What does it mean to love yourself? Messages promoting self-love and self-esteem are everywhere. From food wrappers to advertising to social media, we hear a gospel of self-acceptance. But such messages suggest that it is possible to fully love yourself no matter how you live—that your choices are irrelevant to your self-esteem.
Now, to be clear, you should love yourself. We readily agree that all people possess great and inherent worth which is unalterable by behavioral choices. You are lovable, precious, and unique. But our point today is that you can’t adequately love yourself unless you love truth and goodness.
Think of it this way: when we say, “love yourself,” what is the nature of the “self” that needs to be loved? Anyone who tries to love him- or herself will have to have at least a tacit answer to that question. Otherwise, their attempts would be pointless. They will also have to answer the question of how to pursue that love. Our culture suggests a variety of actions and attitudes to love yourself, such as taking time for yourself, being mindful, forgiving yourself, being kind to yourself, expressing yourself, indulging yourself, pampering yourself, and so on.
No doubt there is some degree of wisdom in these admonitions, but what is not often discussed is the need to have integrity. In our view, having integrity is the best thing you can do to love yourself, and it is impossible to truly love yourself without it. When we have integrity, we align our attention and our will with our own best sense of what is good and true—we turn away from comforting lies, petty pleasures, and false fronts and turn towards our own understanding of what matters most.
Integrity (at least as we understand it) implies that some things are good and true, not because we want them to be, but because they are. When we have integrity, we respond appropriately to the truth and goodness we perceive. We do not allow ourselves to look away from reality. We give truth and goodness their due. And please note that we are not saying you have to believe what someone else thinks is true. Integrity is about aligning your life with your best understanding of truth; other people’s integrity is up to them.
We believe that everyone receives calls to integrity—invitations to walk the “narrow path” by doing what’s right for its own sake—and that we respect ourselves to the degree we accept these summons. As moral beings, we are fulfilled and edified by aligning ourselves with truth, and in particular moral truth. We aren’t built to highly esteem ourselves when we fail to live with integrity; we flourish to the degree we try to live according to the truth.
Even our self-justifications bear witness to the importance of integrity. When we try to rationalize our failure to live up to our own best sense of what is right or true, we attempt to cover our tracks and make it appear (to ourselves and others) that we did not actually act against what we knew. But the rationalization shows that we are not fooled. The more elaborate our rationalization or studied avoidance, the greater witness we bear that, in fact, we knew what we did was wrong. Acting against our conscience only creates additional burdens of discontent, restlessness, and dissatisfaction, which we then tend to offload on others in the form of seeking approval, fault-finding, or stone-walling. People with integrity are free from the burden of such self-justification.
You might be thinking: but what’s in it for me? Why should I go through the hard work of trying to have integrity when I could just relax and enjoy my life? But our point is that simply trying to “relax and enjoy my life” is not the best way to love yourself—it neglects your core capacity (and need) to see and respond to truth. A life focused only on comfort and pleasure ends up, strangely, with neither—philosophers call this the “paradox of hedonism.” John Crosby writes that the person who lives only for pleasure “alternates between the pain of lacking certain satisfactions and the boredom that comes with having them.”
On the other hand, when we live with integrity, we prepare ourselves for the transcendence that comes from living in accordance with the truth. As Dietrich von Hildebrand explains, the experience of responding to things of real value is qualitatively different from responding to things that we merely want or desire: “Consider the enthusiasm with which we respond to a heroic moral action and compare this response with our interest in … a profitable business speculation. We clearly see that in the first case our response has the character of an abandoning of ourselves, a transcending of the boundaries of our self-centeredness, a submission of some sort. Interest in the subjectively satisfying reveals, on the contrary, a self-confinement, a relating of the object to ourselves, using for our own self-centered satisfaction.”
Integrity requires that we focus on something “higher” than our base wants and desires. The paradoxical thing about integrity is that you only get the benefits if you are not focused on getting the benefits—you must commit yourself to doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing, and only then can you receive the strength, peace, and fulfillment that integrity brings. Another paradox is that as we turn our attention away from ourselves and towards the truth, our self-concern diminishes—we realize we are not at the center of the universe, and we are free to love goodness and truth for their own sake.
If living with integrity is such a good thing, why don’t more people do it? We can think of at least two compelling reasons. First, integrity is hard. To step on the path of integrity is to say “yes” to growth, and growth is always uncomfortable and can even be excruciating. When we have integrity, we have to face things in ourselves that we would rather leave unnoticed, for none of us is fully aligned with the truth. Integrity can also mean that we forgo or lose certain friendships, opportunities, and comforts. It is reasonable to question whether it is worth it, and even whether we can survive it in some cases. But as Cornel West suggests, we are all learning “how to die”—we can either let the old comfortable (but false) self die, or we can let our sense of integrity die. Why not die in a way that could lead to rebirth?
And second, it can be challenging to find the “way” in the first place. Many moral and practical questions are not easy. Our understanding is limited, and there are often competing considerations that weigh on our decisions. There is no easy way forward here, but the key question to ask ourselves is … am I seeking to live according to my best sense of what is good and true, or is something else taking precedence in my thinking and acting?
We cannot hope to get nearer the truth by merely “managing” our anxieties through distraction, avoidance, or indulgence; we must metabolize them through focused and disciplined commitment to the good. Slowly but surely our consistent and concerted efforts will pay off— our psychological and spiritual constitutions will become strong enough to sustainably metabolize larger doses of anxiety and fear and to make more significant sacrifices in the name of truth and goodness. A practical first step is to ask ourselves what sorts of circumstances and conversations trigger fear, anger, and/or pain in us to the point of overwhelming our integrity. We should pay attention to when we tell ourselves we can’t possibly do the right thing, and start doing it anyway. While certainly easier said than done, all we need to do is the next right thing.
Having integrity does not mean we think we know everything. True integrity includes acknowledging the limits of our understanding and being willing to make course corrections as our consciences require. But by the same token, integrity does require that we honor the truth we do see; it requires that we prioritize truth and goodness over lesser goods, such as approval, comfort, or convenience.
The path of integrity is not a dreary, self-flagellating course. Unflinching commitment to truth is not at odds with love, compassion, rejuvenation, or any other good thing we are encouraged to pursue or receive in our lives. In fact, focusing too narrowly on the truth of our flaws and weaknesses denies the truth of our value and potential. But if our efforts to love ourselves are exclusively or mostly focused on what is pleasant and reassuring, we will hold ourselves in contempt and\or resent others because we know we are avoiding the growth we need to reach our potential. We will become miserably preoccupied with seeking a temporary “fix” to take the edge off our anxieties and pains.
Fair warning: Pain will accompany us no matter which way we go. Though we live in the golden age of distraction, our distractions consistently fail to resolve (or even reliably mask) our pains. Miraculously, however, when we stop fleeing pain and voluntarily accept our burden of moral responsibility, we can metabolize our suffering and avoid compounding it with low self-love and self-esteem. Ultimately, the best way to love yourself is to put the truth first.