Journey into Self-Love — Just What is Self-Love Anyway?

When I talk to people about self-love, I am often greeted with an aura of skepticism and apprehension. The idea of love as something we might direct towards the self seems to make most of us rather uncomfortable. Love is something we ought to have for others — but when it comes to the self, there seems to be a most ingrained feeling of separateness. It is as if the self were a worthy target only for sacrifice.

It seems to me that the way we are educated into the nature of love foregoes entirely the notion of personal health and well-being, such that the notion of self has quite simply lost most of its inherent beauty and purpose. Being in a loving relationship all too often seems to imply an obligation of worry: worrying about someone else’s well-being — something we can in truth do little about — all at the cost of our own well-being — the one thing we might actually be able to do something about.

“When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Schooled for Love

If I probe into my deepest and oldest memories — the kind of memory that’s intangible and more akin to feelings and emotions — in search of a definition for love as a concept, then I get thrown back in time. I am a little boy, about three of four years old, faced with a dilemma.

I am new to this world, bubbly and strong yet insecure and doubtful. I am looking for a sense of approval or validation — a sign that it is OK for me to take a first step as myself, an independent individual. I want to take decisions on my own and prove my worth to the world. I seize initiative and look up to those figures of authority around me — those they call adults and whom I assume have it all figured out. I look for approval and guidance. This approval sometimes comes in the form of smile, a hug, a kiss, and sometimes a reward. But more importantly, what I look and long for is that general feeling, energy or vibes I get for being good.

Reward, however, is slow to come whenever I show independent thought or daring action. My figures of parental and familial authority seem to prefer me doing exactly what they tell me to, over me trying something new and different over my own personal desires. They recompense obedience, being quiet, and saying please and thank you. They do this with attentionate affection when I comply with instructions — but they show reprimand should I not follow through with what they chose to expect of me.

I am criticized for being too curious — asking too many questions. In trying to emulate the idol of my life — my father — I lose myself in the game and do something I wasn’t supposed to according to his judgment — such as touch something I shouldn’t have touched. I learn that earning love and care often implies a guessing game — guessing someone’s expectations and wants, but also guessing the appropriate contextual response based on their current emotional state.

I learn that reward usually follows simple things like saying thank you and I love you, regardless of whether I mean or even understand the words themselves.

As I grow up and enter the school system, I am taught that gaining the teacher’s appreciation involves acting as if I were paying attention. If I do not take notes while they are speaking, then the teacher feels invalidated and disrespected, and therefore I start scribbling randomly for sake of appearance — no really doing anything useful but responding to expectations for appearance’s sake, ironically paying much less attention in the process. Love, it seems, is the reward for pleasing others through good behaviour and manners, be it genuine or fake — though often fake.

Through everything, I slowly and painfully come to see that validation and appreciation are ultimately a currency for love: I give out a feeling of value and implicitly expect a return of service. This sense of value we give each other, it is what forms our social standings of respect and hierarchy. At the top of this hierarchy of love stand our parents — and this love, above all, seems to mostly involve sacrificing my own personal needs and desires in favour of what I feel is expected of me — whatever I believe is expected of me, anyway, for how can I really be sure? All in all, this type of love has the shape of one big guessing game.

“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn.”

— Marianne Williamson

Love as Sacrifice

If I learned something as I grew up, it’s that love means sacrificing myself for the sake of what seems like it might please another. Loving someone means foregoing my own wants and desires for the sake of theirs. Should I not live up to the expectations of a loved one, it seems they are entitled to punish me in one way or another. When I do end up failing at my lovely duties, I imagine them telling me as I cast shame and guilt onto myself: it hurts me more than it hurts you.

Love, it seems, is in every way synonymous with sacrifice. Guilt and shame, whether self-imposed or cast upon another as a form of subliminal punishment, seem to form the fabric reinforcing any notion of love which intrinsically involve self-sacrifice.

If love is to imply sacrifice, then it is inherently at conflict with an idea like self-love. I’ve observed that simply bringing up the idea that one might love oneself can trigger the same shame and guilt we experience when we fail at properly and dutifully loving someone. It’s therefore no wonder that I see so much defensiveness in people when I bring about the topic in either a discussion or a coaching session.

If love is to mean sacrifice, it implicitly involves foregoing the deepest longings and desires within us. Whatever we want, whatever we truly and genuinely want, we are to weigh it against the needs and expectations of others — those we love as well as those of society. We are to seriously re-assess our wants should they appear to conflict in any way with those of others. And yes, I chose to include society in this melee — for we are taught to sacrifice ourselves for the common good, just as we are for our family and beloveds. Morality and decency are what it’s all about at that level.

Weighing our needs and desires against those of our surroundings is not inherently without merits. There is wisdom in showing respect for those we love, in ensuring our personal pursuits do not harm them unduly. However, it begs me to ask: how are we to know — and I mean really know — whether our longings truly come into conflict with our beloveds? It appears to me that, when we judge ourselves against the needs and expectations of others, we do so with a rather superficial understanding of those needs and expectations. We tend to react from fear rather than knowledge — a fear perhaps rooted in the unknowns of change.

