Self-love refers to the act of valuing one’s own happiness and well-being. Self-love is a kind of acceptance that can be described as an unconditional sense of support and caring and a core of compassion for the self. It might also be considered a willingness to meet personal needs, allow non-judgmental thinking, and view the self as essentially worthy, good, valuable, and deserving of happiness.
Those who find it challenging to practice self-love or have barriers that make it difficult for them to experience compassion or love for themselves may find the support of a therapist or other mental health professional to be beneficial as they explore the reasons behind these difficulties.
Self-love is considered to be an important component of self-esteem and overall well-being. It is generally difficult, if not impossible, to feel content without first being able to love and accept the self. Researchers have discovered that the practice of self-love is associated with a multitude of benefits, such as greater life satisfaction, increased happiness, and greater resilience.
People with high levels of self-compassion have been shown to often be able to overcome difficult life events, such as divorce, with more ease than those who are harder on themselves. The ability to affirm oneself has also been associated with improved problem-solving abilities and decreased procrastination, because it can help individuals recognize the effects of negative habits and behaviors (such as procrastination) without leading to a thought pattern that is excessively negative.
The risk of developing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and perfectionism can also be decreased through the practice of self-love. This practice can also increase one’s optimism and may be helpful for stress reduction, especially in the face of various life challenges.
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It is generally considered to be normal for people to have periods in which they feel better about themselves and periods in which confidence and self-esteem wane. After failing at an important task, for example, one may question personal ability and self-worth. Self-love is considered to be an ongoing act, rather than a constant state. For many people, it takes effort, attention, and mindful attempts to practice self-compassion and affirm and accept oneself.
Self-love, in this context, can be said to differ from narcissism, as self-love is largely considered to be positive: Self-love is generally beneficial to happiness and well-being, and those who are encouraged to practice self-love may be more likely to achieve and experience success. While narcissism may sometimes be referred to as self-love, narcissism can more accurately be described as an excessive self-interest, combined with a general disregard of others and a lack of empathy.
In excess, self-love may become self-centeredness. A high level of fragile or shallow self-esteem, which may be facilitated by empty praises of well-meaning parents, teachers, or other caregivers during one’s childhood, can lead individuals, especially adolescents, to develop traits of narcissism. Research has also shown that inflated self-esteem, which can be linked to excessive self-love, is often associated with cynicism, a lack of motivation, verbal defensiveness, and, in some cases, aggression.
Certain distorted thought processes may make the practice of self-love difficult. Some individuals may believe that they are unworthy of love due to a lack of success in their chosen professional field, for example, or because of certain personal characteristics that they perceive to be negative or flawed. Trouble with relationships or friendships may also lead some to feel as if they may never experience close friendship or love, which can contribute to spiraling negative thoughts that may also have a negative effect on the ability to love the self. Often, cognitive and brief therapies prove helpful, as they focus on correcting these thoughts in order to improve one’s ability to love oneself and develop greater self-compassion.
Early experiences such as trauma, abandonment, or neglect can also cause people to feel as if they are unworthy of love. Therapy can help people uncover any possible reasons that it may be difficult to practice self-love. In therapy, people seeking treatment may become better able to understand the ways that early experiences still affect them and, with the help of a therapist, may be able to overcome past trauma and any feelings of self-loathing.
Therapy can also provide a space where one feels loved and accepted. The concept of unconditional positive regard, initially developed by Carl Rogers and used in person-centered (Rogerian) therapy, holds that providing a relationship in which one is truly accepted, without any conditions or judgment, allows healing to occur, in most cases. By providing unconditional positive regard, a therapist can also help people in therapy to learn to harbor that degree of love and acceptance toward themselves. For individuals who have never experienced love or acceptance and find it difficult to practice self-love as a result, this therapeutic bond may foster the development of self-compassion and love, leading to a state of improved mental health.
The expression of self-love can change depending on cultural context, though self-love appears to represent an important aspect of human existence. People from some cultures may be less likely to speak positively about themselves, especially to others in spheres outside those of close friends and family, as in these cultures, modesty and humility may be more valued. One study found that although people from some East Asian cultures were found to love and feel as good about themselves as did the Americans also surveyed, those from East Asian cultures evaluated themselves less positively on a cognitive level.
- Therapy to address barriers to self-love: Malia, 26, enters therapy to seek help with her relationships. She makes some complaints about her close friends, who seem to have little time for her, and reports that she is also upset because her girlfriend of six months has expressed her lack of investment in their relationship and has said that she thinks they should break up. Upset, Malia tells the therapist that she feels rejected, unloved, worthless, and believes that no one wants to be with or around her. The therapist encourages Malia to elaborate on her feelings and her relationships and begins to come to the realization that Malia attempts to please others as much as possible, sacrificing her own needs and well-being in the process. Together, they explore this possibility, and the therapist helps Malia realize that her efforts to make others happy may be so excessive that they have the result of pushing people away. Malia reveals feelings of inadequacy from childhood: As the youngest child, she always felt that she was an afterthought, that the needs and desires of her three older siblings came first. In order to please her parents and be noticed, she attempted to be the best she could be but felt unloved and worthless when her efforts went unnoticed. The therapist helps Malia see that her search for love and affection may be unsuccessful if she is not first able to love herself and realize her own validity. Over several weeks of therapy, Malia begins to explore her identity and desires and discover her sense of self, something she has never spent time doing before. She breaks up with her girlfriend, telling her, "Maybe we can try again when I have worked out some things about myself." Her positive response boosts Malia's confidence as she begins to develop self-compassion and learns to practice self-love.
- Addressing cultural differences in couples counseling: Ami, 29, and Gus, 31, enter couples counseling a few months after their marriage. Ami has worked as an interpreter in the United States for four years, but she was born and raised in Japan. The two have no major issues as partners, but Gus expresses to the therapist his concern that Ami is too self-deprecating. He states she has a pessimistic outlook that borders on negative and she consistently puts herself down when speaking with his parents, friends, and other acquaintances. Ami demurs and says that she believes Gus to be boastful and assertive, telling the therapist that she was raised to be humble and modest about her accomplishments. She states that speaking with pride about one's achievements is the "American way" and that her parents would be embarrassed to hear her do so. The therapist encourages Gus and Ami to continue to address this topic and any other areas of concern that may be related to cultural differences, as these differences are the only issue they report having. Together, they explore ways that Ami could make it clearer to Gus that she does not have a negative view of herself and that what he takes for pessimism is merely pragmatism, as well as ways that Gus could work to better understand Ami's cultural identity without imposing his own cultural values over her own.
- Cai, H., Brown, J.D., Deng, C., & Oakes, M.A. (2007). Self-esteem and culture: Differences in cognitive self-evaluations or affective self-regard? Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 162-170.
- Campbell, W.K., Foster, C.A., & Finkel, E.J. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A story of narcissistic game playing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 340-354.
- Freire, E. (2013). The healing power of self-love. Therapy Today, 24(9), 34-35.
- Holmes, L. (2014). Five science-backed reasons it’s important to love yourself. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/30/love-yourself-science-study_n_5900878.html
- Neff, K. (2015). The five myths of self-compassion: What keeps us from being kinder to ourselves? Psychotherapy Networker Magazine, 39(5), 30-47.
- Neff, K.D., & Beretvas, S.N. (2013). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Self and Identity, 12, 78-98.
Last updated: 10-06-2015
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