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
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:
“the ‘Self’ in Self-Love knows that we are of a Higher Essence and that in its bounty the Universe has provided for us all. It knows that loving oneself means loving the ‘self’ in all others as well, since we are all ‘one and the same’. We are all spirit living a human experience and here to live and learn. Here to ‘be’.”
I have several problems with such a view. First of all, self-love seems to involve acceptance of a spiritual view of the universe not everyone shares. If you don’t believe we are all of a “Higher Essence” and that the universe has “provided for us all,” does that mean you’re incapable of self-love? Later in the same essay, on the distinction between self-love and selfishness, the author gives the following advice: “Examine your motives, listen to the voice of your Higher Self. It will always lead you on the path of Light, Love, Peace, Wisdom, and Joy.” This implies that we should all be striving to feel love, joy, etc.; what if you believe, as I do, that we should face all our emotions, and that the path of growth lies in embracing our darkness as well as the light?
In discussing the documentary I Am, my colleage Marla Estes has addressed this over-emphasis on the positive emotions: The “film exemplifies a kind of ‘spiritual bypass,’ where the goal is to transcend the darker sides of humanity instead of transforming them through the sometimes painful work of digging deep within ourselves.” From my experience, so much of New Age thinking teaches us how we ought to feel — and self-love is among those correct feelings — rather than helping us to cope with the difficult and painful ways we actually do feel.
In order to make peace with this concept of self-love, I went back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. You may recall that Rousseau distinguishes between amour-propre and amour do soi. They both mean “self-love” in broad terms, but the former connects to the opinion of others and how they view us; in contrast, the latter is a condition of man in his natural state, apart from (or prior to) civilization, and reflects a state of wholeness and well-being. According to Blackwell Reference online:
“Acts out of amour de soi tend to be for individual well-being. They are naturally good and not malicious because amour de soi as self-love does not involve pursuing one’s self-interest at the expense of others. The sentiment does not compare oneself with others, but is concerned solely with oneself as an absolute and valuable existence. … For Rousseau, amour de soi contrasts with amour-propre, a self-love that presupposes a comparison between oneself and others and consequently generates all the vicious and competitive passions.”
Here’s a view of self-love I can live with. Rather than a state where the self is the object of love the emotion, amour de soi refers to a natural value for one’s life without invidious comparison to other people. To my mind, it implies a state of harmony with one’s world, the sense of wholeness and goodness that I described at the end of A Hiking Meditation. For me, achieving such a state involves intense self-awareness of all my feelings, including the defensive or destructive ones; through efforts to disengage from my defenses in a state of quiet, I feel whole within my body and in harmony with my world.
This may sound as if I’m agreeing with the writer from Inner Self, but I don’t share her spiritual assumptions nor would I repeat her advice to strive for love, joy etc. I believe that, only in facing the whole of ourselves and accepting the shadow self as well as the light, can we attain the state of wholeness … this experience called self-love. In short, self-love for me is a state in which it all comes together and I feel driven by neither my narcissistic defenses nor the demands of my superego (though I may “hear” them at work); I feel complete and at peace with myself and world. It has nothing to do with feeling the emotion of love for myself as an object, nor does it lead me to feel a pervasive love for the rest of humanity.
Finding Your Own Way:
I invite discussion on this subject. Marla has suggested that feeling love for oneself as an object might be an intermediate step on the road to this other kind of self-love. What do you think?
Do you have some other experience you think of as self-love? If so, please submit your comments so we can discuss them.
What about spirituality or religion? Do you see self-love as an integral part of those experiences? Can an atheist feel self-love in its best sense?
Do you believe that one should strive to have certain kinds of feelings but not others? If so, how do you achieve that?