Learning the art of self-love
Loving yourself can have a negative connotation, but in fact love of the self is the basis of all other loving and living a good life.
It is not always a compliment when you say of someone, “She loves herself!” This expression usually refers only to the most base or childlike form of self-love that results in self-obsession and narcissism. The self-love that we are talking about here, however, is a far more profound and positive state of having appreciation, awareness and acceptance of your true self. This is not about selfishness or egomania. As Jutka Freiman, a Sydney-based psychotherapist and group facilitator, observes, “Self-love is the experience of self-acceptance and self-nurturing. It is being self-ful, which is different from being ‘full of one’s self’. In this latter state of being issues of superiority, grandiosity and self-centredness contribute to selfishness.”
Healthy self-love is not about comparison to others but it is about an awareness of who you are. At the same time however, in this honest appreciation of your self, you come to an awareness of your connection to others. This paradox is highlighted by Dr Judith Pickering, a Jungian analyst and couples therapist in private practice in Camperdown, Sydney, who says, “Being selfish implies an unbalanced attitude: that is, over-focus on our own desires at the expense of others. Loving oneself is a part of loving others; we are all part of a common humanity, we are all interdependent and interrelational beings. To overemphasise one’s self at the expense of others denies this reality, just as overemphasis on others at the expense of one’s self also leads to difficulties.”
To understand genuine self-love, it will help to look at self-love in its most unbalanced state: narcissism.
The word narcissism derives from the classical Greek myth, in which the main character, a youth called Narcissus, falls in love with himself. Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, and was extremely good-looking. Narcissus was so handsome that many women and men fell in love with him, including himself. One of his admirers was the nymph Echo, who had been cursed by the goddess Hera to repeat only the last words spoken to her. Narcissus eventually rejects Echo, and she spends the rest of her life pining away with only her voice remaining. Ameinias, another admirer, was so devastated by Narcissus’ indifference toward him that he killed himself. Before doing so, however, Ameinias called on the gods to punish Narcissus. Isolated and unengaged with others, Narcissus eventually sees his own image in the water, and falls in love with himself, or at least his image. As he reaches down to touch his reflection, he disappears into the abyss of the waters of the river Styx. Ultimately what remains in his place is a flower, a yellow-centred daffodil with white petals: the narcissus.
The layers of meaning in this myth are many, as with all myths. While we interpret narcissism as an obsessive love with your self, the myth tells us much more. “Narcissism is a complex issue which has found its way into common speech,” says Freiman. “The myth tells us that with inadequate ‘mirroring’ we drown in false mirrors. Adequate mirroring is what every child needs to gain a sense of their authentic selfhood. What we’re seeing is that children who haven’t been ‘seen’ for who they are either have no clear sense of self and feel lost or are set up to believe that to be seen they have to perform certain roles, such as be successful, beautiful or caring, or to appear a certain way in order to be valued. Narcissus, who had no sense of himself, finally found a way of being seen and became intoxicated with his own image. We see this all the time in those who believe they are what they appear to be or what they do. Narcissism is drowning in our own impression of our self.”
Pickering adds, “Narcissism as a personality disorder has its origins in a developmental failure, a failure to be seen, acknowledged, understood and to have that recognition mirrored back. The narcissist gets caught in the longing for mirroring, being seen, but cannot move beyond this stage. It means that relationships are predicated on the other being there to reflect and respond, not a two-way relationship where there is give and take, and mutuality. Narcissus wishes to be seen but cannot see the other as an Other: they are there just as a reflecting surface.”
Inherent to narcissism, and therefore lack of self-love, is a lack of genuine self-knowledge. This is spelled out right there in the myth for us. Freiman explains, “Narcissus, who had no sense of himself, finally found a true image of his deepest nature and became intoxicated with this. The common understanding of the myth is that Narcissus is identified with his self-image and that’s what has him drown in the pool. But another interpretation might be more along the line that Narcissus, being dissociated from the beauty the pool is reflecting (his disowned true nature), falls in love with a self so unknown and foreign to his ego self that he assumes it belongs to someone else. It’s important to remember he drowned because he was grasping at a beauty he didn’t recognise as his own. This interpretation is more in line with narcissism, which is the condition where the deeper self is still split off and disowned in some way. It is the failure to grasp one’s own true nature. We see this all the time in those who believe they are what they appear to be or what they do.” As Pickering observes, “Narcissism is a system built on fantasies, image, denials of reality, mortality, of who we actually are. Yet that reality is always there behind the phantoms and falsehoods we create.”
The Narcissus myth is not without hope. Although Narcissus’ obsession with his own image leads to his destruction it also leads to his transformation into another form, the flower that we now call the narcissus. In that transformation Narcissus has become part of a larger whole. Having been lost in his obsession with self, Narcissus has become part of what is real and unembellished, the natural world.
