Self-Love and the Sense of Well-Being

I’ve been struggling with this term self-love which seems to be gaining currency of late.  Given that I have no problem with words like self-respect, self-esteem and self-hatred, it might seem surprising that I resist the idea of a love for the self.  My threshold obstacles to accepting it are two-fold:  an overlap with the concept of narcissism, and my aversion to some New Age, wishy-washy formulations that focus on love to the exclusion of other darker emotions.

As I often do with problematic words, I start with a dictionary definition from Merriam-Webster.

Self-love:  love of self
a:  conceit
b:  regard for one’s own happiness or advantage

There’s the first of my problems — definition 1(a) places self-love in the realm of narcissism; definition 1(b) hints at a kind of ruthlessness.  From this point of view, self-love doesn’t appear to be a positive attribute; self-love verges on egoism and selfishness, overemphasizing the wishes of the individual to the disadvantage of other people.  My impression is that the meaning of the word is currently undergoing an evolution, however, largely inspired by developments within New Age thinking. Check back with Merriam-Webster in ten years and you’ll find an additional definition.

I did a little online research about other conceptions of self-love and came across the following, from a website called Inner Self:

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The Interpretation of a Dream

I’ve read and taught Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams several times; it’s fascinating and beautifully written, a ground-breaking work that brought dreams from the realm of superstition and divination into the world of “science”.  On the other hand, while I admire Freud’s insight and careful demonstration of his ideas, I find his stipulation that dreams represent wish-fulfillments too limiting.  In my experience, dreams represent all sorts of things about ourselves and our states of mind.  When dreams become the subject of a psychotherapy session, associations are crucial, of course, just as Freud instructed; but they may sometimes be those of the therapist, based on familiarity with the client — as I hope the following interpretation of a dream will show.

This session dates back several years.  My client Ryan was at that time in his late 30s, living with another man in his first stable, long-term relationship.  Although Ryan and his partner Seth were nearly the same age, Ryan thought of him as quite a bit older, mostly because Seth seemed more professionally secure and responsible.  In his earlier relationships, Ryan had always looked for someone to “take care of” him, someone he idealized and expected to be a sort of all-gratifying parent.  Because they were based on fantasy rather than reality, these relationships naturally lasted only a short time.  Ryan and Seth had been living together for two years at the time of this dream; while their relationship retained some of the features of Ryan’s earlier brief liaisons, he had come a long way in becoming more personally responsible:  he carried his own weight financially and had grown quite serious about developing his career.
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Freud’s Theory of the Id, Ego and Superego: Lost in Translation

After I had graduated from college with a degree in English Literature, I took an extension course in Introductory Psychology; with five years of therapy under my belt, I had decided to begin graduate school in order to become a psychotherapist and I needed some basic coursework in that area.  I well remember the day the instructor delivered his lecture on Freudian psychology, explaining the tri-partite division of the mind into id, ego and superego.  With great scorn, he presented Freud’s theory as if those well-known terms represented actual sectors of the brain; I believe he even drew a pie-chart on the chalkboard, reducing Freud’s insights to an absurdly simplistic form, and mocked it. I don’t think the instructor’s attitude was particularly rare.  Freud has gone into disrepute — for some legitimate reasons, I suppose; but having read and re-read all 24 volumes of Freud’s works, and taught them repeatedly to graduate students, I’m full of regret that more people don’t understand how truly amazing, insightful and ground-breaking a thinker he was.  He also won the Goethe Prize for Literature — he’s a fabulous writer.

One of the challenges of reading Freud is the official translation into English, prepared under the supervision of James Strachey at the British Psychoanalytic Institute, between 1943 and 1974.  While a meticulous piece of scholarship, and an indispensable resource for anyone truly interested in Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud regularly substitutes clinical-scientific words for the everyday expressive language employed by Freud in German. One of the most important of these concerns the translation of das Es, das Ich and das Uber-Ich into the id, ego and super-ego, respectively.  (These terms actually go back to earlier efforts by Ernest Jones to bring Freud to the English-speaking world; Strachey and his team adopted those translations as they had already gained acceptance.)  A literal translation would be “the I”, “the It”, and “the Over-I”.   Those terms have a very different feel — less conceptual and scientific, more in the realm of our actual experience.

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Pride and the Healing of Shame

Because I write and think so much about the psychology of shame and its toxic effects, I’m often asked about overcoming shame, to explain how one “recovers” from shame, or whether I have any guidance about “healing shame.”  My answers in the past have felt inadequate to me, but a recent session with a long-term client helped me bring my thoughts on this issue into focus.

Stan, a middle-aged married man, has struggled with unbearable shame for most of his life and has relied on the typical defenses against shame described in earlier posts.  In particular, he relies on blaming as his primary mode of defense.  For example, he often rants in silence against his wife whenever they have a disagreement:  he’ll mentally complain about her behavior with a sense of grievance, blaming her for the argument.
This has been a life-long pattern in his relationships.  Behind his defensiveness, he has suffered from the sense that he’s emotionally damaged in some fundamental way.

During the economic downturn, Stan suffered some reverses in his business that have placed a great strain on his family, largely shifting the financial burden of supporting them onto his wife’s shoulders for the time being.  She hasn’t criticized him for what has happened nor complained about the weighty responsibility she now must carry.  She recognizes that the economic downturn wasn’t his fault but Stan nonetheless feels humiliated and defensive.  It taps into a lifelong feeling that he is damaged and ineffectual.

Recently, Stan has remarked on his wife’s increasing moodiness.  Even the smallest things seem to set her off; when they re-connect at the end of their work day, she instantly launches into an account of all the things that irritate her about her job.  She strikes him as angry.  Because he feels ashamed about his limited inability to contribute financially, he tries to be as supportive as possible but finds these “bitch sessions” increasingly difficult to bear.

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Lessons from Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother

I recently read Amy Chua’s controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and it fell right in with a train of thought I’ve been following in two recent posts, one questioning whether we always try to do our best, and the other about elements of truth to be heard from that savage inner voice.  While I believe many of Ms. Chua’s methods are abusive (I can’t see any value in calling your child “garbage”), there’s a lot to be said for upholding high standards for our children, and a great deal of truth in her criticism of permissive Western parenting.

Upholding those high standards (for ourselves as well as our children) without resorting to a perfectionistic cruelty is the challenge, and one at which Ms. Chua fails.  She recounts many instances where she treats her children with a contemptuous perfectionism that shows little regard for their feelings, those of her husband or of anyone else in her environment.  She badgers and threatens and withholds until she gets the results that she wants.  She brooks no opposition, always insisting that her demands be met.  And she gets amazing results.  How many families have two young daughters play Carnegie Hall?

From the anecdotes Chua tells, it’s clear that without her relentless demands, her daughters would not have reached such a high level of academic and musical excellence.  In one case where her younger daughter was struggling to master a piece of music where each hand played a radically different rhythmic pattern, the daughter kept insisting she couldn’t do it; Chua forced her to continue practicing, against her will, for hours and hours, until at last, she mastered it.  Without the mother’s drive and demanding nature, the daughter would not have mastered that skill, would  not have done her very best.  Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether such an achievement was worthwhile and at what emotional cost; the story illustrates how we often do not do our very best because it takes such an enormous effort.

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