Have you ever noticed that nobody you know looks like the people in the “inspirational” images you see online or on TV? You know the ones: the handsome, toothy, broadly smiling men and women with perfect hair that ride around in convertibles with the top down and thrust their arms triumphantly toward the sky, or playfully kick the surf they’re wading in because they just can’t contain their glee. If you have, it’s for the same reason nobody has an intimate relationship that looks like those depicted in popular songs or films: advertising isn’t real life. Nobody in reality has it that good; or at least they’re so statistically negligible you’d be unlikely to find them if you sent out search teams with Saint Bernards. It’s also worth noting that a lot of those images appear in ads trying to sell us the latest designer drug.
It all leads to an unhealthy mix, in which the unreality and superficiality of the cultural images of personal happiness that bombard us daily, combined with our own history of pain and self-doubt, lead us to compare ourselves against impossible standards. This in turn reinforces whatever self-doubt, self-criticism and self-hatred we have. We’re encouraged more than ever to “love ourselves,” but it’s hard when our societal role models are glorified yet unrealistic. It’s also hard when it’s not clear what we’re talking about.
The common denominator is the idea of “self”. It’s one of those words we use all the time, assuming that we know what we mean and that we’re all using the same way. But this isn’t the case. There is a lot of confusion in the public sphere created by an ill-digested mix of pop psychology, New Age spirituality, and traditional religion about words like “self,” “ego,” and the difference between healthy self-love and self-centeredness.
The divide usually has psychology on one side and religion and spirituality on the other. They all use the word, self, but they mean very different things by it. Psychology and psychotherapy usually mean the everyday personality—the sense of being an individual with a unique life experience and traits, preferences, and qualities. Psychology discovered that a tremendous amount of pain and difficulty in life comes from learning to take a biased and negative view of this self from others, and build it into who we are. In effect, we become our own worst enemies.
Religion and spirituality look at it from a very different angle. They tend to see the self as something like the tip of an iceberg: the relatively small part of us that is visible to ourselves and others. They say that like the visible, physical universe itself, the greater and more important parts of us are invisible and hidden, below the surface. They often call these parts “soul” or “spirit,” among other terms. They teach that if we become too focused on just the surface part, we lose touch with our deeper nature, which can anchor us to more profound realities while strengthening the personality or self as well.
The spiritual approach holds that the self becomes toxic when it becomes too small, contains too little of the greater reality. It tends to focus on the self as an obstacle to living this greater life, and on how too much emphasis on “small self,” as they say in Zen, keeps us from having loving relationships with others and the whole world. The ordinary or small self, when it becomes particularly toxic, is often called “ego” in these views, whereas psychology uses the same word simply to refer to the structure of the personality and what it contains—our memories, experiences, feelings, and thoughts.
In religion and spirituality, therefore, there tends to be a lot of language about “no-self,” as in Buddhism—meaning that the small self is not permanent or a thing that exists on its own—or transcending the self, as in Christianity and other traditions. At its best, this is not meant to judge or condemn the ordinary self, but to point to something greater.
In other words, the strategies of psychology and spirituality are different in regard to the self. The result is that often the two approaches end up talking at cross-purposes to each other.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that in dialogue with people from the West, the Dalai Lama was stunned to learn that many of us have very low opinions of ourselves, with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. He told them that Buddhism basically presumes what western psychology calls a “healthy ego” as the starting place, and seeks to move on from there. If this is not the case, he realized, then Buddhism’s language of “no-self” and egolessness could be taken the wrong way by those suffering from such a view of themselves and make them feel worse—requiring an adjustment in our language about such matters. His wise observation has actually been made before, by other religious figures that recognized the importance of starting from the foundation of healthy self-respect.
Rabbi Hillel, one of the great early teachers of what was to become modern Judaism, taught in short statements that made powerful points. One of the most famous of these is this:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel’s statement neatly ties together the psychological and spiritual dimensions, and shows the need for a bridge between them. First, he points out the obvious: If I don’t respect myself enough to take care of my own needs, who will? But: If that’s all I do, if that’s as far as I go—“looking out for Number One”—what kind of a human being am I? Obviously, I’m not a very mature or complete one. And: If I don’t love and care for myself in this present moment, when am I going to do it? Two-thousand years ago, Hillel understood “The Power of Now,” to use Eckhart Tolle’s phrase.
