Finding Love in the Face of Self-Loathing

When Soma Kisa is introduced in Fruits Basket, she has been facing bullying and, traumatized by the situation, stopped speaking. She also quit going to school, and so eventually she receives a letter from her teacher asking her to come back. Fortunately for the audience, we have Soma Hatsuharu and Soma Yuki around to read the teacher’s letter aloud for us.

The teacher offers well-meaning but feeble advice that will ring hollow to anyone who has actually face crippling shame: “Why not try a little harder to make friends with everybody?” Notably, this puts all of the burden for improving the situation on Kisa. “You just need to work harder to fix this problem, ergo the problem is all your fault” is what the teacher’s words convey, even if that’s not what the teacher intended. But wait, the letter gets worse: “The most important thing is to learn to love yourself. Find something good about yourself, so you can love yourself. If you hate yourself, how can others love you?” So now others’ love for a person is contingent on that individual first loving themselves? Really? This idea that one needs to love oneself is fairly common these days, but thankfully the Somas are not impressed by this glib, shallow effort to promote self-esteem.

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I stand with Hatusharu and his response above, but Yuki has a somewhat more eloquent reaction:

“I also had a time when I stopped speaking. I felt embarrassed and hated myself. ‘Learn to love yourself’? What does that mean? How are we supposed to find something good about ourselves? The whole reason we hate ourselves…is because we can only see the parts we hate. So forcing ourselves to find ‘good points’ feels hollow, like we’re making things up. It’s not like that. That’s not how it works.”

It’s an amazingly relatable speech that cuts to the heart of the problem with hating oneself. Those truly caught up in self-loathing can’t focus on good aspects of themselves. Their sense of shame is constantly whispering in their ear that they’re a bad person, that they’re unworthy, that they’re worthless, etc. If they attempt to focus on their supposed good qualities, shame just dismisses those aspects as trivial and irrelevant. Even worse, shame guilt-trips them for trying to ignore the ugly reality of how awful they are. On top of being insidious and sly, the lack of any sense of self-worth is isolating. The average person with poor self-esteem doesn’t literally stop speaking like Kisa does, but the shame does leave her feeling distant or cut off from others.

Hating ourselves is certainly a real problem, but the advice of loving oneself is deeply problematic in its own way. While there’s some flexibility to the language, it doesn’t mesh all that well with the Bible. Paul counts “lovers of self” alongside people who are:

“…lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”

That’s pretty poor company for “lovers of self” to keep. Yes, it’s true, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is also in the Bible, but that’s a command to love others that merely presumes a degree of self-care; it’s no endorsement of self-love. “Now let me be clear,” those who encourage us to love ourselves probably don’t intend to promote the kind of selfishness and pride that Paul had in mind. Nonetheless, the overlap in the language should at least raise some eyebrows at whether self-love is really the optimal prescription for the problem of self-hatred.

Part of dealing with crippling low self-esteem is therapy, counseling that helps equip a person to understand and process the cause of their negative self-image. But there’s more to it, and Yuki brings out another important facet of the issue as he reacts to the letter:

“I think it’s only when someone says they love you that you’re able to start loving yourself. I think when someone accepts you, that’s when you start feeling like you can forgive yourself a little and start to love yourself.”

Saying that my ability to love depends on first being loved calls to mind 1 John 4.19: “We love because [God] first loved us.” We need God’s love for us in order to learn how to truly love. We need the forgiveness possible through the blood of Jesus before we can really overcome our own sense of guilt. God’s love for us is not contingent on anything we’ve done for him—while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Loving ourselves is not a prerequisite for receiving God’s love. Indeed, God’s love proves that we are not unlovable.

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In answer to Yuki’s question, the path to finding good something about ourselves starts with appreciating God’s goodness. It is in accepting God’s love for us that we finally find a firm foundation for accepting ourselves despite our sins. We can find the confidence to let go of guilt for our failures because we trust that Jesus has purified us. We can finally see past the obstructions of shame and acknowledge the good in ourselves. Again, this is not to say that the solution to self-hatred is just to trust God and it’ll all go away. It’s likely that professional assistance is also necessary to work through such complex matters. But Yuki is right to suggest that healing our feelings of self-loathing requires receiving love from another. I know how difficult it is to accept even God’s love when one feels unlovable. It took me a long, long time to convince myself that God loves me and that I’m not too hopelessly sinful for him. But it is possible to do so, and I hope that, if you wrestle with low self-esteem like I and the Somas have, you’ll be able to see the wisdom in Yuki’s words and turn toward the One who absolutely and deeply loves you.

Fruits Basket can be streamed on Crunchyroll.

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