Thus, when we turn to self-sacrifice in the name of love, it is in my understanding fear rather than selfless love which ultimately motivates our actions. It is a fear that hides under the guise of love.

“No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart.”

– Alan Watts

This love we are so conditioned to follow, that which focuses so much around self-sacrifice, is a kind of love, yes — but a kind merely meant to protect us and keep us safe. It is the love imposed by caring and loving parents who wish their children to succeed financially and materially — to be safe. It is the love conditioned by a society which wishes to see its members collaborate and comply such that the society itself thrives and survives. It is a kind of love that has a profound and meaningful purpose, but it is not at all the only love worth knowing.

Love as Being Liked

If this kind love —which we are brought up to idealize — is concerned mostly with the stability of the social fabric through compliance and uniformity — then it is also very much concerned with the image we project of ourselves to the outside world. This love rewards external appearance, good behaviour, and obedience. It punishes difference, independent action, as well as breaking the rules. It quells the inner truths and desires we all have within, replacing them instead with the beliefs and values of society.

This love would rather have us follow than either lead or walk alone — both ultimately perilous enterprises from which society would have us protected. We are made to follow the footsteps of our parents — becoming or studying that which they’ve decided has value for us. We follow in the wake of society: wearing whatever fashion is deemed to make us desirable, and going through great efforts in adopting behaviours that may attract the validation of those around us. Achievement and popularity, being liked or having money and power — these values replace the true longings of our beings, so quelled through years of repression and self-sacrifice.

Within this context, being loved means being liked — liked by others of course. Being loving means helping others in being liked, often pushing or imposing our own beliefs onto them. Love is whatever helps us move towards the standard of achievement defined by the social fabric — because if everyone seeks for success, then are we not to support and push each other towards that success, however we’ve defined it? And shouldn't we push others in the right direction whenever they are found to be astray?  Wouldn’t that be loving?

If being truly loving excludes the possibility of self-love — the notion being diagonally opposed to that of self-sacrifice — then love becomes intrinsically synonymous with responsibility. Loving relationships, more specifically romantic relationships, turn into responsibility and exchange: my love for your love, bolstering each other’s sense of value in the process of mutual sacrifice. Sacrifice thus becomes a symbol for how important the other person is in my universe.

Yet such loving behaviour comes at a hefty cost: that of true and meaningful happiness. If I sacrifice the truth of my being in the name of love, then in the process I turn my own happiness and fulfillment into a dependency on the other receiving my love the way it is intended. It is a game of mutual responsibility — the responsibility of responding to each other’s most intangible needs. These intangible needs, call them love or happiness or completeness, end up as ball being ping-ponged around frantically and failing to ever be caught by anyone.

“True love begins when nothing is looked for in return.”

— Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

Self and Ego

A love which is formed on the basis of self-sacrifice, and which is to be evaluated and judged based on superficial behaviour above anything else, is a love deeply rooted in the ego — the ego being the image or idea which we project onto society as the person which we are. It is the mask we wear in making social interactions possible.

The motivations for a love that is mostly concerned with self-sacrifice and with behaving in a way deemed socially acceptable (that is, pleasing others) can only be rooted in ego. If I quell my deepest inner longings and desires for the sake of being appreciated and liked, then I am pretending to be something other than which I am — all for the sake of a higher social status.

The self, that which rests under the guise of the ego, will rather seek for personal and individual fulfillment. It wishes to express its individuality and personal power to the world. If ego-centricity means following the pursuits of the ego, the self-ishness means following the callings of the true inner self — those longings we’ve learned to sacrifice in the names of love and social compliance.

We’re taught to believe that being selfish means having a general disregard for the well-being of others. This, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth — as a wise person will understand that the needs of the self are in every way inextricable from those of others. A healthy self can in no way be at conflict with the health of other selves, for we are all inherently dependent on the general well-being of society as a whole.

“The relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.”

— Alan Watts

It is only with the most superficial of outlooks that a love focused on the self appears to be in contradiction with the love of others. In reality, loving another truly and meaningfully beyond the crude and limited needs of the ego requires a firm and confident rooting into self. Selfless love is therefore a myth — it’s an illusion created by the ego for fear of losing control over things. It’s a way of having us pursue the unattainable: a dream of happiness which is bestowed upon us by others. Such beliefs form the root of co-dependency and narcissistic behaviour — narcissists having in general the purest of loving intentions, though utterly clueless as to their inability to love in a way which does not harm or oppress.

Love, I propose, should in no case harm nor hurt. It shouldn’t be painful — only through the clutches of the ego does it turn into difficulty and pain.

If there’s an appearance of conflict between ego and self, it is ultimately borne of the ego’s fear of social rejection. The self longs and calls for the following of one’s inner truths, a risky and dangerous proposition. The ego, always looking out for worst-case scenarios, will instill fear and discourage the self from manifesting itself. It does this out of the best of intentions, its fundamental role being that of protecting and safeguarding the self from social dangers. A healthy relationship between the self and the ego understands this and therefore cares for and appreciates the ego for the role it plays. Yet it is crucial to understand that the ego, as useful as it is, is not the boss it all — it is but one of many systems within our being, and must be kept in its proper place if harmony should reign overall.

