To love ourselves

Religion helps us love ourselves

One can come across the most extraordinary misconceptions, like this one:

“From what I have seen and read, religion is actually telling us to hate ourselves. We are presumed to be sinners. We are told to do penance and covert. We are expected to give up lots of things which normal people take for granted. If I am in trouble, I would rather talk to a psychotherapist than to a priest or minister!”

My answer is as follows: There are certain problems for which I too would consult a psychotherapist. But in what you say there seem to be two assertions with which I cannot agree. The first one is the assumption that psychotherapy can do without religion – which I am convinced is wrong. The second one is the statement that religion teaches us to hate ourselves.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Mark 12,31-33). How can we be good to others, if we are not good to ourselves? We have to begin with the desire to really love ourselves. never mind what some misguided preachers may tell us.

Self love should not be confused with selfishness. Self love means that we like ourselves – in spite of our shortcomings, that we wish ourselves well and that we are committed to be good to ourselves. To love ourselves is healthy.

Being good to ourselves does not mean pampering ourselves, pitying ourselves, plying ourselves with shortlived pleasures at the risk of becoming hooked to them. Loving always demands discipline, the willingness to forgo things for the sake of the person loved. This is also required when we love ourselves.

As we see elsewhere, self love paradoxically reaches its peak when we deny self for a really worthwhile cause.

  • We only find life if we are prepared to lose life (see Mark 8,35). This amazing truth only dawns on us as we gain more experience.
  • We obtain more from giving than from receiving (Acts 20,35).
  • Our greatest happiness comes from making others happy.

However, while keeping these paradoxes in mind, we should give time consciously to love and foster our self. And this requires paying attention to basics.

Progress in developing our self will not come from learning a few tricks. Do-it-yourself psychology books suggest dozens of techniques that are supposed to polish our self image, to help us make friends or survive embarassing situations. Such books may contain a few useful tips on practical behaviour. They decidedly pass over the main issue at stake: our deeper personality structure.


To liberate our real self, to change it, to help it assume its truly unique character, we have to uncover the deepest layers of our personality.

Digging Deep

For the sake of simplicity, we may think of ourself as operating constantly on four levels as psychologists tell us:

1. The top layer: the surface level.

Let us assume that I am having a cup of tea with a colleague in a canteen. As usual, she has a brilliant plan. She has noticed that immigrant neighbours in her street looked rather lost at Christmas. She will invite them in for tea on Boxing Day.

2. The layer second from the top: the relational level.

To continue our example: by having our tea break together and by sharing confidences, the two of us express a degree of mutual acceptance.

3. Third from the top: the level of one’s basic attitude to life.

My colleague obviously has a positive approach to people in general. Her Boxing Day project reveals a deep confidence in others. I’M OK, YOU’RE OK. Her friendliness springs from a basic attitude towards other people and towards life in general.

4. Fourth from the top: the level of religion.

Remember, when I talk about `religion’ in this context, I do not refer to it as to a denomination (as in `the Jewish, Christian, Muslim religion’), but as the ultimate interpretation of life. Even secular humanists who deny adhering to `a religion’, actually have a kind of religion in that they seek to adhere to truth, justice, human equality and other fundamental values. On the other hand, Christians who claim to believe in the God of love, may in the reality of their religious level well be slaves to a God of tyranny and fear.

Even in the simple example given, my colleague’s religious interpretation of life plays a part.She has resolved questions that lie at the foundation of her judgement about other people, her overall approach to life and to her motivations. What is the purpose of life? Who is my friend? Does anybody really love me?

All four layers are active at the same time, even though we are usually only conscious of the top ones. On the other hand, the deeper the level, the more our true self is affected. The roots of our personality lie on the religious level. It is there that our most fundamental self is formed. (See: P.WATZLAWICK, J.H.BEAVIN and D.D.JACKSON, Pragmatics of Human Communications, New York 1967, Chapter 8.1 – 8.5).

Appearances may deceive. It is one thing to agitate for or against religion on level one; quite another to understand one’s true religious values deep down.

Most of our fallacies of judgment and inhibitions of action lie on level three, the layer of our basic stand. Our mind is made in such a way that the contents of any layer can be changed by modifications on a deeper level.

To find our true self, we need to uncover the religion we hold, consciously or unconsciously. To develop our true self, we need to affirm the religious values we want to live up to. We have to come face to face with the `God’ who lurks in the deepest recesses of our personality.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of religion