Loving yourself doesn’t have to be straightforward. Our image is however fundamental to structure our behavior. And,through it, our relationships with others.
If God were to dictate his commandments to Moses today, he would certainly add to the existing ten: “You will love yourself as much if not more than you do your neighbor, you will take care of yourself, you will see to your well-being, etc…”
In the age of triumphant individualism, of the all-out valuing of the “me, myself and I” and its tremendous potential, self-love takes on the role of duty. It even seems to be for the majority of people the sine qua non for the love of others.
The importance of loving yourself
At first glance, however, the idea of loving yourself seems futile, ridiculous – as if there was nothing more important in our existence – or very upheaving. Traditionally and culturally, the focus is on the ability to love others. But modern psychology tells us a very different story. It asserts that a minimum of self-love is essential in order to experience pleasure and find charm in life. It suffices to imagine the days of someone who would wake up every morning finding himself stupid and ugly, convinced of his inferiority and his unworthiness to be loved. It is easy to imagine what a life would that pose in.
For the psychologist William James (1842-1910), self-love is the product of a sufficiently thin gap between our ambitions and our actual achievements. The most recent research, however, challenges this realism, showing that it is best not to have an overly clear view of yourself and your true abilities. The American psychiatrists Robert Ornstein and David Sobel, who delivered the fruit of their research in matters of self-image in “The Virtues of Pleasure” (1992), affirm that “happiness is the privilege of those who know how to cultivate positive illusions and are able to consider themselves smarter and more competent than they are”. “Self-overestimation and immediate forgetting of disturbing qualifiers is beneficial,”insist Robert Ornstein and David Sobel. “Our view of ourselves is only a construction of our mind. It is therefore up to us to make it as pleasant as possible, while avoiding, of course, sinking into megalomania. Perfectly realistic individuals are always slightly depressed.”
Recognizing a certain value
Psychology dictionaries define self-love by a set of attitudes: recognizing a certain value, taking care of yourself, protecting your private territory, your physical and mental health, knowing your real interests. It’s about being a “good mother”to yourself.
But if self-love manifests itself in the actions we take, it is first and foremost a matter of inner experience, of personal feeling. I can esteem myself intellectually, have confidence in myself, yet find it difficult to support my physical appearance. A relatively positive view of oneself in no way excludes blaming yourself for one or more particular character traits or certain intellectual flaws – lack of courage, ambition or tenacity, for example.
An American study, carried out in 1993 on the basis of a questionnaire sent to several hundred people aged between 20 and 30 and conducted by researcher James Overholser, confirmed that men and women have different criteria for appreciating themselves – a confirmed theory. The former love themselves for their successes, career wise or in a physical activity, while the latter viscerally need to see those around them recognizing their personal qualities. It is of great importance to fully accept yourself, as everyday life proves. This dissatisfaction, inherent in human nature, suggests that existential fullness is not a myth. And it would have taken just a little for us to enjoy it – blue eyes, not brown, two inches taller, or a slightly larger general culture, for example.
Love yourself and adapt to others
Loving yourself implies an ability not to worry only about yourself and not to take responsibility for yourself in front of others by relying on considerations of the style: “I am taken completely as I actually am or goodbye.” It’s even the other way around. Self-love requires a good dose of awareness, of knowledge of one’s mental workings. It goes hand in hand with the ability to adapt to the needs of others, without alienating from them, and with the ability to transform when necessary. To say that man is a social animal is not a style clause: our psychic structuring highly depends on the other. Our neighbor, his image or his gaze, constitute pillars for moving forward in life. Our judgments about ourselves depend on it. Hence the naivety of the speeches telling us not to worry about the opinions of others. To disregard it completely is impossible, even if we have some leeway. In “The Personality” (1999), citing a study from 1989, Susan Cloninger, psychologist, asserts that individuals belonging to often devalued minorities – homosexuals, disabled people etc.- do not necessarily harbor low self-esteem, because the obligation to protect oneself collectively would have a stimulating and protective effect.
With our inner selves, the relationship is hardly more peaceful. At 8 am, the mirror gives us a reflection that suits us, but nothing guarantees that it will do the same at the end of the day. A stranger jostles me in the subway, a problem at work prompts me, for a flash, to question myself about my skills, and immediately my rapport to my image worsens, and dark memories, negative judgments about myself come to mind. Why this gap between me and myself? Paradoxically, this ego that we consider our most intimate and private possession is not innate. Fetus then infant, we are deprived of it. The ego is built in the relationship with our first “others”: our mother, our father or those who take their place.
According to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, it is around the age of 18 months – at the time of the “mirror stage” – that our own ego begins to develop. It is the adult who arouses this awareness in the child by showing him his image in the mirror and above all by commenting: “You see, there, in the mirror, it’s you.” Moment the infant laughs, jubilant with pleasure by recognizing himself. The child who has failed this test of self-recognition can have terrible panic attacks when the ice reflects its image back to him: it is a terrifying and terribly unlovable creature that he then sees. In order to love yourself, you must also know that you exist as a distinct individual.
According to Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson, two researchers from the American University of Waterloo who have just completed a study on how people see themselves in the present compared to how they were seeing themselves in the past, the latter says they like more their current image.
All of them find themselves “smarter, more tolerant, moregenerous”. And “these positive illusions” help them live better and love themselves more. When we relate to childhood memories, to episodes from our early youth, nostalgia is almost always present. On the other hand, when it comes to our relationship with our self, our personality, we need to think that we are constantly evolving towards the better, towards more qualities.
This mental mechanism calms us down, assures us that we do not age in vain, and that the passing years serve to perfect us.
When self-love is lacking
Impossible to be indifferent, neutral in regards to yourself. Lack of self-love always leads to self-harm, more or less hidden.
- In the first place comes the lack of respect for one’s own person. On the physical level: I neglect myself, I do not take care of my look. Emotionally: when my partner mistreats me, he frustrates me, and as a consequence a part of me whispers that I don’t deserve better. Inability of taking charge of oneself: vegetating in uninteresting work, telling yourself that is always better than nothing. Imagining one has no right to happiness and unwittingly managing to build yourself a pleasure-free existence. Without understanding why, you can end up permanently stuck in a latent state of depression.
- In the most worrying cases, a lack of self-love leads to dangerous behaviors – particularly when driving – which constitute as many challenges to death. Above all, it weakens to the point that rejection, rupture, failure sometimes leading to suicide attempts. Not loving yourself forces you to doubt your real right to exist.
- Love, trust or esteem? These three concepts are difficult to distinguish one another because they are almost synonymous. Yet, they have distinct meanings. Self-love and self-confidence are the two pillars that allow self-esteem to exist.
- Self-love allows us to accept our shortcomings with indulgence, but without complacency, thus allowing us to give importance to ourselves even when we are aware of our imperfection.
- Self-confidence convinces us that “we’ll get there” when an unusual ordeal arises. It concerns the ability to do, to take action.
- Self-esteem belongs to the realm of “being”. When our self-esteem is deprived of love, a lack of self-esteem invades our space making us perpetually doubt ourselves, our rights to assert ourselves and to be happy.
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