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Self-love and love of others go hand in hand. The question is – how to feed our own happiness without becoming self-obsessed?

Imagine that you are at a party. A smiling woman in a lovely dress has just approached you with a glass of wine. She says her name and you instantly like it. Her voice sounds familiar and pleasant like a windy breeze in the summer. Then you tell her what you do, and her eyes light up. She seems genuinely interested in your story.

Wouldn’t you like to meet this person?

And what if I told you that this woman is you? You see, I didn’t mention her name or age. I didn’t describe how she looked. It was just this aura of positive comfort and of being happy in her own skin that you found appealing. It was as if you looked in a mirror and felt an overwhelming flush of love.

You liked her. But can you say that you truly love yourself?  

Flexing Ego Boundaries

Self-love is one of the most difficult and mature emotions to master. In a tiny book called How to love, a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes beautifully: “When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.”

These are wise words. According to American psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, author of the cult book on personal growth, The Road Less Traveled (1978), our ability to love ourselves is a natural and primal instinct. It is also deeply rooted in human developmental psychology. When a child is born, it doesn’t distinguish between itself and the rest of the world. It moves its arms and legs, and suddenly the world is moving. Then it is hungry, and the whole world seems to be a void of empty stomachs. And when its mother sings, the baby feels as if it was itself making the sound.

– There are no boundaries, no separation, no identity – writes Peck. This truly must be one of the most familiar and comforting feelings. Alas, it doesn’t last forever. When the baby is just a few months old, the world starts to tear away from it. When it is hungry, the mother doesn’t always feed it, when it is playful, the mother doesn’t necessarily play with it. At this point, both the separation from the universe and the sense of “me” start to develop. It is as if a child was born once again, only now more consciously.

Usually, the time when the child starts to come to terms with the limitations of its power is between the ages of two and three. Yet the fantasy of omnipotence keeps coming back later in life, taking the form of dreams. Who has never dreamt of being a superhero of some sort? In our childhoods we felt like little kings; no wonder it is painful to let go of that sentiment.

Not only does self-love and love of others go hand in hand, but ultimately they are indistinguishable.

M. Scott Peck

Filling Your Emotional Tank

It is only when we realise that we are separate from the universe that we can start learning about ourselves. We catch glimpses of our individual traits in the social mirror of our home. Parental love and attention feed a child just as much as milk does; the more of it, the stronger the basis of the child’s own identity. In an ideal world, our caregivers teach us that even if we make mistakes, it doesn’t mean we are worthless. And if we misbehave, it doesn’t make us unlovable.

Early childhood is the time to fill up the emotional tank that we use for the whole of our life. If our relationship with mother and father is healthy and nurturing, our emotional tank will be sufficiently filled in our childhood. We can mature into the world, appreciating the way we are, yet understanding that our wish is not always the world’s command. When we fall in love for the first time in our life, we open our hearts to that special person by shedding ego boundaries. For a moment, we blend in with another human being, feeling that we are one piece, just like when we were born. No wonder the first moments of new love are so refreshingly wonderful. We suddenly feel like babies do!

M. Scott Peck accentuates: Not only does self-love and love of others go hand in hand, but ultimately they are indistinguishable. We are incapable of loving another unless we love ourselves, just as we are incapable of teaching our children self-discipline unless we ourselves are self-disciplined.

The global state of disorder

We live in quite paradoxical times. On one hand, depression and anxiety have become so prevalent that scientists have started calling them sociological rather than medical conditions. The New York Times recently renamed the USA: “The United States of Xanax”. In 2015, the World Health Organisation estimated that 322 million people were living with depression, making it one of the main causes of disability worldwide. It is as if half of Europe (its population reaching 743 million) is in a global state of disorder.

These statistics are as sad as they are perplexing, because, at the same time, we live in the era of global narcissism and seem to be witnessing Generation Anxiety battling with Generation Me. The latter, also known as Millennials, were born in the 80s and 90s, and have predominantly been shaped by the tumultuous expansion of social media into our private lives. In 2000, the number of daily internet users was 738 million. Now more than 3 billion people worldwide are online. The patterns of internet use have changed too. Previously, it was email, browsing and games, whereas now people spend most of their online time on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter.

