Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Self-love

I hear and talk about "self-love" often in therapy, and it occurs to me that the term is usually define pretty badly. If I'm going to be honest, the phrase "love yourself" tends to conjure up an image in my mind of the worst kind of fluffy pop-psychology. But I think that self-love is a worthy goal indeed, so I wanted to write about what I believe self-love to be, and how to cultivate it.

1. It's not narcissism.

Many of us were raised with cautions against becoming too full of ourselves, or being too proud. And while narcissism is a real problem, self-love is not narcissism. Narcissism is an absorption with the self, a sense of grandiose self-importance, and is often characterized by a lack of empathy for others. Self-love is an unconditional respect, compassion and affection for one's self. One can be a narcissist and have self-love--but interestingly, many narcissists do not have authentic self-love.

2. It's worthwhile, but it's not an answer to everything

"Self-love" is sometimes conceived of as a panacea for every possible psychological wrong, from depression to abusive relationships to alcoholism. And while many people may find increasing their love for themselves to be a part of their overall mental health, it is not a magic cure-all. There are plenty of people out there who deeply love themselves, but engage in self-destructive behaviors. It's too simple to just say, "Well, those people obviously don't love themselves." What is more realistic is that mental health is complex and there is no one single fix for the incredibly diverse difficulties that humans can experience. But even so, self-love is important and worthwhile.

3. It requires self-knowledge

Self-knowledge is the answer to the questions, "Who am I?" and "What am I like?" Think about the process of falling in love with another person--one of the first steps is to get to know that person. We go on dates; we ask questions; often we are fascinated by every little detail of their lives. This knowledge of the beloved object is as important to the love of someone else as it is to our own love of our self. When we have a good working knowledge of our selves, we can being accept and understand what drives us.


4. It's an active process, not merely an attitude shift


"Love" is both a verb and a noun, and as humans we are only capable of "doing" verbs. In other words, we cannot possess self-love without actually taking steps to love ourselves. "Love" is something we do. Think of the things that people do to fall in love with one another--among other things, they get to know each other, share intimate details, share new experiences, and touch each other in intimate ways. All of these steps help cultivate and deepen love. The same thing is true about self-love: It's not a realization we come to once. It's an active process we choose each and every day.




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