Self-love is overrated 

How many times have you heard that you have to love yourself?

Worse, that you have to learn to love yourself first, as if without this magical substructure, little else is possible.

Some stretch the friendship further, demanding you love yourself unconditionally.

Unconditionally? Is that even possible, desirable?

For example, in the middle of a mess that I’ve made by not acting soon enough, which upends my world but also those who depend on me for whatever reasons (stability, security) – should I love myself? Not necessarily. I can resent myself. I can resent myself and care. I can resent myself and still rebuild.

What about the wo/man who deliberately deliberately setting up a friend? Or the psychopath slowly and deliberately executing a colleague’s fall? Should they love themselves? No. Get thee to a nunnery, they should admonish themselves. Get help. Go.

To those who love themselves I would like to say ‘wow how great’ but I don’t know if it is. I need more information.

I assume that a degree of self like, that includes reproof when needed, allows us to get on with things. But I’ve seen too many people walk away from the ruins without a backward glance, because they’ve convinced themselves it’s okay, they’re okay. And I think this is why self-love is on the nose for me.

People brought up unlovingly can struggle their whole lives to feel valued; but there as many who were loved, who are loved, who fail to love themselves.

I can’t unpack all the complexities of why we feel as we do, even finding the right questions is difficult.

But there are many reasons you don’t need a self-love axis and here are five –

  1. You don’t exist in a fixed state of emotion towards yourself or others
  2. Emotion is not a zero sum game
  3. You don’t need to love yourself before you can love someone else
  4. Who you are is only in part about you
  5. Your self is also an extension of the environment

1. You don’t exist in a fixed state of emotion towards yourself or others

Emotions are transient

In a day we can feel happy, sad, angry, annoyed, bored, despairing, hopeful, proud, courageous, fearful, disgusted, stressed, anxious, relieved, tense, relaxed, amused, surprised, helpless, powerful, the list goes on. We can experience all of those in an hour, less.

Those feelings are real. They are part of us as we experience them, but they’re not ‘us’. They fade. They’re replaced. It’s all transience and so too a ‘self ‘we attach, including love.

We may act on them however.

If anger drives us to hit someone that’s more lasting. If empathy propels us to volunteer (or selfishness, or concern for how we appear) it’s closer to a ‘who we are’ because now we’re doing.

Some emotions dominate

The same behaviour repeated makes repeating the same behaviour easier.

You may get angry when it’s hot, if it’s cold, when it rains, when it doesn’t. Your kids make you angry, your partner, you boss. Friends annoy you. The bin is in the wrong place. Everyone’s an idiot. Then people start saying – there’s an angry person. And it’s true. Because now anger is strutting around and presiding over all the others, slapping them down when they try to raise a head.

In this way graciousness, extended by you towards yourself, when you make a mistake, an error of judgement is probably an advantage because you don’t get stuck berating yourself, don’t waste energy. It’s a form of love, or acceptance, with context. It doesn’t plan the error or deny it. It’s mottled.

We change as we accumulate experiences.

We’re terrified of public speaking but grow to love it. We develop respect for a colleague we dismissed. A once-favourite friend betrays us. Times change. Contexts change us.

So why expect a non-varied – unconditional love, unconditional love, unconditional love.

We’re not the same person.

We may love ourselves on Monday but not as Tuesday rolls in. Does it matter? Does it absolve us of responsibilities? Will it make us less productive? Does it change the work that has to be done?

No. We still turn get up and make the porridge.

2. Emotion is not a zero sum game

  • You can love someone and be angry with them.
  • You can dislike a person but admire them.
  • You can be amused but disgusted.
  • Proud and sad.

No one demands to know – are you proud, or sad? Come on, which is it?

3. You don’t need to love yourself before you can love someone else

Like most parents, I love my children profoundly. On those days when I’m feeling down and wondering if I add anything useful to the planet, I don’t love them less. I love them irrespective of how I feel about me. I may feel de-energised. I could be ratty. What’s that got to do with love?

