As a young Orthodox believer, there was always a personal interest in monastic writing. My undergrad was in psychology, and wrapping the two, Orthodoxy and psychology/mental health, has always been an exciting fight. A good friend and fellow therapist-in-training said, “Sometimes I think it compliments it well. And other times, I wonder if it’s Orthodoxy or our culture that I’m struggling with fitting into what I’ve learned.” I specifically thought about what appears to be a dichotomy of monastic writings preaching self-hatred while mental health teaches self-compassion. Even when it comes to others, Christ says whoever doesn’t hate his father, mother, wife, children, siblings, and their own life can’t be His disciple (cf. Luke 14:26). But then He says you shall love your neighbor as yourself? (cf. Matthew 22:39) So what’s the deal, Jesus?
First, Christ is not using hate “to wish them (or ourselves) misfortune or evil. We are to love the members of our family and all those in the world, but we love them less than we love Christ and His lordship over us. We are to recognize that God’s claim over us takes precedence over any claim of our own family or our own will over our life. We are to love others, but not to the point that we love them more than God or obey them before God” (Fr. David Fontes).
Second, the self-hatred the monastic/ascetic fathers talk about is not at the true-self. St. Basil said, “learn well your dignity. He did not cast forth your origin by a commandment. However, there was counsel in God to consider how to bring the magnificent living creature into life. ‘Let us make.'” St. Macarius even said, “whoever has learned to know the dignity of his soul is in a position to know the power and the mysteries of the Godhead, thereby being more humbled.” When Christ says, you shall love your neighbor as yourself; He’s getting at something. If you hate yourself, there is no way you can love someone else. The critical thing to realize is that ascetic writings are referring to vainglory. “What we are to flee is not the proper esteem of the self, but vanity and its friends like pride, extreme self-love, self-obsession, and the love of praise. In other words, what we are to shed is self-esteem taken in all the wrong directions. Vainglory is a significant deadly sin that the ascetical writers are right to warn us. Vainglory and arrogance are self-esteem went awry” (Peter Bouteneff).
Main point: we love ourselves because of the image and likeness of God that is within us, not our self-efforts. If our love is of self and others is based on their (or our) efforts, it’ll waiver. But, “agape never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8).