Self Care Service Stop: Self-Love is NOT a Bad Thing

It may come as a surprise to you, but occasionally, I have to google synonyms to words in order to make my writing a bit more interesting. Today, as I sat at my computer with my notebook at my side, I set out googling synonyms for “self-love”, in an attempt to create a catchy title for the weekly self-care segment I’m developing. Much to my surprise, the synonyms that appeared on my screen bombarded me with simultaneous guilt and uncertainty and a sort of righteous anger.  Pompous. Self-indulgent. Conceited. Self-absorbed. Egotistical. Meglomaniac. NARCISSISTIC.

I stared at the screen for a moment. Had I typed it wrong? Had I clicked on some anomalous site? Surely, these cannot be reflective of our culture’s view of self-love! So, I switched tactics. I googled “Self-Love definition”. Here’s what that search revealed:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Self-Love n. Love of self

  • Conceit
  • Regard for one’s own happiness or advantage

Dictionary.com
Self-Love n.

  • The instinct by which one’s actions are directed to the promotion of one’s own welfare or well-being, especially an excessive regard for one’s own advantage.
  • Conceit; Vanity
  • Narcissism

Vocabularly.com
Self-Love n.

  • An exceptional interest in or admiration for yourself
  • Feelings of excessive pride

Now, there were, of course, sites which offered the definition I had in mind when I initially searched for synonyms of Self-Love. Sites like Oxford English Dictionaries, which took the time to specify that Self-Love is generally viewed as desirable and not narcissistic. And there were articles about Self-Love as a positive component of Self-Care and the importance of being kind to yourself, but I can’t help but feel that that does not negate the overwhelming negative connotations of Self-Love we seem to carry in our collective cultural mind.

Either consciously or unconsciously, I believe that many of us view Self-Love as a negative. How could we not? The above are the definitions and synonyms most commonly associated with the term. In addition, antonyms of Self-Love include words like humbleness. Altruism. Humility. Unselfishness. Are these not things to which we are told to aspire? No one wants to be seen as “selfish”. But “altruistic” is a virtue, right? Whether you’ve actively looked up these definitions or not, there’s simply no way that this perception doesn’t spread through you and dig its tendrils deep into your brain.

From day one on this little planet of ours, most of us are ingrained with the idea that selfishness is a negative trait – a character defect, if you would. When you grow up with that mentality, how can you possibly love yourself? We judge our worth on the light we bring to others rather than the light we have ourselves. I think of it like a candle: if our flame is about to extinguish, we cannot focus on lighting others’ candles. Because sooner rather than later, our flame will go out and we will not have light for ourselves or to give to others.

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Personally, I have always struggled with the idea of Self-Love. In the CBT group in which I participated after discharge from the hospital, I learned a lot about “distorted thoughts” and “negative core beliefs.” One of my most pervasive negative core beliefs is, “I’m not worthy of happiness”, or, “Others are more worthy of happiness than I am.” In CBT, you get “homework,” where you walk through different cognitive exercises, often actually on paper, to challenge these distortions and negative core beliefs.

One assignment was to consider a negative belief you hold about yourself and list “evidence or experiences that suggest that the core belief is not 100% true all of the time.” You want to know what my list included? My “evidence” that I am “worthy of happiness” comprised of things like: I support others. I help people. I am good in a crisis. I put others first. I care about others. I’m empathetic. I am a good employee. Do you see a pattern emerging? Even any sense of positive self image (or self-love) I hold revolves around the traits considered antonyms to Self-Love. That’s how deeply embedded the tendrils of cultivated “unselfishness” are in my mind, my soul, to the deepest levels of my core essence, my Self.

So, how do we make the jump to Self-Love if we have internalized it as a negative term? What can we do, each day, to challenge that warped perception that our value lies only in altruistic self-sacrifice and selfless giving to and caring for others?

The answer lies, I believe, in embracing a certain level of “selfishness.” Now, I don’t being flipping a switch and being cold-blooded, dog-eat-dog, I’m-only-out-for-myself-and-fuck-everyone-else kind of selfishness. I mean a pure, reality-based selfishness that says, “I have the right to exist. I have the right to set boundaries. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE HAPPY.”

What does this look like? Anything. We are all individuals, with unique values, perceptions, wants, and needs. And we all have the right to our personal wants and needs.

In the therapy groups which I attended, I was exposed to The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, which is, truly, a fantastic resource full of coping skills and exercises to help challenge your thinking and improve your quality of life. One of the best parts of the book, in my opinion, is The Personal Bill of Rights: 

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  1. I have the right to ask for what I want.
  2. I have the right to say no to requests or demands that I can’t meet.
  3. I have the right to express all of my feelings, positive or negative.
  4. I have the right to change my mind.
  5. I have the right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect.
  6. I have the right to follow my own values and standards.
  7. I have the right to say “no” to anything when I feel I not ready, it is unsafe, or if it violates my values.
  8. I have the right to determine my own priorities.
  9. I have the right to not be responsible for others’ behavior, actions, feelings, or problems.
  10. I have the right to expect honesty from others.
  11. I have the right to be angry at someone I love.
  12. I have the right to be uniquely myself.
  13. I have the right to feel scared and say, “I’m afraid.”
  14. I have the right to say “I don’t know.”
  15. I have the right not to give excuses or reasons for my behaviors.
  16. I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings.
  17. I have the right to my own needs for personal space and times.
  18. I have the right to be playful and frivolous.
  19. I have the right to be healthier than those around me.
  20. I have the right to in a non-abusive environment.
  21. I have the right to make friends and be comfortable with the people around me.
  22. I have the right to change and grow.
  23. I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others.
  24. I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
  25. I have the right to be happy.

There you have it! The personal bill of rights and my view on “selfishness.” In truth, you are worth just as much as every other person on this earth and you do not need to perpetually place your needs on the back burner. I’m learning, slowly but surely, that the more I establish boundaries that protect my right to be treated with respect, my right to express myself, and my right to feel comfortable in my environment without owing anyone an explanation, the more I have to give others. Protecting my space and my self-worth has slowly but steadily been refilling my tank. Helping others is a wonderful thing, but sometimes you have to help yourself first.

When I first read Personal Bill of Rights, two really struck me: Number 15: I have the right not to give excuses or reasons for my behaviors; and Number 20: I have the right to be in a non-abusive environment. These kind of blew my mind at first.

What Right do you find most relevant to your life? Do any of the Rights listed rub you the wrong way? Do any of them make you sit back and say, “Wow! I never even considered that before?” I’d love to hear your thoughts via Facebook, Twitter, or in the comment section below!

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