There are other people I love similarly. Places. Things. Ideas. Experiences. Billy Holiday lamenting Strange Fruit. The White Stripes belting out Jolene. Lorde. Dumas. Chagall. My attitude towards myself has little impact.

It’s not true that you need to love yourself before you can love someone else.

You can fall in love even if you don’t love yourself. You may believe you deserve love in return, or not. It doesn’t stop you loving.

But, people say, if you don’t believe you deserve love you will sabotage it.

Maybe. But sometimes the act of being loved makes you loveable.

It’s not a given though. Virginia Woolf was extraordinarily talented, a literary elite and deeply loved and valued, including by her husband. “Love-making—after 25 years can’t bear to be separate … you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete,” she wrote in her diary. But she threw herself into the river.

You can dislike yourself and not sabotage things. You might bend over backwards to make things work. I know plenty of people, and I am sure you do too, who like themselves and yet sabotage things – for reasons, for no reason.

4. Who you are is only in part about you 

We’re all I am, I am, I am, as if we know. As if we can know. But it’s not simple.

We’re a mishmash

First, we’re a mishmash of biases. Largely we’re unaware of them but they influence what we do.

For example, we think that if something happens a lot at some stage it will happen less in the future. We toss a coin 10x and get heads, we assume the next must be tails. That’s gambler’s fallacy. But each time it’s 50%.

Knowing you have a bias doesn’t mean you can overcome it either.

Even scientists, who we prejudicially think of as objective and rational (and we should not assume rationality is always possible or better) given the same CV with a name change will judge a woman more harshly but when asked, justify it. Both women and men do it.

Because of this Laurie Santos and Tamar Gender say “knowing is not always half the battle”, although sometimes, it helps.

We’re more than what we think

How many times haven’t we heard variants of –

  • You are what you think.
  • For as he thinks in his heart he is
  • What you think you become
  • Man is mind

There is some truth in these, not all of it.

Yes, we can control how we react to events. A nervous twitch need not drive us up the wall. We don’t have to lash out at a person who disagrees with us because we’ve confused our ‘self’ with an idea. Reframe. Reflect. Take a different approach.

The maxim “there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is false. There are many bad things. Rape. Genocide.

All these sayings centralise the importance of thinking, of what we think and our role in creating that thinking self.

We are also what others think of us

We love the idea of the self contained hero, looking out over the horizon as the sun sets – autonomous, untouched by others. Herein strength.

But as Alana Conner and Hazel Rose Markus tell us “in many situations, other people’s thinking has a bigger impact on our …thoughts, feelings, and actions than do the thoughts we conjure… alone.”

They quote the classic Rosenthal-Jacobson study in which ‘normal’ students who were incorrectly told they were high IQ ‘academic spurters’ did better than those who weren’t told that.

They reference the hundreds of studies where asking about race or gender before a test caused stereotyped groups to score lower, the same groups which met/exceed the competition when these questions weren’t asked.

Inverting the cultural more to “you think, therefore I am” acknowledges the impact we have on one another.

5. Your self is also an extension of the environment

We’ve only begun to understand the powerful impact of environment on behaviour.

As Zimbardo showed good people (guards) can do bad things (torture prisoners) under certain conditions. Likewise, Jamil Zaki found that when around an empathetic ‘group’, typically un-empathetic individuals may develop it, a validating insight for those who believe ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

Known and unknown, seen and unseen influences impact how we behave

  1. A briefcase in a room alters how we handle money (priming).
  2. Our moods are impacted by weather and as Adam Alter shows ambient temperature.
  3. A deeply ingrained symbol (like a crucifix) shapes how we feel and act.

None of this should deter us from trying to be more conscious. From asking better questions so we produce more useful research.  Nor should it dismiss the importance of what we think and feel. It’s important. But it’s not all important. It matters, but probably less than you think.

Don’t wait until you love yourself more. Spend the energy studying a degree. Write the novel, go on a date, look for a different role.


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