Self-love is the label I give to a deep and meaningful understanding of who we are. It’s acceptance and allowance of the truths, longings, and desires that live within us. And it includes all of them, with no discrimination — regardless of liking or preference, for judgment and selection are ultimately the domain of the ego. Self-love is never about judgment, it’s always about allowance and acceptance — even allowance and acceptance of the judgments themselves, should they be manifested. Self-love accepts the ego for what it is, yet ego-love constantly endeavours to repress the self. Which seems more desirable in the end? Who seems to be playing a fair game?

The allowance and acceptance which form the core of self-love are deeply and meaningfully unconditional in nature. Ego-love, conversely, is deeply conditional in nature. It’s quite simply obsessed with judgments and dichotomies such as like and dislike.

“Love is the absence of judgment.”

— Dalai Lama

A Love Revolution

Where do we learn about love? Who teaches us what love is or coaches us through its discovery?

Our education is unfortunately deeply lacking in any such teachings, therefore much of the responsibility is in the end relegated to popular culture — Hollywood and Disney chiefs amongst them.

Whenever we place our children in front of the television, it is as if we were to place them in an emotional or spiritual classroom. Whatever they see in their favourite films, they take to some level as being a version of truth. The effect is greatly amplified should they find the characters likable and adorable. They call those role models.

If we place our toddlers in front of a television playing The Little Mermaid, a film largely concerned with the discovery of love in strangely twisted form, then should we expect them to develop a healthy relationship with love? Allow me to outline the plotline of the film.

The little mermaid sees a handsome human prince and, never having even talked to him, falls deeply in love. This is love at first sight — triggered by the prince’s handsome looks and valliant behaviour. Infatuated with desire for this perfect man, she chooses to make a pact with the evil witch: she would give away her beautiful and magical voice in exchange for having her fish tail transformed into legs. In the process she sacrifices much more than her voice: she gives up on what forms the core of her identity, being a mermaid, as a means of reaching the prince’s heart. The whole affair turns to trickery as the prince falls in love with the witch instead of the mermaid — being enamored by the beautiful voice the mermaid naively gave away to the witch.

These are the models of love we indirectly and unwittingly teach our children: superficiality, desire, need, sacrifice, and manipulation. Relationships such as those are not based on truth, but rather on deceit as a means of getting that which we lust for. Rather than face truth for what it is, we let the ego project fantasy onto reality — and end up living in those projections. It should be no wonder that falling in love feels like a dream, and falling out of love feels like waking up from falling off the bed.

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Self-love is the remedy for these patterns. It means coming into contact with truth and reality — waking up from the lustful fantasies of desire and control, and simply being honest — honest with ourselves above all.

Out With Ego-Love, In With Self-Love

When I talk or write about self-love, I’m often mistaken for talking about love of the ego — and in the process, I seem to scare people off. It’s no surprise that we should be so sacred and confused — although these feelings are merely a part of the ego-game.

There is no magic formula for moving out of ego-love and into harmonious self-love. We’ve all been thoroughly and subliminally conditioned into pedestalizing the ego as a form of love, and healing from this is all about unlearning everything we’ve ever been taught about love. As we unlearn, we become empty and receptive to the truth of our beings. This truth is where real knowledge of love is to be found, because love isn’t something we need to learn — it’s something we’re born embodying. All that needs to be done in order to rekindle with this knowledge is to quell the judgments of the mind — the mind being the home of the ego.

The way out of our toxic patterns of self-loathing and sacrifice is that of love. In this I mean the unconditional love to be found in allowance and acceptance. It’s important to look at our patterns and avoid judging them, for by judging them and trying to repress them we only reinforce the ego that lies behind them. No amount of rationalizing or explaining will help in bringing a clearer understanding into this rationale — because again, the rational mind ultimately serves the ego. By consciously allowing and accepting our toxic patterns, we allow them to be dissolved away through the power of what some call the higher self. All that’s necessary is to consciously experiment, observe, and remain attentive to everything that’s happening within us. Witnessing the fears and bringing them to full conscious awareness is enough to trigger an avalanche of change within us.

Let me clarify one thing, however: there is nothing wrong with being identified with the ego. It’s an entirely normal part of living in the society we’re in. It’s really up to you to decide whether change is something you desire. Be wary, however, not to initiate change from a space of inner loathing. Pushing the ego away through dislike or judgment will only serve to reinforce its hold on you. Moving away from ego-love is in itself impossible — it is rather a side-effect of moving into self-love. Moving into self-love can only happen with a heart filled with self-acceptance and self-allowance. Should the mind become filled with judgments and preferences, then allow it — but thank it for its services and good intentions, and then let it go its own way.

Whereas ego-love is something related to action and behaviour, self-love is not. Self-love is rather an inaction — for allowance and acceptance really aren’t about doing anything, but rather about getting out of our own way.

When we are in meaningful contact with our true selves, we come to be love and to shine love. It is a dance which is as effortless and natural as the beating of the heart.

“Being love rather than giving or taking love, is the only thing that provides stability.”

— Ram Dass