Why Self-Love is Not Selfishness and Narcissism: On Becoming a Good Friend to Others by Being a Good Friend to Ourselves

Self-Love Makes Us Uncomfortable

People often feel very uncomfortable with the idea of loving themselves. I know that for years I did. Perhaps this is because in the past we have encountered people who seemed to love themselves more than anyone else, and this led them to act in a narcissistic and selfish manner to those around them. Narcissistic, selfish people are often cruel, manipulative, and bully-like. This kind of self-love is toxic and destructive both to the person practicing it and the people around him or her. Aristotle calls folks like this “lovers of self”[1], and he does not speak highly of them.

It is certainly to our credit that we want to avoid acting in a narcissistic and selfish manner, but perhaps in our fear of acting like Aristotle’s “lovers of self”, we go to the other extreme. We act very hard and coldly to ourselves, perhaps hoping that if we are tough on ourselves, we will act well and accomplish good things. Or perhaps in our attempts to avoid acting like lovers of self, we focus on loving everyone else so that we won’t be egocentric and selfish, but in doing so, we forget that we are deserving of love, too. But genuine self-love is not selfishness or narcissism. In fact, it is the opposite.

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All photos in this blog are courtesy of Unsplash

Self-Love is not Narcissism or Selfishness

One of the most vivid stories we have of someone overcome by narcissism and selfishness is the myth of Narcissus in Greek mythology. According to the myth, Narcissus was a proud and haughty young man. As a curse for his pride, a goddess made him fall in love with the reflection of himself which he saw in a pool of water. Narcissus became so enthralled by his image that he eventually died from starvation.[2]

It is from this myth that we derive our word narcissism, a word that connotes an unhealthy tendency some people develop in which they consider themselves to be the center of the world, and they consider themselves superior to everyone else. They grant their feelings, desires, and wishes priority over everyone and everything else in their lives.  We consider behaviors like this the epitome of selfishness.

At first, it seems right to say that Narcissus was too full of self-love. However, consider how odd it is to characterize as self-love actions which cause a person to overly fixate on his appearance that he ignores all other aspects of himself and his life, and he eventually dies from this neglect. Such self-neglect can hardly be characterized as self-love.

As a comparison point, imagine a parent who overly fixates on her teenage daughter’s appearance. She buys her daughter thousands of dollars of brand name clothes; spends hours grooming her child and looking at her daughter’s reflection in the mirror with the daughter but fails to provide food, education, and emotional support. We would hardly call this love and would most likely describe this behavior as selfishness and neglect. We might further argue that this behavior grows out of a seeming profound selfishness and self-centeredness on the mother’s part.

For the mother to fixate so strongly on the daughter’s appearance to the detriment of her overall well-being suggests that the mother is somehow using her daughter and her appearance to meet some need or desire in the mother’s life: perhaps she is somehow living vicariously through her daughter. So her behavior is obsessive and objectifying, rather than truly loving to her daughter.

True self-love focuses on supporting and nurturing the whole person, not just one aspect to the exclusion of all of the others. In addition, true self-love does not lead someone to turn increasingly inward, becoming destructively tunnel-focused and oblivious to anything else in life expect very narrow, self-related concerns. Quite the contrary, true self-love actually empowers people to love the world and the people around them more.

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In his book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks whether it is right for people to love themselves best of all or if they should love other people more. I think that many if not most people believe that it is wrong to love ourselves best of all, but surprisingly, Aristotle argues that it is actually absolutely right for people to love themselves the best of all. He argues that in doing so, we are able to be a better friend to others. He writes,

A genuine self-lover is person who is virtuous, seeks the genuine good and is ruled by the rational part of the soul. For each man is his intellect, most of all. A good man is a self-lover in this second sense, since he will do what is noble for himself and also be beneficial to others.[3]

In this passage, Aristotle is suggesting that when we love ourselves first and relate to ourselves like a friend, this makes us a better person, and it helps us to treat others better and to give good things to them. This actually makes good logical sense for two reasons. First of all, it is really difficult for us to love other people if we are completely lacking love ourselves, just as it would be really difficult for someone to feed someone else if she is lacking food and nutrients herself.

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We see this very clearly with nursing mothers. In order for mothers to be able to nurse their babies well, they need to feed and nourish themselves first, and if they do not, it can be really hard for their bodies to make the milk mothers need to nourish their babies. Even when children grow older and eat regular food, it is still important for parents to nourish themselves, otherwise it may be difficult them to provide for their children in other important ways. For instance, they may be too tired or weak to nurture their children emotionally or to cook healthy meals or to earn money to provide shelter and clothes for their children. In the same way, it is difficult for us to treat others well if we do not treat ourselves well.

Secondly, when we treat everyone well but ourselves, we are really sending mixed signals about people and their worth in general. For example, let us say that we take care of others because we value them as individuals and because we think human beings are valuable and irreplaceable in themselves. But, we neglect and abuse ourselves.  We are actually communicating that not all people matter because we are treating ourselves like we don’t really matter. When we learn to treat ourselves well because we recognize that we are  valuable and irreplaceable human beings, it allows us to recognize that everyone else is valuable, too, and to treat them well. Because we are nourished by self-love, we have the resources and energy to treat others with love, too.

