Too often, self-love is confused with an unwieldy ego or a pathological degree of narcissism. In fact, genuine self-love is the opposite of those. That’s because loving your true self means burrowing to the core of who you actually are—which values you hold dear, which goals you cherish, which talents you most need to express, which experiences in your life set the stage for your greatest strengths and which set in motion negative patterns that need to be examined and stopped.
Achieving true self-love takes work. It requires knowing as much about each chapter of your life story—the real, non-fiction version—as you possibly can. Without that foundation, you’ll be like someone opening to page 117 of a book, reading to page 217 and then trying to write powerful, genuine chapters that bring the main character to the zenith of her possibilities. That would be daunting, if not impossible. You’d have a feeling of being a bit lost—writing in the dark, if you will. And there would be a tendency to have that main character say and do things that wouldn’t resonate as authentic—for her or anyone else in the story.
A character lost in a story not truly her own could not be true to herSELF, opening the door to exaggerated views of herself—including pathological narcissism.
In order to love yourself, a high degree of self-knowledge is a must. And lots of that self-knowledge will be about painful things you’ve lived through, not just happy things you’ve been fortunate enough to experience. Self-love comes from embracing and working to optimize all of you—including the parts that aren’t so attractive. Narcissism comes from running away from all the unattractive parts into a fantasy of perfection.
We’re surrounded now by forces that increase the potential that ego and narcissism will take hold of us and that true self-love will be elusive. These forces include Facebook, which coaxes users to create fictional, reality TV-like versions of themselves to impress others. They include Twitter, which reduces the complexities of dialogue into self-aggrandizing Tweets. They include all the cultural invitations to take offense at perceived slights, to insist that one’s life would have been spectacularly successful but for having been victimized, to medicate away any troubling feelings, to pose as a person of great possibilities when none of the possibilities have been actualized through hard work.
Genuine self-love is none of that. It is a willingness to look at yourself squarely in the mirror and see straight through to your soul. It is the courage to reveal your complexities and complications to others—even when those complexities and complications aren’t flattering. It is the commitment to become the person you were meant to be, from all time, with no apologies, because you deserve to be that person and others deserve to benefit from you being that person.
Genuine self-love sets the stage for empathy because it requires embracing your scars, not just your successes, your imperfections, not just your abilities. And once you can do that for yourSELF, you can do it for others.
Narcissists cannot resonate with the suffering of others because they won’t allow themselves to feel their own suffering. Those who love themselves can love others, despite their faults and foibles and the times they have fallen down.
In a very real way, this journey through life is, first and foremost, a journey to self-love. Because that opens the door to love of others and love of God. And ending at that page of your life story will make every word and every page worthwhile.
Dr. Keith Ablow