There is an ocean of difference between healthy love of self and narcissism. Alain de Botton describes narcissists: those who are driven by a manic, haunting terror of their own invisibility and mediocrity. No surprise that many people who were deprived of parental love and care in their childhood, seek attention from other social media users. The truth is sad: the more boisterous the narcissists seem, the less they love themselves.

A trap of simulacra

Snapping pictures of everything that is happening to us and sharing them with others give us a boost of dopamine and oxytocin, the excitement and love hormones.

So, as we are increasingly aware, we all live a big chunk of our lives in the realm of the internet. Billions of micro-stories of food being eaten, babies being born, new marriages taking place and grievances being aired, are happening online all the time. There is an abundance of quick gratification too. We can order ready-made meals and book holidays, browse for advice and jobs, and even find friends, partners and lovers. Actually, this pleasure-seeking is written into the brain’s chemistry. Snapping pictures of everything that is happening to us and sharing them with others gives us a boost of dopamine and oxytocin, the excitement and love hormones. It is as if we were physically wired into a never-ending TV show. This culture of online oversharing is reminiscent of French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard’s observation of simulacra (simulacrum, Latin: likeness, image, to simulate), which turn reality into hyperreality. Just as saccharine is an artificial substitute for sugar, a beautiful picture of food is just a visual representation of the pleasures of eating. It has no smell, no texture, yet it triggers our lust and hunger. If our lives consist more of simulacra than real, physical sensations, we start to lose contact with reality. For people with shaky self-esteem, a digital life may prove too burdened with conflicting views and judgements. They start to live for likes and comments on social media, posting incessantly about their life experiences and fretting about being judged.

A study conducted in 2013 by two German universities found that one-third of Facebook users felt worse after visiting the site. They were overwhelmed by frustration, jealousy and reported decreased life satisfaction. Indeed, access to copious positive news and the profiles of seemingly successful ‘friends’ fosters social comparison that can readily provoke envy. “Online social networks allow users unprecedented access to information on others – insights that would be much more difficult to obtain offline” – commented Dr Hanna Krasnova, one of the researchers.

Learn love

So how do we cope in a world so full of digital clutter that the trendy minimalistic movement is less about getting rid of material things and more about fighting with a global epidemic of anxiety?

Marianne Williamson, American spiritual teacher and author of A Return to Love, puts it perfectly: “The biggest problem today isn’t just that hate is speaking so loudly; it’s that love is speaking too softly”. Many scientists now also agree that when we are kind to ourselves and have a calm, happy mind, our bodies are kind to us too. The powerful mind-body connection means that every cell in your body reacts to the negativity of your thoughts, releasing toxins and causing inflammation.  

Dropping self-criticism and embracing self-compassion may be the first baby steps towards treating yourself with care. All Buddhist teachers and their modern, non-religious followers agree on one thing: love requires practice. The same applies to self-love. Alain de Botton opened his first School of Life – an educational institute of everyday philosophy – in 2008 because, as he says: “Depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life. We need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life”.

Of course, we need to be aware that often the more we try, the more we lose. Loving yourself, when corporations spoon-feed it to us with statements such as “You are worth it”, has a tendency to backfire. Alan Watts used to refer to this fact as “the backwards law” – the idea that wanting something badly only reinforces the fact that we don’t have it in the first place. So the more you desperately want to love yourself, the less you see yourself worthy of that love. What to do with that? Simply said: Don’t try too much. Come to terms with the fact that love, also self-love, is a subtle, yet difficult art. Take the mirror out. Look yourself deep in the eye. No need to chant mantras or recite new-age cheer-me-up quotes. Just think to yourself, or even say it out loud: “I am enough”.

It is said that Buddha particularly liked one story about two acrobats.

One of them was a teacher and the other a girl. Together they performed on the streets to earn money for food. Their main performance was a difficult trick of balancing on a high pole. Each time, the teacher had the pole placed on his head, and he needed to make sure it didn’t drop. And the girl had to climb the pole and make sure she didn’t fall. Both of them depended on one another for their act to be successful.

“Hey girl, let’s watch each other so that we can maximise concentration and balance, and prevent an accident occurring”, the teacher once said. But the little girl was wiser:

“Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourselves. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way we can avoid accidents and be successful”.

Because taking good care of yourself is like taking care of the whole world

WORDS: Alex Reszelska

Published originally in the international fashion magazine Renaissance, issue RELATIONSHIPS, November 2017.