Of late, I have been reading several posts that express confusion about the concept of self-love. I thought it meaningful to share a few distinctions that have been of value to me in understanding the varying shades of self-love. Some argue that self-love is endemic in our culture and that we need more love for others instead of love for self. Whilst the self-less service portion of the argument appears to be true, I believe that the self-love criticism is predicated on an erroneous assumption. Consequently, I find it useful to distinguish three concepts that often get conflated: (1) self-love; (2) self-esteem; and (3) narcissism.
Error #1: self-love = self-esteem
Error # 2: self-love = narcissism.
While there is significant overlap between self-esteem and self-love, they are also conceptually distinct. The concept of self-esteem is significantly associated with narcissism; self-love is not. Self-esteem exists on a spectrum: an excess of self-esteem is regarded as an expression of narcissism. Conversely, too little of it has been shown to be a robust predictor of poor mental health. In my experience, both extremes of self-esteem are shame-based and therefore narcissistic. In contrast to self-love, self-esteem is based on superiority/inferiority self-evaluations (“I am worthless”; “I am awesome”). Self-love is not—it often enters the picture when self-esteem fails. For instance, your sense of self-esteem may be shattered in the wake of trauma and loss. Whether an attitude of self-love remains is a matter of attitude and choice. Self-love has the ability to deactivate the threat or fight/flight system (related to feelings of insecurity, defensiveness and the limbic system) and activates the self-soothing system (associated with feelings security and safety, and the oxytocin–opiate system). Self-esteem, in contrast, is regarded as an evaluation of superiority/inferiority with the aim to establish social rank stability. As a result, researchers hypothesize that self-love has the ability to act as a moderator to rebuilt self-esteem in times of hardship.
To summarize the argument: We don’t have an excess of self-love in our culture. What we have an abundance of is narcissism/shame and its concomitant superiority/inferiority appraisals: (1) “I am better than”; (2) “I am less than”; (3) “I must be seen as ….”; (4) “I deserve”. While healthy self-esteem is essential, it is important to note that all appraisals of self are arbitrary and subject to change. They are pillars of an identity that can be broken, a house of cards as it were. Self-love, in contrast, is an ever-present option that awaits choice. It is not an idea¬–it is a way of life.
There is much to be said on this subject. If this was meaningful to you, I would appreciate your feedback.
Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and identity, 2(3), 223-250.
Irons, C., & Gilbert, P. (2005). Evolved mechanisms in adolescent anxiety and depression symptoms: The role of the attachment and social rank systems. Journal of adolescence, 28(3), 325-341.