“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” ~ Lao-Tzu
It was Easter break of 2013. A group of us—five families—had decided to go to Bushua Beach Resort a few hours away from Accra.
After much delay reaching the resort and a chaotic check-in process, the hotel reception informed us that they could only provide rooms for four of the families.
We tried all we could to remedy the situation, but to no avail. One family would not be able to stay. The family with the surname starting with Z happened to lose out. All but one of the families refused to stay and decided to go back to Accra.
“You are selfish. You could’ve been the family without the room if your surname started with a Z,” I said to the woman whose family had decided to stay.
“Well, luckily for us, it doesn’t,” she said. “I’m sorry, but we need this break. Sometimes we need to fill our self-care tanks,” she continued.
“Self-care does not happen at the expense of empathy,” I said. I wanted to continue, but I could see her husband’s embarrassment at not voicing his own opinion.
I left along with the others. The family that stayed slowly alienated themselves from our circle through their “me first” attitude.
I’m all for self-care and self-love. I’ve written many times about how, without self-love, we are incapable of loving anyone else. I understand and appreciate that many of us are brought up with a reluctance to take care of ourselves before others.
However, as is the wont of modern life, we are now moving toward the grey end of the self-love spectrum.
My sister is a leading psychologist in Kuwait. In the last few years, she has had to deal with many clients who are carrying a distorted conception of self-love. More and more people are becoming self-involved at the expense of others. They don’t seem to understand that self-love includes compassion for others as well as ourselves.
My sister has observed the new generation acting aggressively, in a self-indulgent way—stepping on others to get what they want under the pretense of “self-love.”
Narcissism (What self-love is not)
According to Psychology Today, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is:
“A lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration. People with this condition are frequently described as arrogant, self-centred, manipulative, and demanding. They may also concentrate on grandiose fantasies (e.g. their success, beauty, brilliance) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment.”
Of course, I’m not saying that everyone who practices self-love is narcissistic; rather, many of us are going about it the wrong way. Self-love should arise from an inner drive—and not an external impetus. Self-love has to feel authentic and genuine. It is not an aggressive act that places our personal rights over those of others.
As our culture now assigns so much value to physical appearance, personal achievement, and success symbols, it’s become easier to overstep our boundaries and others’ in the name of self-care.
In other words, we are set up to become more narcissistic. We put people down to feel superior. We are more concerned with how we look to others than actually doing the work. We are also very quick to blame others when things don’t go our way.
However, self-love is a journey. Self-love is not a random collection of selfish acts claiming our perceived rights.
In the anecdote I shared, my friend lives in a world of fear. She feels threatened, like she can’t be fulfilled without taking her fulfillment from the world. She has no time for compassion or giving, as she’s too busy nurturing herself.
She comes from a “scarcity mentality”: the only way to survive is to take from others rather than cultivate a common cultural bond and stronger communal ties. Wasn’t that how Homo Sapiens outlasted the more powerful and technologically advanced neanderthals?
What is self-love?
Society has often frowned on those who practice self-love or self-care as being too selfish. As such, we have long felt stifled to think of ourselves, always putting the needs of others first.
However, true self-love is a dynamic state that helps develop our physical, psychological, and spiritual growth. Simply put, self-love means knowing ourselves to such an extent that we accept who we are, with all our strengths and flaws. Not only do we take responsibility for our actions; we are accountable for them.
In this state of being, we see ourselves as we are within. We don’t base our self-worth on exterior values. And as we deepen this love for ourselves, we begin to look at others more compassionately. We accept ourselves—and those around us. We come to understand that they, too, have weaknesses. Thus we learn to set the right boundaries in alignment with our core values; we know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’ based on our internal needs.
I’ve spent years working on self-acceptance. My journey to self-awareness has been profound. I’ve found that the more I get to know myself, the more I understand others.
In my knowing, I’ve become assertive rather than aggressive, learning how to set the right boundaries.
A few months ago, for instance, I refused a speaking gig because I had too much on my plate. I thought of “me first,” as I knew I wouldn’t be at my best at that time. I also considered the audience. I felt that the corporate crowd at this particular gig needed me less than younger people. But I made my decision to cancel based on my internal values—not external—even though I would’ve gotten many more opportunities from talking to the corporate audience.
On an aeroplane, we are asked to put on our own oxygen masks before we help others, even infants. It’s the same with self-love. The more we embrace self-love and the empathy that comes with it, the more aware we become of ourselves and others. The more comfortable we become with loving ourselves, the better able we are to build an environment of love around us.
1 Corinthians 13:4 describes this kind of love:
“Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast,
it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil
but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts,
always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.”
When we really love ourselves, we know that we are no more important than others. We understand that self-love means awareness, acceptance, and compassion. We recognise that, in loving ourselves, we bring our best selves forward and become a better person overall.
For me, during that Easter break, loving myself meant doing the right thing and standing by the family that missed out. How could I sit under the sun and pretend that everything was fine when I knew that my friends and their children were hurting?
What would you do in the name of true self-love?