What does it mean to love yourself?

by | Mar 12, 2018

There is a lot of talk these days particularly in the western world about the importance of loving yourself. But what does that mean and how do we do it? Along with this idea comes a few myths or unhelpful narratives that we also need to debunk. So, let’s start with those before we talk about the ‘how to’.

1) Is it a feeling?

How are you meant to love yourself if you don’t feel like you love yourself? In fact, what if you feel like you hate yourself – what then?

The idea of love being based on a feeling is connected to other social narratives about what love is. While we are not going to talk about those too much here, the most important piece to untangle is that love or being loving is not just a feeling. It can be a feeling but that is not all that it is.

When we love others, it is not just about grand gestures: it is about all the little things. It’s action.

It is the way we talk to those we love, even when we are stressed. It is about how we treat them on a day to day basis. It is about being consistent and dependable, if that is what is needed. That we speak with kindness, or are willing to really listen, or tell them they are going to be ok after a hard day.

The sum of all of these things tell the other person that we care about them and these things need to happen no matter how we are feeling in order for the message that we love them to get through. If we tell someone we love them but all of our actions say something different, then that is not love.

Loving ourselves is the same. It is in all the little things. It is how we talk to ourselves even if we have made a mistake. It is deciding to have a cup of tea instead of another beer or glass of wine if that is what we know we need. It is about all the decisions and choices we make that convey to ourselves the message that we are lovable – even when we don’t feel like it.

2) Others cannot love you unless you love yourself – True or False

This is perhaps one of the most harmful ideas floating around today attached to this idea of self-love.

While the statement ‘Others cannot love you unless you love yourself’ sounds logical, it doesn’t actually make any real sense.

How people feel and act towards you is their choice – not yours. Yes, you have responsibility for yourself, the choices you make, and your behaviour, but ultimately the choices that another makes is up to them. Therefore it is illogical that their ability to love you is dependent on your ability to love yourself.

And from what age is this meant to be true? Obviously, a baby can be loved without loving itself, so when does that change to being their fault that they are not loved? Even if you argue that a baby is pure love, then at what age does that magically disappear? Essentially the idea itself is unreasonable.

Possibly it may be easier for others to love you or feel warmly towards you if you treat yourself with care and love, and arguably there is a relationship between the two, but others can love you even if you do not love yourself. So please stop telling people and yourself this because it is just not true and it is not helpful.

What is true is that when others genuinely love you and show you that you are worthy of love, they create an invitation for you to learn to love yourself in a way that perhaps you have not yet known.

The ideal is that we learn to love ourselves from a young age as it is modelled to us by those looking after us as we develop. It is modelled via the loving relationship they have with themselves. It is modelled by the loving way they relate to us. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many. As we grow and go out into the world, we might then conclude that because they were not able to show us love, that we are unlovable.

Though this may feel true, it is not true. However, this belief about ourselves might play out in many ways in the way we live our lives. When others show us genuine love it creates new pathways to learning new ways of being in the world. The choice is then ours to take the steps.

3) If I love myself does that mean I am full of myself, ego driven or that I’m a narcissist?

This is a nuanced and potentially lengthy discussion but the short answer is no. What do these things even mean really?

For example, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be FULL of yourself, filled to the brim with so much life and love, that it bubbled over into every interaction you have with others and the world? Wouldn’t it be amazing to have the capacity to breathe into every part of you and feel the fullness of your Being? The problem is that the phrase, to be ‘full of oneself’ has become a negative. Perhaps that is actually what needs to be challenged.

These ideas of what it means to be ‘ego-driven’ or ‘a narcissist’ are changing all the time and are greatly affected by cultural narratives and current socially popular trends.

For instance, there are some misguided superficial understandings of deeply philosophical principles such as the ideas of ‘no self’ and consequent demonisation of the ego currently floating around particularly ‘spiritual’ circles that are incredibly harmful to people learning to experience ‘love of self’ or tangible selfhood after trauma. Please stop. We are hurting people.

Similarly, the rise of online pseudo-diagnosis of narcissism is problematic for a number of different reasons (again all of which will not be discussed now). Narcissistic Personality Disorder is language that is used and a label that is applied by specific groups of professionals. It is important that, like all labels, that we are careful about what we apply to ourselves and others, especially about the human experience. It is also arguably labelling many potentially helpful behaviours as unwanted or harmful when in truth there is much we could gain if we can capture the essence of the story of Narcissus.

Why is the story of Narcissus potentially helpful?

The concept of narcissism is derived from the story of the ancient Greek hunter Narcissus. It is a lesson that is essentially the antithesis of genuine self-love.

The myth narrates that he was uncannily beautiful, adored by many, and in his pride cruelly rejected the genuine love of others. After a prayer was uttered that he too could know the pain of unrequited love, he came upon a pool where he saw his own reflection and fell deeply in love with what he saw. He then wasted away, not eating or drinking, dying rather than being able to leave the artifice of his own beauty.

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the reality that the image in the water could never return the adoration and love, as it was of course, only an illusion. Therefore, while Narcissus not only could never love another as he was so consumed by the image, it is also not …and this is the important part…..an example of actual self-love.

The problem is, that it is not falling in love with the image in the pool that is the problem. In fact, many of us could gain much healing if we were able to gaze into our own reflection and fall in love with what we see. What we learn from Narcissus is that we need to remember that this is only part of the process.

The image is only a representation and we should not get caught up in the illusion. The truth lies in that if we are able to truly love who we are, then love is about more than gazing into a pool at ourselves.

It is about feeding and nourishing ourselves on every level and looking after ourselves so that we do not waste away. Therefore we may gaze into the pool and love what we see but we must also know when to walk away in order to take care of all the other aspects that our humanity requires including participating in and receiving deeply, the love of others.

If you truly love yourself you could never be Narcissus or a narcissist. But go to the pool because there you may learn to love yourself. Just know when to leave.

The take away here is that we need to be careful and thoughtful about what we take on board and be mindful of what is useful to us. In doing so, we are loving towards ourselves. If an idea (or one others are trying to put on you) only redirects your self-hatred to another part of you or your experience, then this is not helpful.

Most importantly, we need to focus on creating the real thing.

How will I know if I love myself and how do I do it?

At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker – you will know when you know, and it is different for each person.

As we have talked about, it is all about the little things and it is a practice or something you do, not just a feeling. Every choice that you make to nurture yourself, to support yourself, to challenge yourself, to laugh at yourself, to accept yourself in your complete humanness is how you love yourself. It means not punishing yourself for every little mistake. It means taking responsibility for your life with gentleness, kindness and resolve.

The more that you get to know the whole of who you are, (yes that means all of your strengths as well as all of the stuff that you don’t like others to see or like to face about yourself) then the more you are able to love and accept who you really are.

It is different for everyone and dependent on your own belief systems. The point is, and the exciting thing is, that you need to get to know what those are! If you believe that it is important to put others needs above your own and it doesn’t make you unhealthy to do it, then you are loving yourself to do that, because it honours your values and who you are.

It means not spending your life gazing at your own reflection but also not shying away from it, being able to love what you see when you do. It is being able to connect with and show love to others because it is in these interactions that we learn more and more about how to love.

It means discovering who it is that you are learning to love.

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