What Does It Mean to Love Yourself?

Our social media culture promotes narcissism. Through embellished posts and perfect photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram we can create and become infatuated with our own false image. Like Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in a stream, we can become transfixed by our own propaganda; celebrities in our own latte cups! So if all this self-adoration is fake and unhealthy, what is authentic and healthy “self-love”?

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Back in the Have It All 80’s, when we eagerly attended self improvement weekend seminars in plush hotels, the hackneyed cliché ‘You’ve got to love yourself before you can love others’ was thrown around liberally by the pseudo experts on the stage and the naïve followers in the audience.

This trite statement begs to be dissected and explored in more depth. What exactly does the word ‘love’ mean in this context? Romantic love? Hardly. Or spiritual love? What’s spiritual love anyway? And what aspect of the Self are we meant to love? The fake image we manufacture or the real self that lurks within, with all its flaws? How do you love yourself if you don’t even know yourself properly? It’s like falling in love with a complete stranger, as if mindless infatuation was a good thing!

Back then I worked out that if the opposite of love is hatred (some say the opposite of love is indifference) then such an aversion is usually based on projections. We project feelings of dislike onto someone else who has the traits we don’t like in our self. So, the logic goes, if I learn to accept these aspects of myself, I will accept them in others. This line of thought was getting warm but not hot.

Instant negative feelings about others can also be based on transferences (aspects of other key people such as parents and siblings that hurt us growing up). Hating someone can also simply be that they rub us the wrong way by being offensive or we just don’t click with someone’s personality. Surely having negative feelings about some people, (while loving trusted others) is a normal inbuilt protective device so we avoid those who cause us distress. Perhaps the concept of universe love is not necessarily desirable.

Back in the 80’s when I was trying to work it all out, I reasoned that negative emotions were NOT love, and realised that when I felt emotions such as variations of anxiety, grief, neediness, shame and anger I was not feeling generous, warm, gooey love. So I decided my goal should be to remain in a constant state of blissful ‘love’ in order to express love to others. I was trying hard to crack this nut, but not quite getting it!

In my marriage, I certainly knew that my gnawing neediness was selfish; all about my craving to get my insatiable emotional needs met, rather than unselfishly, unconditionally giving love to my husband.

I was once told by a devotee of the popular Indian guru Rajneesh that the goal was to exist in a state of love, starting with loving yourself, so that you had so much love, there was an excess and it just spilt out! So I spent lots of time trying to fill my inner cup so that it would run over! But to be honest, it didn’t work, because truth is, like everyone, I am a complex mixture of emotions throughout any one day, which changes from minute to minute, in fact. Running the gauntlet of a parade of changing emotions is just being human.

Now three decades later, in my 50s, with piles life experience and study of psychology under my belt, I can confidently claim I know in my heart what the concept of loving yourself is all about.

One thing I know for sure (to borrow Oprah’s assertive phrase) is the real meaning of “loving yourself” is NOT narcissism, which is to love your own false image. The word narcissism comes from Greek mythology about the youth, Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in a stream. He was so transfixed by his own beauty he couldn’t move away and ended up dying there, staring at his reflection.

Our western culture promotes narcissism. We are encouraged to worship the fake facades of celebrities manufactured by the media and to become obsessed with our physical appearance and carefully cultivated self-image (which sells fashion, beauty products, cosmetic surgery, gym memberships etc). The commercial focus on image exploits our human need to be admired but sadly the more effort we put into created a false image, the more we become estranged from our Real Self.

The ‘self’ we are meant to love to find healing, growth and transformation is not the superficial False Self. To fall in love with our own image is vanity and delusion and ultimately leads to a tragic end. Healing and growth comes through loving the real inner self; the self that is flawed and vulnerable; the self we mostly keep hidden from others. In theology, this is the sinful self that has done wrong, made mistakes and fallen short. In therapy, it is the wounded Inner Child who carried all the hurts of a lifetime.

We must target this ‘True Self’ in order to heal and grow. Good therapy should guide the client below the surface to deep inside the psyche to contact memories of childhood. Here we discover that all emotions and beliefs about other people and life in general, are reduced to core beliefs and core hurts that revolve about the Self.

If the adult is angry and hates their partner, in therapy, we contact the inner child who was angry and hated mum or dad (or another caregiver or sibling). But going deeper, we always discover the faulty beliefs link to the self (children are egocentric in their undeveloped thinking). If the child felt unloved, neglected or abused by a parent, they blamed them self and conclude “There’s something wrong with me”;I’m not good enough” or “I don’t deserve love” etc.

So, yes, the wounded inner self, with all its distorted negative opinions, requires love in order to heal and unleash the ability to love others. In therapy, the unconscious distorted beliefs about the Self are lovingly corrected. The wounded Inner Child is gently nurtured and protected.

But what is meant by ‘love’? There are different kinds of love such as romantic love (eros); family love (phileo) and spiritual love (agape).

Firstly let’s explore emotions that are NOT love. There are four core ‘negative’ (painful or unpleasant) emotions, which have various degrees of intensity.

FEAR runs the spectrum from mild apprehension, worry, nervousness and anxiety to panic and full-blow terror. Fear tends to be about the ‘future’, is concerned with safety and survival and is mostly triggered by mental activity about perceived threats. Fear starts in the head, with a thinking process.

When someone experiences chronic anxiety, especially if they perceive their partner as a threat, it is difficult to feel love. They are on edge, defensive and reactive all the time.

GRIEF, the emotion of sadness and sorrow, experienced in the heart region, is a response to loss or unmet emotional needs. Grief, like the other emotions varies in intensity from mild disappointment to a devastating experience of being heartbroken and in the deepest despair (lacking all hope and motivation to live). Grief actually feels physically painful in the heart because of the nerves and hormones activated in this region. Grief is about the PAST; yearning for what you once had or wanted but is now lost or gone.

