- February 28, 2017
- by Emily
What Self-love Is Not and Why It Matters
Self-love is not an abstraction. It is a perceptible feeling, like the love one might have for a child or friend and an orientation toward compassionate regard for the self. It is an experience of and stand for the parts of ourselves we value and the parts we wish were different—love of the whole self. This is important because we cannot influence what we do not see. True self-love asks us to see our wholeness first. From this place of unconditional love, we can more fully inspire acceptance and a willingness to change if needed.
The position that self-love should be unconditional and is important to well-being is a fairly modern idea. Some definitions still in use today assert a more traditional view that one should predicate love of the self on how we behave. This view contends that if we love ourselves unconditionally, we can become indifferent or inept when we violate our values or intentions. The theory is that withholding love allows us to influence our actions more effectively. As with views on parenting, current understanding seems reasonably clear that this position is misgiven. Feeling less loved does not inspire authentic change; it teaches compliance. The perceived dysfunction will likely return when we remove the motivator (wanting love).
What Self-love is Not
Plato wrote, “… the excessive love of self is in reality the source to each man of all offenses; for the lover is blinded about the beloved, so that he judges wrongly of the just, the good, and the honorable, and thinks that he ought always to prefer himself to the truth.” We might call this excessive self-love narcissism today.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a clinical term defined as a pathological obsession with the self. While the term is wildly overused today, the disorder is hard to miss. The narcissist does experience love for themselves, but rather than being love—much like an addiction to another person—the adoration they feel for themselves is a pathology whose origins seem to be developmental (from childhood). When someone else is talking, the narcissist’s first thought always starts with “I” or “me.” There is little or no capacity to think of others, much less empathize with them.
Narcissism appears to be a fixation bred 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 the perceived need for self-preservation.
Similarly, arrogance is about being preoccupied with the self. Arrogance is a personality trait. Overconfident people see themselves as superior to or more important than others. Unfortunately, coming off as arrogant is effective in many social conditions, including politics and business. Ironically, despite its efficacy, arrogance is a way to hide insecurity. Arrogance often attempts to obscure insecurities by compensating with bravado or indifference. The conceited individual is not experiencing true self-love but is anchoring a sense of self-worth on others’ perceptions of them.
It’s not hard to see why we might have once considered self-love a selfish orientation. When someone chooses to cultivate compassionate regard for their well-being, their time doing that work may have otherwise been directed toward others. What may be less apparent is the integral importance of positive self-regard in our relationships. Being present, having healthy boundaries, and showing tenderness all derive in part from a foundation of self-love. Once that foundation is set, everyone benefits.
Regardless, taking time to develop self-love is not selfish because few of us would consider the need to do that work in the absence of important relationships. It is work done to better families and communities, not just you and me.
Self-love and Forgiveness
Self-love is an integral part of the forgiveness process for several reasons. First, if we don’t think we deserve healing, we will find it nearly impossible to do the work. Forgiveness demands that we get in touch with the suffering we have endured (or denied) and embrace the sadness, anger, or resentment with love and compassion. We need to respond to our pain with tenderness and understanding. Developing a habit of demonstrating self-love is part of the groundwork for forgiveness.
The second reason self-love is essential is that, as we heal, we increase our capacity to feel all feelings without judgment, including love. While we might begin to feel more love for the self as we move through the process, we run the risk of self-sabotage if we don’t actively do things that reflect whom we believe we are (with our flaws). Human beings are wired for biological homeostasis. It seems we also favor psychological stability. Increasing the experience of love without developing the ability to receive it might cause agitation. We need to recalibrate at a higher level to sustain the change. If we are regularly doing things that do not exhibit positive regard for ourselves (engaging in addictive patterns, being unkind to self or others, being petty, greedy, selfish), we learn that we don’t truly deserve the peace and harmony that comes with forgiveness. We must demonstrate that we are the person we tell ourselves we are.
Finally, beginning each day with natural compassion toward oneself allows us to show up for those we love. Knowing whom you intend to be and gently striving to be them each day offers resilience and gratitude to which you may not otherwise be present. It also makes it easier to choose how you show up for others.
There are many ways to build a greater aptitude to experience love for oneself. Making time to do the life-affirming things you enjoy and taking care of mind, body, and spirit is a practical way to begin. Only you know what that might look like. What is self-care for you may be quite the opposite for someone else.
The simplest way to learn is to treat yourself as you would treat your favorite person (or animal). And, tell yourself (yes, out loud), “I love you just the way you are.” It may feel like a hot poker in the eyeball at first. With a bit of practice, it will become a pleasure on a good day. On a bad day, it will remind you that you are becoming someone you intend to be and have the tools, strength, and courage to be you.