What Self-love Is Not and Why It Matters

Dictionary.com defines self-love as, “the instinct by which one’s actions are directed to the promotion of one’s own welfare or well-being, especially an excessive regard for one’s own advantage.” The top three synonyms are conceit, vanity, and narcissism. This meaning highlights an evolution in the use of the word in modern times. Not that long ago, one might have thought of self-love as a tendency toward self-absorption or a counterproductive pre-occupation with the self.

Self-love is not narcissism, arrogance, or selfishness. Narcissism is a clinical term, defined as a pathological obsession with the self. When someone else is talking, the narcissist’s first thought always starts with “I” or “me.” There is little or no capacity (or at least effort) to think of others, much less empathize with them. Everything is evaluated relative to “I” or “me.”

Even when trying to think of others, the narcissist will subtly shift the interaction to include something about themselves. This is not self-love. It is a fixation born from fear, perhaps based on feeling abandoned, invisible or feeling the need to fight for one’s independence. Rather than the expanding experience of love, it is a narrowing, low-energy manifestation of attempted self-preservation. The narcissist adapts to manage their experience of life, as we all do.

Similarly, arrogance is about being preoccupied with the self. It is grounded in the ego, which is not where we experience love and compassion. Narcissism and arrogance are used as defense mechanisms to hide insecurity. Arrogance attempts to obscure those insecurities by compensating with bravado and indifference.

Selfishness is an action. It is behaving in ways that do not account for others’ needs. We often learn to be selfish solely from a lack of perspective. We have failed to learn to consider those around us. We may have, instead, learned to compulsively draw attention to ourselves or take what we can get as a survival instinct.

None of these things are a reflection of self-love. On the contrary, they inhibit the experience of love, because they do not take place in the heart and are designed to protect or shield us from connection to others.

When we speak of self-love in the context of forgiveness and healing, we are not referring to conceit or vanity. Rather, we are talking about the feeling of love for oneself. Just as we value the expression of love toward others, we use the phrase to articulate the value and importance of this expression of love toward ourselves.

Few of us grew up learning the importance and power of self-love. In fact, most grew up learning to be critical of ourselves and our actions. We were taught to keep ourselves in line at all costs. The Dalai Lama says the world would be a much different place if we taught compassion in our schools. Why? Because an expression of compassion is an expression of love.

Self-love is an integral part of the forgiveness process, for two reasons. First, if we don’t think we are worthy of healing, we will find it difficult to do the work. Forgiveness demands we get in touch with the suffering we have endured and embrace that sadness, anger, or indignation with love and compassion. We must respond to our pain with tenderness and understanding. Developing a habit of demonstrating self-love helps build a foundation for forgiveness.

The second reason self-love is important is that, as we heal, we increase our capacity to feel all feelings without judgment, including love. While we might begin to experience more love for the self as we move through the process, if we don’t actively do the things we know to do to nurture self-love, we run the risk of self-sabotage. Have you heard the expression, “you get what you tolerate?” This is also true when it comes to how we treat ourselves. If we are consistently doing things that do not demonstrate self-love (engaging in addictive patterns, being unkind to ourselves and others, being petty, greedy, selfish), we are teaching ourselves that we don’t truly deserve the peace and harmony that come with forgiveness.

Self-love is unconditional love of the whole self. It is not a theory or idea, but a perceptible feeling we experience, just like the love we have for a child, partner, parent, or best friend. It is an experience of love not only for the parts of ourselves we adore but for the parts we perceive as being “the dark side” of us. When we bring these aspects of self into the light, their power is transformed. They become a part of the whole.

It is accepting you just as you are. From this place of simple and true acceptance, you are free to make choices that show to yourself that you are worthy. Mirror work, positive self-affirmations, and self-care in the form of making time to do the life-affirming things you enjoy and taking care of mind, body, and spirit are all practical ways you can begin to deepen your experience of love for the self. It will feel awkward and inauthentic at first. Do it anyway. But, keep doing it. Keep showing up for yourself the way you’d show up for that favorite uncle or good-looking colleague.  With time, saying, “I love you just the way you are,” will become a pleasure to say. And, along the way, life becomes lighter and filled with more joy and ease.