When someone experiences the loss of a loved one or some kind of trauma, it is healthy to express the grief through crying. When grief is not openly expressed, but repressed and buried, it is not integrated and a person becomes disconnected from their Inner Pain.

Clearly it is difficult to feel love for yourself and others while stuck in chronic, repressed grief, which sometimes takes the form of depression. However the person in mourning who expresses grief through crying will emerge from the process renewed and capable of loving again. In fact, feeling one’s Inner Pain is the path to genuine love…that’s where we are going with this but first let’s consider two other emotions.

SHAME is a core emotion that sits just under the heart, in the stomach. It comes from an inbuilt survival mechanism to distinguish good and bad and what is healthy or harmful, both in the moral sense and the physical sense.

If we eat food that has gone off and could make us sick, we will feel disgust and spit it out. If we do something wrong, against our own values, we will feel guilty, a feeling of being “bad”. If we correct the behaviour the feeling should go away however some children are made to feel guilty, bad about themselves, all the time and temporary guilt morphs into an overall sense of permanent, chronic shame where the child grow up and continues to feel like a ‘bad person’. Chronic shame can lead to all kinds of shameful or harmful behaviour as a means of self-punishment for being bad and unworthy.

ANGER is another core emotion that is felt in the lower gut. It has a purpose in the human psyche to motivate action, to fight, if your survival is threatened. Anger is activated to defend against an attack or offence. It can be turned into the impulse for retaliation or revenge if the offence is in the past (and you nurse a grudge).

Anger has range of intensities too, from frustration to annoyance through degrees of disrespect and disdain and contempt (when coloured by judgements) to blind hatred and furious rage. Repressed anger is experienced as hostility and resentment. In a relationship, if one or both partners are carrying unexpressed resentment, it seeps out in all kinds of ways such as non-co-operation, covert hostility and passive aggression.

If someone lives in a state of chronic anger, it is difficult for them to feel love and softness while feeling hyped up on aggressive hormones.

All these emotions are natural to the human condition and serve a purpose. However to become a Loving Person, we have to gain mastery over these emotions and allow them to transmute into a positive, spiritual form.

Fear can bring us to Faith. Grief leads us to the highest form of Love, which is compassion. Shame is overcome through finding a sense of goodness and the energy of anger can become a motivator, the essence of Hope, beautifully expressed in the scripture, 1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope and Love.

Let’s revisit the Heart and explore the nature of love more fully. It is necessary to feel your own Inner Pain; all that buried grief over not being loved enough or even abused as a child plus a lifetime of accumulated hurts. The experience of grief leads to the gift of EMPATHY; the ability to feel another person’s pain. Empathy leads to REMORSE (sorrow) for how we have hurt others and a desire not to hurt others again.

Empathy brings a feeling of COMPASSION for other people’s suffering. Compassion is a feeling of deep concern, kindness, sympathy and understanding. Compassion is spiritual, agape love. This kind of love is unconditional and generous, not needy, requires no reciprocation and has no strings attached. It is God’s kind of love expressed through humans.

And compassion is the kind of healing love that is needed by the Inner Self.

When we feel ashamed of our self for our past sins and mistakes, we tend to fear three reactions from others if they ever found out our secrets: judgement and condemnation, which creates more shame; rejection and ending the relationship and anger and hatred.

The opposite of these reactions is non-judgement; to see the goodness in the person; forgiveness (to pardon without punishment); acceptance instead of rejection and compassion (kindness and gentleness) instead of anger and hatred. The child or adult consumed by shame can be healed by this loving combination.

The Inner Self needs a sense of goodness, acceptance and compassion. How can we give this gift of ultimate love to our self? Now here is the paradoxical twist in the 80s You’ve Got To Love Yourself mantra; the ability to love yourself only comes from receiving this kind of unconditional healing love for others.

Humans are social creatures and we first learnt what to feel about our self from how others treated us; our parents and other caregivers growing up. As adults in search of healing we need to experience love from others again; to have acceptance, our true worth and value and heartfelt compassion reflected in the eyes of others in order to experience ‘love’; acceptance, forgiveness, goodness, respect, compassion, kindness and understanding towards our true self.

Other People who are compassionate are the necessary step to Self Love.

Who are these loving people? It is your job to find them. And it is your job to be that loving person in the healing of others.

Diane Priestley

Engaging storyteller, Prolific Journalist, Empowering People Matters

Hello Psychologies Tribe, Let me introduce myself! I'm an experienced journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Australia and the UK. I write about relationships, health and humanitarian issues. I'm a qualified Counsellor and Workshop Facilitator. I moved from Australia to the UK in 2009 and now live near the beach in Folkestone, Kent and part of the year in Kenya doing community work.


Go to the profile of David Head
over 6 years ago
Wow, what an interesting article Diane. I too recall those 80's mantra's and your article has articulated and made clear many instinctive truths which have been bubbling away for years. Thank you! David
Go to the profile of Diane Priestley
over 6 years ago
Thanks for your feedback David. Yes those 80s mantras! We now know that "loving ourself" is not enough for deep healing. We humans need to experience love from others. I just did an intensive training weekend in child development, covering the theories of Erikson, Levin and Stern, at the Wealden Psychology Institute in East Sussex and the general agreement is that we are wounded in relationship and need to be healed in relationship. We need to see love, acceptance, empathy, compassion in the eyes of another to feel love and acceptance, empathy and compassion for our Self. The therapeutic relationship can offer this kind of experience.