There is this pervasive narrative that loving oneself is selfish, especially in confucian societies which prioritise the collective over the self, and certain religions that preach sacrificing for the greater good is a good thing.
narcissism vs self-love
I think people often confuse narcissism with self-love. Narcissism occurs when people have an inflated sense of the self. The word originates itself from the story of Narcissus, who apparently fell in love with his own reflection so much that he died. First of, Narcissus may not have known that was his own reflection, secondly hopefully we can now recognise that pining for something until we kill our selves because we cannot have it is not healthy behaviour, narcissism or not.
We may think that narcissism is the opposite of having low self-esteem. I beg to differ. Narcissism is just another outcome of having low self-esteem. Some people express their low self-esteem by being a doormat because they have no sense of self, narcissists inflate their sense of self also precisely because they have no self. There are some narcissists who are not commonly associated with narcissism because they outwardly appear to be self-sacrificial, but in the end everything they do is truly about themselves anyway. Then there are also narcissists who are not egomaniacs, but they cannot function and perceive their world beyond their pain, so they inflict their pain onto others everywhere they go because they cannot live beyond their constricted selves. Anyway, I digress. This is not about narcissism, but the difference between narcissism and true self love.
I argue that when one truly loves oneself, there is no longer an obsession about the self, but rather a healthy self-regard. We don’t have to obsess about something if there is a healthy attachment towards it. There is a healthy distance with a healthy attachment.
to love one self, one must know thy self
I have learnt that when one starts to truly love oneself, everything falls into place. Well, not everything – the world is fucked up beyond our individual control. In order to love oneself, we must first get to know ourselves. I argue that most of us don’t truly know ourselves. We think we are the persona that is constructed through conditioning. We have certain goals because society may tell us it is good to have them, and since we don’t really know ourselves, we don’t know otherwise. We exhibit certain personality traits because society prides them. Before Susan Cain came along, most people aspire to be extroverts. We didn’t question whether we wanted to be extroverts, but extroverts got their way in life and everybody likes the charming, funny, sociable person in the room. We wanted to climb career ladders, because everybody admires a successful person. Who ever thought getting too successful in our careers can be a bad thing? We want our parents to love us and our career mentors to approve of us – if only we can get that validation we’re finally set for life.
Some of us live till we’re 60 and then realise we actually hate everything we’ve worked so hard for. Others subconsciously know it, but don’t want to acknowledge it because it would mean acknowledging we’ve wasted all our lives for nothing, so we numb ourselves with more work, more friends, more food, more alcohol, more buying, more success. Then for some the clarity only comes on the verge of a serious illness.
Why the f*ck do we spend so much energy and time trying to make people like us? We do so much just to feel such a tiny semblance of being loved, which is not even authentic because just like we created a persona to be liked, so what people seem to like is also that persona, not us. That is why social circles can fall apart with job and life changes.
Getting to know ourselves encompasses the long and difficult journey to know what we truly want out of life, and how we want to live. Maybe some of us just want to live quietly and peacefully, and don’t actually give a shit about status once we wean off it. Others may decide they want to be a paramedic instead of a investment banker. Maybe not all of us want to be parents. Imagine never questioning any of this and simply accept everything that society wants out of us?
no one but us endure the consequences of our lives
Despite whatever Confucius or certain religious figureheads may say, the life we have is our lives to lead. I don’t mean this in an entirely good or selfish way. I mean it in a matter of fact way. What it truly means is that good or bad, we’re the ones that have to live with the consequences and be at peace with it on our deathbeds. Our parents, mentors, whoever – they are not the ones who have to endure our lives if we spend the entirety of it loathing it. Perhaps it is not so bad if we’re consciously loathing it, it is the unconscious loathing that is toxic in my opinion, that something is slowly eating us up but we don’t even know it. We’re the ones who have to reckon with all our choices, especially when faced with our mortality. Imagine having a terminal disease diagnosis tomorrow, would we be okay with the life we have led so far?
Life is short. I personally may not think that life is precious, but I agree that it is short. Everything can end in an instant. Sometimes it is much shorter than the average lifespan. Do we want to spend it without ever having known what is it like to live a life that we truly chose? Nobody would want to be married to the wrong partner, but most people seem to be okay with living in the wrong life.
