The two greatest days of my life took place in August, eight years apart. One was in 1998, when my eldest daughter, Gabriela, was born. The second happened in 2006, when I gave birth to my long-awaited youngest child, Francesca. As any parent knows, the swell of love and affection we naturally feel toward our children is overwhelming, automatic, and boundless. We look at our squirming, crying, helpless little bundles of joy and want only to care for, protect, and guide them forever. Why do we love our children so? Is it because they’re cute, accomplished, talented, smart, helpful, and fun to be around?
At the moment my children were first placed in my arms, they were red and peeling, spindly limbed little creatures stained with blood and meconium. They had puffy, swollen eyes and hair matted down under waxy cover. Frankly, I had seen infant rats in my college psych lab that were cuter. In terms of their accomplishments, they could lay claim to nothing but having distorted my own body into a bloated balloon and putting me through hours of the most intense pain I’d ever endured. As for fun, they were a blast, considering how much I love the sound of eardrum-bursting screams and the sensation of having my skin sucked off by insatiable little nursing mouths … not!
So why did I love these babies with all my heart and soul? Because I, like most parents, knew intuitively that they were precious and worthy. I knew that these unique, helpless, little creatures had a right to be here. That they, just by their mere presence, would make the world a richer and better place. I loved them for their imperfections—for the hair on Gabi’s earlobes that I’d stroke with my fingertip, the silly rattle of milky phlegm I’d hear each time she finished eating, the tiny strawberry mark on Frannie’s neck. I loved them FOR their vulnerability, helplessness, and need as much as in spite of it. It was true, unconditional love.
The Buddha is quoted as having said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” Most of us would agree with this sentiment, yet the concept of self-love still seems to get a bad rap. That’s because self-love gets mistakenly confused with arrogance and narcissism. To illustrate how easily we confuse self-love and narcissism, consider this. Last summer, while my daughter and I were trying to relax at the community pool, a very tan and well-muscled twenty-something man held court. As we live in New Jersey, if the image of a guy from the show Jersey Shore comes to mind, you’re in the ballpark! Flexing his biceps and flashing his pearly whites, this young man regaled all within earshot about the thousand sit-ups he does each morning, the merits of his high-protein diet, the new convertible he’d just bought himself, and the number of different women he was juggling.
His buddies, who hardly got a word in edgewise, looked as bored and unimpressed as we were, but they nodded agreeably and provided the required oohs and ahhs. “That guy sure loves himself!” my daughter quipped. “No!” I said, a bit too loudly, “he probably doesn’t really love himself at all.” Truth is, we weren’t witnessing a display of self-love. It was narcissism in full bloom—self-love’s polar opposite.
To understand how healthy self-love differs from narcissism, let’s take a look at what narcissism really is. The term comes the Greek myth of Narcissus, a young hunter who was known for his physical attractiveness. Legend says that this vain boy caught sight of his own reflection in the river and fell deeply in love with the face he saw. Unable to part from the sight of himself, and unaware that it was just an image, he died alone at the river bed. Narcissus was missing what psychologists call an internalized sense of self. He was not able to walk away from the river, aware that what he loved was inside of him. He fell for the image of himself projected in the water, as if it were a separate entity altogether.
Narcissistic personalities are the same—they love a shallow, superficial image that they project out to the world. Their self-esteem and self-acceptance is wholly dependent on how this image is reflected back to them. In order to feel a sense of self-worth, narcissistic people demand the awe and praise of peers. They thrive on superiority, and strive to come across as more attractive, more accomplished, and more successful than others. When they falter, or others reject them, narcissists experience a deep sense of worthlessness and shame, often leading to rage. Thus, the root of narcissism is not self-love, but self-hatred.
Almost as much as self-love deviates from narcissism, it differs from self-esteem. Self-esteem often grows in proportion to reaching our own personal bests. We can build it with a good haircut, a new outfit, a high test score, or a well-run 5k. It is important to do things that help us feel our best, and those little tweaks that boost self-esteem can be worth pursuing.
While healthy self-esteem and confidence are valuable traits to possess, self-love transcends them. Whereas self-esteem says, “I’m good enough,” as opposed to narcissism’s malignant cry, “I’m better than you!”, self-love says, “Even when I’m not quite good enough, I matter and I’m worthy.” The narcissistic person believes, “I’m only worthwhile when I’m the fairest of them all, and when others see me that way,” while the person with healthy self-esteem says, “I am just as beautiful and successful as the next person.” The person who practices self-love, though, knows that he or she is valuable and worthy even on those bad-hair days, wearing their ratty sweatpants, when they’ve failed their tests and come in last in the race. Self-love grows out of the recognition and realization that inside each of us is the innocent and adored child we were at birth, worthy of our own attention, perfect in our imperfections, unique, wondrous, and whole.
The simplest way to practice self-love is this: Treat yourself the way you’d treat a person you love. There are four major areas of life in which we can show ourselves love each day, which you can remember by an acronym I like to call ACES (attention, compassion, emotion, and solitude).
- Attention: Pay attention to your needs. Nurture yourself and treat your body with care. Nourish yourself with nutritious foods, plentiful rest, fresh air, and exercise. Eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired. Take time to pamper yourself with candlelit bubble baths or long, hot showers, and indulge in an occasional massage, a lazy day at the beach, or a favorite dessert. Spend time in the company of supportive people doing things you enjoy. Surround yourself with art and music, fresh flowers, and things that you find beautiful and comforting.
- Compassion: Practice loving inner dialogue by talking to yourself with compassion, gentle encouragement, and kind words. Become aware of your inner critic, and learn to talk back to that negative voice in the same way that you would stand up for a friend or loved one. The gremlin that lives in each of our heads is a persistent and nasty little critter, but, with practice, you can cultivate an internal advocate that is even stronger. Pay attention to when you call yourself names or put yourself down, and immediately replace that self-critic with kind, forgiving messages. Remember that everyone makes mistakes, and no one is perfect. Allow yourself the experience of being fully human.
- Emotion: Experience your full range of emotion. When you’re sad, cry. When you’re joyful, celebrate. When you are angry, take the time to write out your feelings and, if necessary, to address the person or situation at hand in a firm, appropriate way. As children, most of us were socialized with messages telling us what we should or shouldn’t feel. As adults practicing self-love, we recognize that no feelings are wrong. By exploring and appropriately expressing all of our emotions, we validate our unique perspectives and permit ourselves to live courageously and authentically.
- Solitude: Spend time alone with yourself. You can learn a great deal about yourself by sitting in stillness, listening to the rhythm of your breath. There are excellent tutorials on mindfulness meditation, and some wonderful smartphone apps (one I’m enjoying currently is called Headspace) that can help you take the journey inward. Use a journal to record your thoughts and explore your interior landscape. Enjoy solitary adventures—explore a new corner of the city, try a new cafe, or catch that movie you’ve been wanting to see. We often waste time waiting for the right company to join us in the things we long to do. Take yourself on a date and send yourself the message that you are your own best company.
In the timeless words of the poet Max Ehrmann, from his poem Desiderata, remember always that, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here.” Offer yourself the love you’d give to a sweet and innocent child. Don’t wait another moment. Start now.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.