Questioning the "Self-Love" Dogma
As a therapist, a lot of people assume that I “have it all together”, and that I always have. The truth is, a lot of the good stuff I have going on in my life has been hard earned.
You may not know it to look at me, but I am a recovering self-help junkie. For years I was dissatisfied with my life and how I felt, and searched for all of the answers I could find in books. And they helped – a bit. But in some subtle, unexpected ways, they also made me feel worse: that there was always something I wasn’t doing well enough to be a self-help success story.
There’s a popular idea out there in self-help land, which I’ve heard over and over and over again:
“You just need to love yourself more! If only you had unconditional love for yourself, your life would be complete.”
Self-love is presented as this thing that you have to create within yourself, and can’t be dependent upon anyone else’s love for you. It is often described as something that is missing in our lives – an ideal that we should all be striving for.
You've probably been introduced to this idea yourself at some point along your journey. If you're working on addressing things in your life, it's hard to miss it. Read on to learn how I came to question the "self-love" dogma, and the perspective that came to find far more helpful to my own self-development work.
How "Self-Love" Can Set You Up To Struggle
Self-help gurus suggest a myriad of ways in which we don’t love ourselves enough:
- “If you loved yourself more, you wouldn’t have chosen a violent partner”
- "If you loved yourself more, you wouldn’t be an addict”
- "If you loved yourself more, you wouldn’t eat when you’re not hungry”
- "If you loved yourself more, you wouldn’t need to be a victim”
- "If you loved yourself more, you wouldn’t feel so insecure”
You get the idea. These messages abound, so leave a comment below with examples you’ve seen and heard.
For a long, long time, I bought into this idea too. I filled journals with positive affirmations, attempting to convince myself with every carefully written letter that I could love myself if only I wrote more. I believed that if only I willed it enough in my head or on paper, that one day I would come to love myself enough and my problems would evaporate.
But ironically, it didn’t work that way. I actually ended up feeling like I loved myself less, which in turn had me feeling even worse. No matter how much time I dedicated to writing out these affirmations, I still felt like shit. The words felt hollow and meaningless. I thought, “I should be loving and accepting myself”, which meant I was failing even more and loving myself even less. It was painful!
On top of all that, there’s also this idea out there that you have to love yourself unconditionally before anything good can really happen in your life. You have to love yourself before you can be in a “healthy” intimate relationship. You have to love yourself before you can be a “good” parent. You have to love yourself before you can have confidence in the things you do. All in all, if you don’t believe you love yourself unconditionally, then that is the source of your suffering. And life will only suck less if you somehow learn to love yourself from reading the right books and doing the right things.
What I Learned the Hard Way About “Self-Love”
It took a long time for me to finally come around to being able to say: FUCK THAT SHIT! After years passed with little to show for the hard work I was putting in, I grew seriously sick and tired of being told that my thoughts, actions, behaviours, emotions, and relationships to others represented how much I must fundamentally dislike myself.
What if instead of looking at how much people don’t love themselves, or how much room there is left for us to love ourselves (AKA “glass half empty”), we started looking at how our responses to adversity are actual demonstrations of our existing self-love and self-care?
Through the work I’ve done with my many amazing clients, I’ve come to believe that most, if not all, people do love themselves already - even if that sense of self-love is hard to feel at times. Sometimes true self-love shows up in unlikely ways. Demonstrations of self-love can be found in the very behaviours, thoughts, and feelings that some self-help gurus use as evidence that we don’t love ourselves enough. My own critical analysis of this perspective has been made possible by my use of response-based practice – one of the key foundations of my counselling work.
My response-based lens helps me recognize how actions, thoughts, emotions, and other forms of expression often serve to maintain or uphold our dignity, create safety (physically, emotionally, or otherwise), and minimize or mitigate experiences of hurt or pain. When we look at these kinds of actions or responses without judgment (even if some might label them “unhealthy”), we can more easily see tangible examples of how we already care for ourselves ourselves.
How to Recognize Self-Love in Unlikely Places
The loving and life-affirming nature of our acts of resistance can be more easily spotted when we look at how we resist adversity in our daily lives – whether it be violence or abuse from others, shame, humiliation, and embarrassment, experiences of prejudice or discrimination, or the negative internal dialogue in our heads.
For example, there is a cultural standard of beauty and thinness that I have struggled with since around the time I started going through puberty (and likely before that too). The cultural discourses that support this perspective stand in stark contrast to the idea that we ought to love and accept ourselves unconditionally, as it suggests that we are only lovable if we weigh a certain amount and look a certain way. Proponents of the self-love bandwagon would suggest that I ought to just love myself regardless of these images and messages – and that I should police my thoughts and “inner critic” until I believe otherwise. I don't know if you've ever struggled against ideas of how you "should" be, but many people find this very difficult to do.
What I find to be more empowering is to look at how my responses to these messages are actually signs of how I do love myself already. I mean, do you think I would feel like shit about not measuring up to cultural standards if I didn’t already love and care about myself on some level?
First of all, the mere thought that we don’t measure up is not born within our minds alone: it is an idea that is massively supported by our culture. Everything is a competition about who is the most beautiful, successful, wealthy, and popular person on the planet. Secondly, the fact that I feel sad and dissatisfied with the notion that I don’t measure up tells me that I really do care very deeply about myself. If I didn't, I wouldn't have lost sleep over it. It's like Will's cheesy saying, "The bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling". The fact that you feel a sense of despair in response to the suggestion that you're inadequate is, in itself, an act of resistance and a sign of self-love.
For me, even the “disordered” eating practices that I once took up in response to not measuring up came from an unlikely place of self-love. Although there were serious problems with those practices when it came down to my health and wellbeing, they illustrated that I cared about myself and my sense of dignity deeply. Although the disordered eating practices I used to try to "measure up" are not something to celebrate, they show how acts of self-love can come in unlikely forms - as problematic as they were for me. On top of that, when those practices didn’t feel good, when I was dissatisfied with what I was doing to my body, that sense of dissatisfaction is another representation of my love and care for myself.
Your Secret Self-Love
Because these ideas are somewhat radical, you might need to play around with them a bit for them to really "click". It took me some time to explore how they make sense, and now I have a tough time not spotting the life-affirming resistance in people's actions.
To help you spot self-love in unlikely places, try looking at your own experience with questions like these:
- If you experience something like harsh self-criticism, or if you feel like you don't measure up, what efforts do you make toward improving? (look at those efforts without judgment for the time being)
- Whether its within the walls of your own mind, or in response to other people's words, how do you feel about the sentiment that you're "not good enough"? What emotions do you respond with?
- If you respond with sadness or despair, what longings are behind that? If your sadness could be translated into an "I wish..." statement, what would that be?
- If you respond with anger, in what way could that be a form of protest? What could your anger be standing against?
- How are these responses in favor of your dignity?
- Is it possible to want to be better or different in some way without caring about yourself on some important level?
- Do you imagine having the same struggles if you were indifferent toward yourself?
- Who would it be/is it most meaningful to receive affirmation or validation from?
- What part of yourself does that resonate with?
Self-Love Isn't Black and White
The most important message I hope to get across through this post is that self-love and the extent to which we value ourselves is all about nuance. It speaks volumes about what really matters to you to care enough about something to get upset or down about it. So the next time someone says "You just need to love yourself", think of all the ways in which your feelings and behaviours demonstrate that you absolutely do.