During the middle of my sophomore spring semester of college, I was feeling extremely overwhelmed. I was trying to manage a heavy course load, balance several leadership positions for extracurricular activities, serve effectively in my calling, be a good visiting teacher and member missionary, attend institute and church regularly, have a social life, etc.—and on top of everything else, I was dealing with chronic migraines. There simply wasn’t enough time to get everything done, let alone take care of basic personal needs such as sleep, nutrition, hydration, and exercise (things that would provide much-needed stress relief and help to prevent migraines). I felt hopelessly inadequate, subconsciously clinging to the belief that there was always something more that I could be doing. Most nights I stayed up much too late, trying somehow to fit in another task from my incessant to-do list. I felt exhausted and selfish, stuck inside my own world even though I tried desperately to push past my pain and focus on others.
I marveled at others around me, some of whom were dealing with seemingly busier schedules or more difficult challenges and yet still seemed to get everything done. Although college students are often criticized for being self-absorbed, I have found them to be some of the most selfless people I know. The majority I’ve interacted with are genuinely interested in serving others. They serve diligently in the community and in church callings, consistently reach out to others around them, and work tirelessly as they strive to ensure financial stability for their future families, sometimes sacrificing their true passions in order to pursue more stable career paths.
The Second Great Commandment
While many of my peers seemed to be staying on top of things, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one struggling with feelings of inadequacy. Why didn’t we seem to be happy although we tried to focus on others? I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something not quite right about the way we were thinking about selflessness.
This idea was further emphasized in my mind during a testimony meeting one Sunday when my bishop said something that completely changed the way I think about self-love. He said he had recently noticed an interesting pattern in our young single adult ward: When he posed the question "what are the first two great commandments?” most people would answer, “first, to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds, and second, to love our neighbors" (see Matthew 22:37-39). Interestingly, the majority of people would forget the second part of Matthew 22:39, which states, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (emphasis added).
Before this moment, I had never realized that loving myself was a commandment. I had always understood that self-love was important, but I believed the purpose of self-love was primarily to enable us to better serve others. While this is a true and important concept, self-love is also meant for us. I experienced a significant paradigm shift when I realized that God’s commandment to love and serve His children includes loving and serving ourselves—not only because self-love fills us with more love to give others, but also because He wants us to love ourselves the way He loves us.
Self-Love vs. Selfishness
But how can we love ourselves without being selfish?
My bishop pointed out that the perfect example of selflessness—our Savior, Jesus Christ—demonstrated self-love many times throughout His life, probably more than what is recorded in the scriptures. There are several accounts in the New Testament of the Savior taking time to be alone. For example, after He performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, He “sent the multitudes away . . . [and] went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone” (see Matthew 14:23). Christ’s commitment to self-love in this instance is significant—although He could have continued to serve, He recognized His personal need for solitude and “sent the multitudes away” in order to care for Himself and connect with His Father in Heaven.
It is important to recognize the difference between self-love and pride. Pride involves comparison and a sense of separateness. We must be careful not to indulge or nurture feelings of superiority and inferiority, for both emotions can lead to pride. C.S. Lewis explores the danger of pride masquerading as humility in The Screwtape Letters. A devil named Screwtape writes to the less-experienced devil Wormwood:
“[God] wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. . . . it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours.”
(Lewis, Clives Staple. The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperOne, 2002. 225.)
When we recognize the great worth of all souls, including our own, we are able to avoid pride or conceit and love ourselves as we love our neighbors (see Doctrine and Covenants 18:10).
Balancing Service with Self-Care
We can show compassion to ourselves by caring for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Clark Swain, an associate professor of Marriage and Family Studies at Boise State University, addressed the importance of different levels of self-care in the March 1979 New Era:
“If you truly love yourself, you will remember that you are a physical, mental, and spiritual being. Loving yourself as God wants you to means that you use wisdom in protecting your life and conserving your health in order to complete your mission on earth. This means that you live the Word of Wisdom, which includes eating regular, nutritious meals and getting plenty of exercise.
Being mentally strong includes remembering that the glory of God is intelligence. Knowing this you will want to steadily increase your knowledge and wisdom and avoid literature, movies, and conversations that would pollute your mind. We who love ourselves properly take seriously the Lord’s teaching that we are to let virtue garnish our thoughts unceasingly.
Keeping yourself morally clean is loving yourself properly. . . . Forgiving yourself after sufficiently repenting of a sin is an important dimension of self-love. God will forgive you and will remember your sins no more if you repent of them, and you also must do the same for yourself” (Swain, Clark. “Q&A: Questions and Answers.”New Era, March 1979).
As we learn to balance selflessness with self-love, it is important to remember King Benjamin’s counsel from the Book of Mormon:
“And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order” (Mosiah 4:27).
Just as we must be careful not to neglect ourselves when serving others, we must also be careful not to focus so much on ourselves that we neglect others. God will help us as we ask Him for help in balancing selflessness with self-love.
Although self-love is something I continually need to remember and practice, I am learning to be more patient and compassionate with myself. I am learning to balance service with self-care and also to receive and accept service from others. I truly believe that as we learn to love ourselves as we love others, we will draw closer unto God and create a better world. Even though our love for ourselves and for others will never be perfect, we can have hope through Christ. He will magnify our efforts, change our hearts, and ultimately help us to become perfected (see Moroni 10:32).