What ‘Self-Love’ is Really Supposed to Mean
Let me start right off the bat by saying that I think the term ‘self-love’ is super cringy. Like…ew. But it’s everywhere right now. The topic and its moniker are headlined in psychology articles, pop music lyrics, books, blogs, and memes galore. And it begs the question, in a day and age where even toddlers know how to take a selfie, do we really need to be encouraged to love ourselves more?
My answer is an emphatic YES. Let me explain why.
There are a couple of competing terms that are all the rage now — namely, self-love and narcissism — and we’re getting mixed messages and misinformation about both.
Narcissism, as far as I can tell, is purely negative. It spans the spectrum from excessive selfishness and self-focus, to an all-out personality disorder. For a narcissistic person to have a true personality disorder, they must exhibit narcissistic thoughts and behaviors across at least five different areas; in other words, it must be an ongoing, pervasive problem. But narcissists at any level have persistent issues with relationships, and if you happen to know one, this is readily apparent. True narcissists do not actually love themselves, despite that characterization. It’s quite the opposite, really.
Self-love is sometimes mischaracterized as narcissism, but even more often, it’s peddled as a kind of ‘treat yo-self’ mentality. You know,“Be good to yourself, because you deserve it.” Or this:
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t 100% bad or untrue. But here’s the thing — these kinds of ‘self-love’ messages often appeal to our tendencies toward self-preservation, justification, defensiveness, elitism, and needing to be right. They appeal to our just-under-the-surface feelings that want to be alleviated with quick fix. And, they target our logic and rationale, rather than the deeper, more foundational places in our hearts.
And that’s a real problem, because what most of us are desperately lacking is a healthy sense of self.
Real self-love means having a secure identity.
And what is a secure identity, exactly? Rather than a definition, let me give you a description of what it looks and feels like:
- You believe you were created ‘good’ and for a purpose.
Believing we are fundamentally good doesn’t mean we think we are sinless or flawless, but valuable and worthy. When we believe we have been created for a purpose, we believe we matter and have something to offer — to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. These basic beliefs are consistently present in a person with a secure identity, regardless of circumstance.
2. You are self-aware.
People who are self-aware take regular inventory and assessment of their inner and outer lives. They know where they stand, so to speak. They are conscious of where they are doing well, and where there’s room to grow or change. They are cognizant of the relationships between themselves and others, and recognize that their presence and behavior impact (and are impacted by) those around them.
3. You own your story.
You are not ashamed of your past because you realize your story is still being written. You don’t allow negative circumstances to define you, nor do you believe your triumphs alone make you valuable. And you realize that, even in your own story, others play significant roles, for good or bad, and help to make you you.
4. You are at peace with yourself.
This doesn’t mean “I’m fine just the way I am.” Not really, anyway. We need to be at peace with who we are right now, while still acknowledging we are on a journey to become an even better version of ourselves. Practicing self-love requires that we take that journey — we just need to be OK with the self we’re taking along.
5. You understand it’s not all about you.
Your sense of self no longer wavers with circumstances or the company you keep. And that leads to this monumental truth:
When your identity is secure, you are freed up to love others more freely.
Self-love, in the ways I’ve described above, ultimately takes our (constant) focus off of ourselves, and allows us to love others better.
- When we love ourselves, there is no need for jealousy or competition.
- When we love ourselves, we don’t behave out of insecurity.
- When we love ourselves, we love others out of an overflow, and not from a deficit.
- When we love ourselves, our inner critic, our inner judge, and our inner victim are all silenced. Once those voices pipe down, the voices of compassion and empathy rise up.
- When we love ourselves, we automatically practice healthy boundaries, so we don’t need to be defensive or on the lookout to protect our own best interests.
- When we love ourselves, it allows us to see others (and life in general) with a clearer, more accurate perspective.
- Finally, when we love ourselves, we are positioned to experience more joy and better receive love from those around us.
Self-love isn’t selfish. Or narcissistic, or even completely about us. It makes us better people, and that impacts our world for the better, too. But you’ve gotta love yourself the right way. Flowers and cake and bubble baths and ‘me time’ only scratch at the surface of our deepest needs. And the effects fade pretty quickly.
Real love, when you think about it, takes work. It’s not always pretty or gratifying in the short term. But if you’ve ever been blessed to experience any kind of deep, abiding love, you know how beautiful it is, and ultimately, how it changes your life.
Do the work that real self-love requires. Then treat yo-self. You deserve both, and so does everyone around you.
What have you learned about self-love? Share your comments below.