When I speak of self-love many people say “But isn’t it selfish to love one’s self?”
When I first came across the concept of self-love my reaction was exactly the same. It took me years to really grasp the difference between selfishness and loving one’s self. I believe the confusion stems from the complexity of the idea of love, in general, as well as from a common distortion in our upbringing. We are taught to respect other people’s needs and feelings but are not taught to respect or even understand our own. This is because much of our upbringing aims at creating a person who would conveniently fit into society, rather than at helping one to become a fulfilled, self-sufficient, independent individual.
Thus, for instance, when a boy of four runs around in a supermarket the mother scolds him for disturbing other people. While it is true that the comfort of other shoppers ought to be respected, the disciplinary “lesson” often takes place without consideration of the physical and emotional needs of the four-year old. Perhaps it would be better not to take him shopping at all because at this age he is unable to stand still in a queue or walk quietly alongside his mother. In reality, however, this is not always possible. And thus the suppression of the natural needs of a child begins, and his subconscious begins to pick up a message that there is something wrong with him, and that the needs of others should be respected while his own natural needs do not deserve the same consideration. This message, reinforced many times in diverse situations, becomes ingrained in a child’s psyche. This child then grows into an adult who believes that his or her inner needs are of no importance, in comparison with the needs of other people.
This is just a small example, but it allows us to trace how imperceptibly, without any major trauma, our ability to recognize and respect our inner needs can be undermined. Sometimes this happens through the lack of differentiated psychological insight in parents. For instance, in my childhood I was repeatedly told by my father that I was selfish when I refused to share sweets with my little sister, a year and a half younger than me, or would not play with her instead of my friends. When as a young adult struggling with self-esteem I confronted my father about this, he replied: “Yes, I told you that because I did not want you to grow up selfish.” This was, apparently, his preventative care. And such well-meant measures may affect us for years to come.
So what is the difference between selfishness and self-love?
Through my many attempts at explanation, I have found it helpful to draw an analogy between caring for one’s self from the point of view of a child and caring for one’s self from the point of view of a loving and supportive parent. In the examples above I have highlighted some mistakes commonly made by parents. Presently, I would like you to think of an ideal parent model; of a parent who is a psychologically aware, mature and caring individual able to offer a child unconditional love combined with healthy boundaries.
Selfishness in this analogy is similar to a child’s idea of fulfilling his/her needs (for the sake of brevity I will continue to write using the masculine gender). As a child’s awareness of his needs, in a holistic and long-term context, is not sufficiently developed, he will frequently confuse gratification of his desire with what is good for him. For example, he may want to eat half a kilo of ice cream. That would be taking care of his craving, but not of the actual needs, of his health and wellbeing. Or imagine a child of five or six who takes a toy from a friend and does not want to give it back because he has taken a fancy to it. In the short term, this child may fulfill his desire, but in the long term – especially if he continues to behave in this way – he risks losing his friends.
I hope I am making my point clear. I am trying to say that being selfish, in my perception, amounts to the inclination to obtain immediate gratification of our desires, regardless of the long-term consequences for our emotional and physical wellbeing. And while striving for this gratification we can also hurt other people. While I don’t yet have children of my own I have been spending a fair amount of time with children of my friends. This has given me plenty of chances to observe their thunderous struggles with their “I want it NOW!”
I often empathize with them as I recognize it within myself, even though at a different level. More often than I would like I recognize the little child within me who screams “I want it NOW!” And it takes the mature, parent-like part of myself to help that child realize what attitude or action would really be in her best interests.
Now, the caring parent who is aware of his/her child’s needs may sometimes say no to the child for the sake of the child’s health or emotional wellbeing. This restriction, however, would be based on the understanding of the child’s developmental needs, challenges and desires. It would also come with an expression of acknowledgment and an appropriate explanation in a form the child will understand. If such a parent has to reprimand the child for some misbehaviour, she/he would make it clear that it is the behaviour that is being “bad,” not the child himself. And, of course, discipline would be followed by forgiveness, so that the child would stay confident that his parent’s love is always there and that it is ok to make mistakes, because this is how we learn. And making mistakes does not make anyone a bad person; it only shows us the direction in which we need to develop.
When parents take care of their children in this way they validate the children’s feeling of self-worth and create a nurturing environment in which children are free to grow as persons, gradually developing the awareness of their own needs, of the needs of others, and how these two sets of needs interrelate.
Parenting our selves in such a way is what I would call self-love. This love is a form of caring that is based on the recognition of our value as a human being and as a person; it presupposes the acknowledgment of our needs, desires, wants, challenges and struggles; it knows how to forgive and how to encourage; it appreciates our individuality and tries to create conditions that would be best for our personal growth and wellbeing.