self_love

Love me do

In common parlance today it is a derisive comment to say of a person, “She/he loves her/himself.” This is because we are generally speaking of only the most base or childlike form of self love. 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, Sydney based psychotherapist who works with Jungian archetypes, 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.”

So 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 Potts Point, 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 inter-dependant and inter-relational beings. To over-emphasize one’s self at the expense of others denies this reality, just as over-emphasis on others at the expense of one’s self also leads to difficulties.”

Let us start then our journey to achieving self-love with a consideration of self-love in its most unbalanced state: narcissism.

Meet Narcissus

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 Leiriope, 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 Jutka 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, caring or appear a certain way 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.”

Dr Judith 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.”

The Narcissus myth however is not without hope. Although Narcissus’ love of 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. 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.”

Lazy lover

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 all the same

“If we don’t love ourselves sufficiently then we are unlikely to know ourselves well,” says Jutka 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 our good qualities onto other people and not accept that they are a part of us. It is equally easy to fail to acknowledge our 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.

According to Buddhist nun Sister Ayya Khema in her Twelve Dhamma Talks on Practice the reality is that we each have six “roots” within us; three good and three evil. The evil roots are greed, hate and delusion and the good roots are generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. Khema says, “If one investigates this and doesn’t get anxious about it, then one can easily accept these six roots in everybody. No difficulty at all, when one has seen them in oneself. They are the underlying roots of everyone’s behaviour. Then we can look at ourselves a little more realistically, namely not blaming ourselves for the unwholesome roots, not patting ourselves on the back for the wholesome ones, but rather accepting their existence within us.”

True love of the self, and incidentally of others, begins in acknowledging that we share these qualities. As Khema goes on to say, “If one can love that human being, the one that is ‘me’ with all its faculties and tendencies, then one can love others realistically, usefully and helpfully…. If we look at ourselves in that manner, we will learn to love ourselves in a wholesome way.”

Loving who?

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 Jutka 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.

Dr Judith 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 care-givers.”

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 recognized 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. Here is just one exerpt from one such meditation that can be found at www.satyacenter.com:

I am Divine Love in Unity with all that exists in heaven and on Earth.

I am inseparable from my surroundings, from the people around me, from my ancestors, from the world of spirit, and from the natural world.

I am never alone. I am always loved.

My nature is to give and receive 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 makes it possible to truly love.

Living a contemplative life using meditation can get you out of a self-loathing or narcissistic rut. By “contemplative” we are not meaning spending all day sitting cross-legged under your nearest Bodhi tree. Rather we mean 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.

 

Terry Robson is the editor of WellBeing magazine, a broadcaster, and an author. His latest book Failure IS an Option is published through ABC Books.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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