and goal. And we need others.
‘I Can Do Anything’ on its own is a lie and nothing more. There are many things I cannot do, and many things I cannot do on my own.
Even with the help of others and the divine, that is, all the help I can get, I cannot even be strong in every situation. Sometimes, “I need somebody to lean on.”
But with the help of others and the divine, I can be strong in every situation to be true to myself, be who I am.
No need to mask in healthy relationships.
On their own, the phrases ‘Love yourself’ and ‘You can do anything’ fall short and even fail in most situations.
But there is hope, and they can be useful, even powerful, within the right framing.