Emotional Health

Getting Healthy: Self-love and Self-care

When I was growing up , one of the worst insults you could deliver was to call someone “conceited.” If you thought a lot yourself, you knew it was best to hide it, because, well, it looked bad. Smart narcissists know to pretend they’re not conceited.

We are a nation that promotes individualism. But the United States was founded by the Puritans and others who eschewed the pursuit of selfish aims. The ideal of the rugged loner has survived much better than the aspiration to selflessness. “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic, helped promote the idea that being good to help others was less important than being good to help yourself. Social observers have examined this growing trend from Tom Wolfe’s  “the Me Decade” (1970s), Christopher Lasch’s  “the Culture of Narcissism,” (1980s), to Jean Twenge’s “Generation Me” (2000s). Now David Brooks is calling out “selfists”—you know, those people who are always bragging about their self-care routines—usually on social media, where everyone can read all about them. But while self-focused phenomena are sometimes taken to obnoxious levels, they should not be attributed only to unchecked narcissism.

Social trends both influence and are reflected by psychological issues. Problems of “the self” are pervasive, but more often they are not related to too much self-love, but too little. The eminent psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut developed a new model called “self psychology” precisely because he recognized that disorders in this area were much more common now than the kinds of neuroses that Sigmund Freud saw in his patients at the turn of the 20th century. Cultural conditions had changed since the Victorian Era when patients typically suffered from anxieties caused by overstimulation and sexual conflicts. But in the final years of the century, people more often suffered feelings of emptiness, depression, addictions and other problems that Dr. Kohut saw as the result of a fragmented, fragile, or disordered sense of self.

Yes, these are problems in the realm of narcissism, but even the most flagrant narcissists are usually defending against low self-worth, rather than the opposite. They need to pump themselves up and beg for attention in an effort to bolster their fragile egos. If they really “loved” themselves—had an internalized sense of self-worth and cared for themselves—they would not need so much approval and attention from others.

Healthy narcissism requires self-love that is both realistic and stable. This does not mean one is free from self-criticism—far from it. Self-love enables you to evaluate behavior with the empathy and compassion you would give a loved one. If you are not fragile, you do not need to fear looking at your faults, and are more likely to do so. But you look at them with the eyes of someone who wants the best for you and wants you to do better.

If you have an adequate sense of self, you are more likely to take responsibility for your actions. You do not need to blame others in order to protect a fragile ego. You are also more likely to empathize and try to understand others rather than to condemn them as bad people. Compassion toward the self is necessary to extend it to others. It is also an essential part of the ability to love others.

Mr. Brooks’ assertion that “selfists” have abandoned external standards of morality does not hold true for those with healthy selves. On the contrary, if you have a strong sense of self, internalized standards of morality are essential tools. The classic research of Harvard University’s Lawrence Kohlberg found that adhering to external standards of morality is less mature than having an internalized, personal sense of right and wrong. A person with internalized ethics can rely on them even when the external order has broken down.

Take the example of Oscar Schindler. When Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List was released, some critics were perplexed by Schindler’s dual nature as a black-marketer and savior of helpless Jews during the World War II.. Schindler liked a good time, and might be described as self-indulgent. But having an internalized sense of right and wrong, he acted mostly in opposition to the external standards endorsed by his country. He deemed stealing from the Nazis as acceptable, while murdering innocent Jews was not. A man with a forceful sense of self, he took great risks to be able to live up to his ideals, risks that those with less faith in themselves and their beliefs would not dare to take.

Lack of self-love causes us to be more self-centered, because energy must be spent to hold a fragile self together. But condemning the whole self-care movement is misguided. As people take adequate care of themselves, treat themselves with more love and compassion, they are made stronger and more able to love others too.

Leading a selfless life is rarely sustainable, or even recommended. If you are unable or unwilling to care for yourself you will have nothing to give.  You would not want a surgeon who never takes time off to care for his health and relaxation, and parents who never have a break from childcare are not necessarily better parents than those that know they need some self-care on a regular basis.

If you sit down to eat and have enough, it’s much easier to leave the table; you can move onto other things, while hunger is distracting and hinders our ability to help others. People who take adequate care of themselves need less from others, and are more likely to be generous. Knowing you are good enough enhances your ability to share with others. If more of us practiced healthy self-care then a less selfish and less angry world would follow.

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