I am not arguing that people should start YOLO-ing, quit their jobs and travel the world. That sort of response is an outcome of chronic deprivation. It is what is in the everyday that matters, all the small things, all the moments that contribute to an entire life lived.
lack of self-love spills over
This path is not a selfish one, contrary to what people may believe. When we loathe our own lives consciously or unconsciously it inevitably spills over to other people and to our environment. Think about it. Why do we seem to create so much waste, why do we feel the incessant need to consume, why do we boil over in frustration with the people we care about? Why do we need to feel a sense of superiority if we feel secure in our selves? Why do some of us like talking down to other people or even bullying them? What is with the need to constantly feel that sense of power?
the difficulty and empathy of healing
When we start to truly love our selves, we start to seek out healing. When we start healing we start to express a different dynamic with our relationships and our selves. Some relationships will heal too, because the dynamic has changed. Some will fall apart, because they survived only because of the old dynamic. People don’t tell us this, but healing is essentially a heartbreaking process. It is having to grieve over so much that was once part of us, even if they were unhealthy or inauthentic. Relationships are complex: the reality is even some unhealthy ones can be peppered with richness and sentiment. We are changing, so we fall out of sync with what used to be regular for us. We may start drawing boundaries and people may react to that badly, because we used to be the kind friend that would never say no.
It is a long, painful process. There will be darkness and depression. But perhaps if we could endure it long enough, we may step into a life that is truly of our own choosing. It is like entering a house that is decorated with all the things we want and love, instead of living in someone else’s home or a home where we display all the things we don’t actually want because we cannot bear to get rid of them. Or maybe we can decide to have a bit of both – but the point is we consciously make those decisions.
I have unintentionally become a more empathetic person. I now know how difficult it is to heal, how impossible it seems to overcome deeply entrenched behavioural patterns. I am probably going get flak for writing this, but I believe life is inherently hard for everyone, and of course much harder for many. One can be economically privileged but they are still prone to feeling chronically deprived like the rest of us. For many of us, money is something that is visible and can be earned, but that acknowledgement we all desperately seek to feel that semblance of love and connection – it remains very elusive. And in my opinion: inaccessible as long as we’re not aware that we have to first undertake the journey to know our selves first.
the foundation to making decisions that resonate
Without truly knowing ourselves, we would choose the wrong employers, the wrong partners, the wrong everything, probably even the wrong hobbies. We unconsciously self-sabotage our selves, our relationships and our bodies. We wonder why everything seems okay on the outside but we don’t feel even the slightest pleasure doing something we supposedly like.
The process of getting to know ourselves is a continuous serious of experiments. For a very long time, after discarding everything I ended up with liking nothing. It was a very scary state and I fell into a long, existential depression. But without that phase, without that emptiness, it would be difficult to know what it is like to interact with something completely new to me, because there would be too much remnants and noise from things I was so used to doing.
Only when we truly realise that this one life is ours to lead, that it makes no sense to lead a life completely dictated by forces out of ourselves, and we start to hold our selves tenderly like how we would hold a child – for a long time I could not even do this because I could not even hold a child tenderly, how utterly incapable of love I was – only then we will have the foundation to start making decisions that truly resonate with the life we want to lead. There may be a new guiding north-star. Every time we make a decision we may ask how would that make us feel: whether it would enlarge us or diminish us (credit: James Hollis), instead of “how would that look on my resume”?
the way to a truly better world
One thing that gives me grief these days is how misguided I think human beings are. We seek out technological and economical solutions to all our problems without giving consideration to our psychology as human beings.
The way we designed our societies and infrastructure is so wrong that I truly do not know where we can begin to undo the damage. Is this a phase we go through or will we not survive this?
Hurt people hurt people. Obviously not everybody becomes mass murderers and criminals, but from my perspective the bulk of the damage we are doing is the one that is invisible. It is when we do things that are “well-intentioned” but we end up slowly killing the spirit of the people around us. It is 2022 but we still believe in creating resilience through forceful hardship, we treat our kids like learning machines so they can become working machines, and don’t even get me started on people taking away the rights of other people. There is outright violence, and there is this pervasive invisible violence – the violence of not recognising ourselves as human beings with a full spectrum of psychological and emotional needs. It is this sort of silent violence that leads to actual violence and unaccounted tragedies – what is the consequence of raising generations and generations of people who believe they are never enough, that they can never love themselves, that they perpetually hate whatever they are doing?
It must be a joke to believe we can get away with this and still have a thriving world. I believe the pursuit of wholeness on the individual level will lead to the wholeness of the world, but I am not sure if we can ever get there as a species.