Hillel’s saying points to something that people on both sides of the divide have begun to recognize: psychology and spirituality are part of the same spectrum, and both are needed to become a fully mature human being. In the work of great psychologists like Carl Jung and Roberto Assagioli, and spiritual figures like Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton, among many others, there is a growing awareness that a healthy focus on self-love and self-care, combined with an awareness of the wider world and the need to open ourselves to it with lovingkindness, is the recipe for fullness of life. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell put it, “the spiritual life is the bouquet of the physical life.” The two are not in opposition, but complement each other. And we need to start where we are, with the wounds of the personal self, before we can move into the spiritual realm in a safe way.
To put it another way: you have to have a self before you can transcend it.
This is the tremendous difference between healthy self-love, on the one hand, and self-centeredness or narcissism, on the other. Self-centeredness, although it might look like self-love, is rooted in fear, the opposite of love: the fear that I’m not good enough, I’m worthless, and have to grab everything I can to prop up my fragile sense of self. Real love becomes able to let go of the limited self and participate in the wider world.
Illustrating this are 10 suggestions from Maria Stenvenkel, the founder of FabulousMondays.com, who writes on personal growth and finding your calling, on how to practice healthy and mature self-love. Notice how often she points to moving back and forth between love of self and love of others, and how the two move not in a straight line, but in a circle that keeps reinforcing and nourishing itself.
1. Focus on being someone who loves.
Instead of loving yourself, focus on being someone who loves. That is, allow love to flow through you as often as possible. Focus on what you love about the people you meet. Focus on what you appreciate while going to the store, sitting in a meeting, or while speaking to someone. Simply, adjust your body to positive emotions by finding as many things to love and appreciate as possible.
2. Tap into what it looks and feels like to be loved.
Ask yourself how someone who loves you deeply would act.
If you can’t think about a specific person or memory, imagine how the most loving human on this planet would be toward you. Then practice being that toward yourself.
3. Stop comparing yourself.
4. Take baby steps to create the life you long for.
5. Ask your guidance system for help.
6. Surround yourself with people you feel good with.
7. Be compassionate when sh*t hits the fan.
8. Make room for healthy habits.
Do stuff, not to “get it done” or because you “have to,” but because you care about you. Create habits that are healthy, not just mentally but also emotionally.
9. Postpone your worry and negative thoughts.
10. Accept what you cannot love.
You don’t need to love everything about yourself to develop self-love; all you need is acceptance. Next time something happens that makes you want to get down on yourself, see this as your practice: to accept what is.
She’s talking about the place where our psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs meet: in the body and in daily life and suggesting simple but powerful practices we can use to find that place and spend more time there. Her focus on being someone who loves and using our memories of other loving people neatly sidesteps the “law of reversed effort” that can kick in when we “try” to love ourselves, and just end up paying dysfunctional attention to ourselves instead.
And her recommendation that we “postpone” worry and negative thoughts—rather than the more challenging effort to “get rid” of them, which can easily backfire—is a good one. I know one therapist who suggests we designate a specific “worrying time”: “I will give my anxieties time to breathe on Wednesday from 10 to 11 a.m.” That’s it. At 11, their time is up, and you go back to what you were doing.
It’s worth noting, too, that self-love and self-hatred are both about how we think about ourselves: what kind of self-image we’ve built up about ourselves. As such, both are inevitably incomplete and at least somewhat inaccurate. Getting into the body, feelings, and action takes us to a deeper place where our quality of attention is richer and fuller than thoughts.
The Sufi teacher Rumi and the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche both make the point that whatever we find in the world that is beautiful exists in us, or we wouldn’t be able to recognize it; the beauty in a string quartet or a great painting are meaningless to squirrels or fish. Beauty and other virtues don’t just exist “out there”: they are complex transactions between us, our hearts and minds and nervous systems, and the world in which we live. Looked at this way, the distinction between self-love and love of others seems less solid and absolute. So focus on what you love, whether it’s something inside or outside yourself, great or small. What you concentrate on tends to expand. If you pay attention to love, love will expand in you and your life, and flow to others.
And when it all feels like too much, listen to writer Kristine Neff:
It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself. It’s easier than you might think, and it could change your life.