Last week for Valentine’s Day I wrote about four guideposts on the path to a more nourishing kind of love, the first of which was self-love. As someone who has battled depression, shame, and low self-esteem, I’m no stranger to the impatient eye rolls that the concept of self-love is often met with. However, since I understand eye-rolls to be an expression of sarcasm and sarcasm to be an expression of fear, I take inspiration from Joseph Campbell, who said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” So today I’d like to talk about what self-love means, and why it’s important to our ability to love in general.
What is self-love?
The easiest way to explain self-love to someone who is having a hard time understanding it is to just tell them to pretend that they are someone whom they love. Usually a best friend, close relative, pet, or young child are good candidates, because in each of these cases we are often well aware of the loved one’s shortcomings, but we love them nonetheless and would defend them against any attack. In addition, loving someone generally means being concerned with their needs and their wellbeing.
In our capitalist culture, needs are only acknowledged to the extent that they prompt us to spend money, so our capacity for self-love increases the better we understand our authentic needs. We have physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs, psychological needs, relational needs, sexual needs, and more. How well do you know your needs? How reliable and well-suited are your methods for meeting them? The better you get at identifying and meeting your own needs, the more your nervous system will relax in the knowledge that it is safe and secure in your care. Once that self-love is in abundance, passing some along to others is the natural next step.
Why is self-love important?
Here I will provide one practical reason and one spiritual reason. The practical reason is that we live in an individualistic capitalist culture that de-emphasizes interdependence, so practically speaking, oftentimes you are the only person you can count on to love yourself and attend to your needs.
The spiritual reason is that we cannot truly love another person until we can truly love ourselves. If you don’t believe me, consider that your ability to love someone is directly related to your ability to know, understand, and accept them as they are. Now consider the fact that your ability to know and understand another person is limited by your ability to know and understand yourself. You have access to so much more first-hand information about yourself than you do about anyone else. If despite all that information you have access to about yourself, you still don’t fully understand and accept yourself, then there are necessarily going to be aspects of what it means to be human that you are either ignorant of or even disapproving of in yourself. This will make it impossible for you to understand or accept them in someone else. Most people grow up learning to reject aspects of themselves. Something all of us need is love and acceptance. Depending on that from someone else who is struggling to give that to themself is bound to end in disappointment. Does this mean we have to be alone until we “figure out our shit”? No. We’re all works in progress, but it’s important to know that our love of another will always be limited by our ability to love ourselves, and to be committed to continual growth in our capacity for self-love.
The fear that I alluded to at the start of this article is real. It may seem odd, but if we’ve grown up without a lot of self-love, looking for it can be a scary prospect because it will require us to come face to face with a great deal of pain that we’ve held onto our entire lives. One thing that can give us strength and courage in this work is self-compassion, which is a kind of love and caring that is grounded in the knowledge that as humans we all necessarily have known pain and suffering. I know that I aspire to be there for my loved ones when they are in pain, and for this reason, I continually work on my ability to show up for myself in the same way.
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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT#123099, licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Reynolds) in California. To work with Nauser, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.