From the unbalanced obsessive self-love of Narcissus, let us then go to the other extreme and consider why it is that people may lack self-love. From the Buddhist perspective, those who lack self-love are lazy. This may seem a harsh judgement to pass on someone who is already down on themselves, but it is not really.
The laziness that Buddhists speak of in relation to lack of self-love has three parts: indolence, cowardice and distracted busy-ness. Indolence refers to not doing something even though you know that it is good and should be done. Cowardice leads to you underestimating your qualities and capabilities, thinking, “I’m so useless that I could never do it.” This kind of thinking results in inaction and doing nothing when something could easily be done. It is cowardice in the sense that is creating reasons not to act and hiding behind a protective wall of supposed inadequacy. The opposite of this is self-belief and a willingness to do what you can, knowing that whatever that is will be useful in some way.
The third type of laziness that blocks self-love may actually seem the opposite of laziness; it is seeming very busy, being very active but wasting time and energy on meaningless activities that will not accomplish anything in the long run. When you do many things for no real purpose, you fail to focus on what is truly worthwhile and your path has no clear direction.
Lack of self-love will lead to some unproductive actions at best and some dreadful actions at worst. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Fearlessness is the first requisite of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral.” If you want to create self-love then you will need to bravely face who you really are, and the first part of that is accepting that you are no worse, or better, than anyone else.
We are the same
“If we don’t love ourselves sufficiently then we are unlikely to know ourselves well,” says Freiman. “When we are not in a solid relationship with ourselves we run the risk of projecting the best of who we are onto the ‘other’. This is just another form of narcissism, I’m afraid.”
What Freiman is highlighting here is that it is easy to project your good qualities onto other people and not accept that they are a part of you. It is equally easy to fail to acknowledge your bad qualities. Neither mode of operating is realistic and neither leads to self-love. We all have good and bad qualities within us, and part of loving yourself is to know this but not to judge it.
While the first step to loving yourself may be accepting that you share commonalities with everyone else, it is still “you” that you need to love. The question is, who is that self with which you are seeking to establish a loving relationship?
According to Freiman, “Loving one’s self or true nature is different from loving one’s ego. A capacity for empathy tends to mitigate against egotism, which derives from a lack of healthy self-esteem. When we enter into self-love we love the essential aspect of who we are, not our ego. Our essence is that aspect of our self that is our embodied aliveness. It’s not driven by anything outside of our truth and beauty. To distinguish our essential self from our egoic structures, to see the old patterning as just that, and open to a more expansive sense of self is the aim. This may sound cosmic but we all know those moments when we are transported by music, nature, acts of kindness or whatever into a ‘bigger self’. In that space, what is not to love?”
Learning to love yourself
Having realised that self-love is your aim after all, and knowing that laziness and cowardice are antithetical to self-love, how then do you start the journey into self-love? It will take some work, but it is a worthwhile journey and there are tools that you can use.
Pickering points out, “It is much easier to love ourselves if we have ourselves been loved. We love ourselves when we first have been loved and felt deeply seen, known and loved by our primary caregivers.”
The harsh reality is that some people have not been loved by their parents or carers, and for these people the therapeutic situation can help begin self-love. Pickering observes, “The ideal is that parents love their child for who that child is, not who they would like them to become. Often a parent, due to their own narcissism, wants the child to be a reflection of themselves and so they only give love and approval when the baby accommodates him or herself to the mother’s reality. Psychotherapy is aimed at healing such developmental lacks and losses; the therapist’s job is to mirror and reflect back the true self of their patient, drawing out the shoots of new life and the true nature of the patient, giving that patient confidence to become themselves and live their own life. They feel loved by the therapist, in a form of ‘agape’ love, that is not a love which has its own ends. Feeling truly loved and recognised over time, in all one’s complexity and full-square reality, gives the patient a sense of deep worthiness, confidence, trust and a sense of authenticity.”
As a Buddhist herself, Pickering adds, “In Buddhism there are meditation practices for enhancing a genuine sense of love for oneself.”
Meditations for self-love
If you search the internet then you will find an ample supply of meditations aimed at fostering genuine self-love. One of the powers of meditation is that as you make it a regular practice, there is a constant erosion of negative and unreal thoughts. Eventually changes take place. It may be slow, but the effects are real. Getting beyond those unrealistic thoughts and beginning to realistically know your self make it possible to truly love your self.
Living a contemplative life using meditation can get you out of a self-loathing or narcissistic rut. “Contemplative” does not mean spending all day sitting cross-legged under your nearest Bodhi tree. Rather it is accessing your inner world without judgement on a regular basis. The genuine self-knowledge that results will foster actual self-love and will also bring about a deep inner security that is rooted in reality. This is a far healthier place to be in than to be living in a myth constantly hoping or being afraid. The feeling of security that grows from self-love allows you to see the reality in everyone and everything else and to be at peace with it.