Issues Treated in Therapy:
What is self-love? This is not the vain love of egoism and narcissism, a preoccupation with one’s self and general disregard for others – except as they relate to you. And of course self-love is not identical either to the love of family and friends, or to the love or art, travel, or music. Self-love is really a kind of gentle acceptance, and unconditional sense of support and caring, and a core of compassion for oneself. It is an abiding willingness to meet your own needs, allow yourself to feel and think whatever you feel and think, and see yourself as essentially worthy, good, valuable, and belonging in the world, deserving of happiness.
For those who struggle with self-love, the task may seem impossible. No matter how hard they try, no matter how many times they hear it from others, they simply cannot seem to believe they are good enough. They may be able to convince themselves in their minds, but they cannot feel it in the body or soul; what they feel instead is…shame, despair, anxiety, self-doubt, emptiness, anger, confusion…anything but love, happiness, peace.
Being unable to love yourself, you may seek validation from others – though it never seems to fill you up. There’s an old Groucho Marx joke: I’d never want to belong to a club that would accept someone like me as a member. How can you receive love from a person if you don’t believe yourself worthy of love?
You may try, also, to love others – but the task if made difficult when you yourself are not whole. The same judgments, anxieties, and insecurities that you struggle with will find their way into your relationship; the same distortions you experience in your self-image will inevitably distort your image of the beloved. Intimate love without self-love is incomplete at best, and often an exercise in frustration and misery. It can, however, show us where we fail to love ourselves – and thus fail to love others, or to receive love from them.
With self-love present, life is still full of challenges, disappointments, struggles and occasional emotional pain. However, where a lack of self-love can turn these ups and downs into a seemingly constant battle for psychic survival against feelings of impending doom, hopelessness, or general discomfort, the presence of self-love – self-acceptance, compassion, integrity – can provide a never-changing center to guide us in times of crisis, remind us of our strengths and successes, provide shelter from confusion and pain, keep us on our path, and lift us over waves of fear and doubt.
Self-love is developed in early in life, and if childhood experiences damage our sense of self significantly, a lack of self-love can dog us for a lifetime. Self-love is instilled when parents show us unconditional positive regard; if this does not occur, our sense of self can be shaky and wounded. Self-love also develops through early relationships with peers, including siblings, and through experiences of competence and accomplishment, and freedom and respect. A lack of such experiences, or difficulties with peers can also hinder our capacity for self-love.
Self-love is also related to our sense of purpose and meaning in life. It can be further influenced by messages in the culture, such as media messages about beauty and status. Finally, chemical issues in the brain can diminish the ability to love oneself.
Mandy, 27, enters therapy for help with relationships. She has complaints about her close friends, and is also upset because her boyfriend is talking about breaking up after six months. As the therapist encourages her to elaborate on her feelings, desires, and night time dreaming, Mandy reveals deep feelings of shame of which she was barely aware, but immediately recognizes as having been present for many years. Tearfully, she recounts her efforts to please her parents, which always seemed to fail as Mandy was overshadowed by her two older sisters and one younger brother – the boy her parents had hoped she would be. Understanding through this process that she has been living to please others – with her boyfriend only the latest example – while putting herself (and other women) down with negative internal messages, Mandy begins the process of unraveling her own authentic sense of self, including needs, desires, and feelings that have nothing to do with her family’s image of her.
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Last updated: 05-14-2013