If I asked you today if you should love yourself, you would (hopefully) say,
“Well, obviously, yes!”
But if you travelled back in time, or even traveled to another country, to a culture that is more communally-oriented, you might get a very different answer.
In an individualistic society, self-love is one of our core values.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we all actually love ourselves. In fact, many of us hate or even despise ourselves despite this deep-seated belief, or perhaps because of a lack of understanding of its true meaning.
And, of course, some societies shun this love toward the individual self. In many instances, self-love is seen as egotistical and, well, self-centered. If the meaning of life is to devote one’s efforts to God, or society, or the tribe—some greater or higher good—then loving one’s self is seen as narcissistic.
While the modern, individualistic aim prizes self-love, the traditional, communal aim values humility.
So, who’s right? And is there a healthy balance? And do these views truly contradict each other?
Self-love is to love the self, and to love the self, we must place our attention on it. Conversely, to be humble is to forget one’s self, to place one’s attention on other.
Perhaps this seeming opposition arises out of a misunderstanding of what love is.
To see what real love is, let’s take a look at perhaps one of the “purest” forms of love: a parent for their child. We can say that it is one of the purest forms because the parent, if loving their child in earnest, has little selfish interest, sublimating their own desires for the welfare of their child.
This is why the communalist assumes that self-love is selfish. To love others, one must truly be selfless and humble.
But is it possible to love one’s self without being selfish?
If we can genuinely love another person without expecting anything in return, without having an ulterior motive, then we can also do this toward ourselves. We love other people, and we as individuals are people.
We should be a parent and a care-er and a friend to ourselves, not a mean circus master who treats the animals with cruelty or a demeaning coach who berates the players.
Although we live with others, we always live within the prism of our own consciousness. This means that we have to be kind and loving to ourselves. We need to be patient with ourselves, learning from our mistakes without beating ourselves up for them. We need to see all of the positive qualities and talents we have been gifted with and feel grateful for them. When our love for ourselves is pure, it doesn’t stifle our growth. We accept ourselves now in the present moment, but accept the challenge of improving ourselves.
We reside within the bubble of our own beings, but at the same time we coexist with others. We share our subjective experience with them. This means we have to be modern and traditional, individualistic and communal, both. We can love ourselves and love others with sincerity. Our self-love should connect us to others, not separate us or put us on a higher level.
And so we can make a distinction between self-love and self-adoration.
Self-love is sincere. Self-adoration is prideful. Self-love allows us to live in harmony with others. Self-adoration encourages us to focus exclusively on ourselves.
So, is self-love selfish? No.
Self-love and humility actually help one another. Self-love can be selfless. It sounds contradictory at first, but our self-love actually helps us devote our energies to others.