Author John O’Donahue writes about an anam cara. This is a celtic word that refers to a soul friend[4], a friend who recognized and honors you at your deepest level. This kind of friendship takes a person who is first powerfully at home with and nurturing to himself or herself.

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In doing this, we naturally become more loving to others and desirous of giving them the same gifts we have given to ourselves. This creates a place of stability, peace, and joy in our relationship with them so that they have the ability to become the best versions of themselves as well.  One of the best ways to understand why self-love is not narcissistic and selfish but is empowering is to consider the love of an empowering parent.

Self-Love: Being an Empowering Parent to Yourself

I would like you to imagine the most loving, empowering parent possible. Of course, no person and no parent is perfect (and parents certainly aren’t required to be perfect), but I think most of us, whether we are parents ourselves or not, think about what the most loving and empowering parent is like. When we think of it, I think we imagine something like this: The empowering parent is attuned to her child’s needs, as well as her child’s fears, sadness, desires, and hopes. The empowering parent does not necessarily satisfy every desire of her child; nor does she always arrange things so that her child never feels fear or sadness.

In fact, the empowering parent knows that fear and unfulfilled desires are a part of life and are often the means by which we grow as people and become better versions of ourselves. Nevertheless, the empowering parent knows that powerful emotions can be difficult and that children need attention, acceptance, support and encouragement to navigate life.

Therefore, when the child feels scared, the empowering parent acknowledges and listens to the child’s fears. For example, when a young child is frightened by a thunder storm at night, this parent snuggles with the child, explains what a thunderstorm is, acknowledges that they are scary but helps the child understand that the thunderstorm will go away soon. The empowering parent stays with the child until the storm has passed.[5]

When the child has a strong desire, the empowering parent helps the child how to deal with her desires—both her good and not-so-good desires. For instance, perhaps the child is bored and wants excitement and entertainment. The empowering parent acknowledges that this a normal desire and helps the child become aware of a range of interesting and stimulating activities she could choose from so that she learns to entertain herself. When the child desires to hit another child that she sees playing with her toys, this parent helps her child understand that while we sometimes want to act out when we are frustrated, we need to respect others and settle the matter peacefully. [6]

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Although no person or parent is perfect all the time, when parents act consistently as empowering parents, they a sense of confidence and self-efficacy in the child.  The child develops the confidence that she can handle the strong emotions she experiences in her life and satisfy them in positive and constructive ways. This helps the child feel loved, seen, respected, like she is worthy of being treated with dignity, and it helps her develop a confidence and sense of stability in herself and the world. This not only helps the child flourish as an individual, it also helps her relate to others in the same dignified, loving, and respectful away, which allows them to flourish as well.

The empowering parent I have described above relates directly to the issue of self-love. When we love ourselves, we treat ourselves the way that an empowering parent treats her child. We are attuned to our needs, fears, sadness, desires, and hopes. We do not necessarily satisfy every desire that strikes our fancy in the moment; nor do we try to arrange things so that we never feel fear or sadness. We actually realize that unfulfilled desires and difficult feeling like fear and sadness are a part of life and are often the means by which we grow as people. Nevertheless, we also understand that emotions like fear and sadness can be painful, and when we feel these feelings we are gentle with ourselves and allow ourselves to express them in productive ways.

We also surround ourselves with resources and help we need to navigate difficult emotions and challenges in life.  When we are fearful, we sit with our fear and try to understand why we are fearful and how we can bolster our self-confidence. When we have strong desires, we figure out how we can satisfy the good ones, and we help ourselves discover a healthy outlet or resolution for bad ones.  By treating ourselves continually in this way, we communicate to ourselves, “You are important; you are worth being treated with dignity. We can navigate any problem together.” This creates an inner sanctum of peace, stability, acceptance and confidence. It creates an inner sanctum of love.

Conclusion

True Self-Love is actually the opposite of selfishness and narcissism. When we are selfish and narcissistic, we not only neglect others, we actually neglect our whole selves. We usually end up focusing on one aspect of our person—like our looks or our possessions—and we treat ourselves as an object to get stuff, rather than loving and nurturing our whole self. True self-love on the other hand nurtures and cultivates our whole person because we recognize that every person is valuable and irreplaceable. In this way, true self-love empowers us to be good friends to ourselves and to others around us, too.

If you would like read more about how to cultivate genuine self-love, you can read about it here, here, and here.

[1] Book Nine, Section Eight

[2] You can find the story of Narcissus in book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

[3] Book Nine, Section Eight

[4] You can read more about this concept at this site: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/08/12/anam-cara-john-o-donohue-soul-friend/, as well as in John O’Donahue’s book Anam Cara.

[5] This is merely one way (not the only way) that a parent might empower her child.

[6] Once again, this is merely one way that a parent might empower her child.

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