Since it’s February, a month in which we celebrate love, I thought I would join in and write a little bit about it, in particular, about self-love. Now if you’re starting to roll your eyes, just form a line right behind Darra, our resident physical therapist/ yoga instructor. At the mere mention of the word “self-love”, Darra raised her eyes to the heavens so much so that only the whites of her eyeballs were visible and said, “Oh no, it’s impossible to stay in the middle.” I found this startling given her passionate insistence in the BFF program on training the body in such a way to foster the balance between front and back and left and right sides, to maintain optimal spinal alignment from top to bottom, and stride the line between strength and flexibility. She, in fact, seems to live in the middle terrain of things. However, my curiosity had been piqued. Darra was concerned that self-love when taken too far would turn into narcissism. This made me pause because to the contrary I'd read that narcissism actually stems from an utter lack of self-love. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
One of the pillars of wellness is the quality of our social connections. This is supported in research. And the quality and depth of our relationships are determined by how authentically we are willing to show up. If there is a part of me I am embarrassed or ashamed of, I might be tempted to hide it from you and pretend to be something different altogether. If I have not accepted that the way I am and how I move about in the world is an okay way to be, I might present myself in a way that I believe would be more acceptable to you. I might feel the need to do more or give more so that you’ll like me. In the end, although we may seem close, you actually don’t really know me at all. Now, some of us just like to give and that’s fine, but it’s a different thing to do something out of the desire to serve versus doing that thing out of the need to be liked, which is actually people-pleasing.
There was a time in my life when I found myself often resentful of some of the people closest to me. At first, I’d attributed it to my stressful workaholic lifestyle. I was just grumpy. I had a full time job, a few side gigs, and was in the process of building a business. Despite this, I was trying to fit everyone into my schedule. I was exhausted and I finally realized the reason for that when a friend canceled on me one day. I was mad as hell. It was her idea to meet up. I’d moved things around on my end to make it happen, and in one swift moment she just canceled on me. She had too much on her plate that day, so she said. I thought to myself, “I would never do that to anyone.” It was then that it hit me. I felt it in my body. It was like icy cold water had struck my face. I felt my own breathing, my heart beating. I felt the tension in my muscles and my own skin, and with the noticing of it, it began to dissolve.
I was exhausted because I'd hardly ever said no. I’d rearranged and canceled my own priorities so often to accommodate other people. In my attempts to make them happy and give them what I believed they wanted, I’d never acknowledged how I felt to myself, least of all anyone else. I’d pretended to be an easy-breezy no-fuss low-maintenance anything-goes I-can-do-everything and nothing-ever-bothers-me kind of person when I was actually really mad as hell. No one asked me to do it but I’d put their desires before my own needs and never asked for help, and I unreasonably resented them for it. I also resented the fact that I couldn't tell them about it, because I thought, "They should already know." I recognized at that moment that my resentment was a clear indication that I’d been people-pleasing. When I woke up to myself and started paying attention to how I really felt in any given situation, it became easier to prioritize my own energy and time. I began practicing saying no more when I really didn’t want to do something or when something didn’t feel right to me. I began expressing my feelings more, albeit tentatively at times, and you know what? No one got mad, and the world did not end.
Self-love involves self-care and doing nice things for yourself, surely, but I think the larger part of it is maintaining some boundaries to safeguard our own mental and emotional well-being and just saying no when we mean no. Let’s practice. No, I don’t really want to do that, thank you. No, I don’t like that. No, I actually prefer something else. No, I don’t appreciate what you’re saying to me. No, that’s not really fine with me. Just, no. If you’re a recovering people-pleaser like me, you may get a faint whiff of the odor of guilt, and that’s ok. It will pass.
Now, if you’re worried that too much self-love will turn you into a narcissist, you are more than likely not one. I doubt a true narcissist would ever worry about such a thing. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines narcissistic as: 1. Extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of importance: marked by or characteristic of excessive admiration of or infatuation with oneself, 2. Displaying or marked by excessive concern with one’s own physical appearance.
In my experience, people who are self-centered and excessively infatuated with themselves generally have a desperate subconscious need to feel validated. This often goes hand in hand with a marked concern with physical appearance because they need to be perceived by others in a very particular way. Now, needing to feel validated is nothing to be ashamed of. I think we all do sometimes. However, most of us don’t always default to blaming other people for our feelings of insecurity. A person with narcissistic tendencies will contend that if you behaved correctly, then they would not feel bad, angry, jealous, sad, frustrated, etc. They externalize everything and think, “If I suddenly feel unlovable or uncomfortable, it must be because of something you said or did.” They, in fact, lack the ego strength to take responsibility for their own feelings and end up asking others to change, apologize, soothe, cajole, and make things right for them, but this is just a temporary bandage and they end up demanding more and more. This inability to tap into their own vulnerability renders them unable to empathize with other people. But this type of self-centeredness does not equal self-love. It’s quite the opposite. The cure for narcissism in both the narcissist and those near them is, in fact, self-love because it is in this space of acceptance of and forgiveness for our imperfections and perceived weaknesses that we come into contact with love. If I really loved myself, I would not need you to reflect my worth back to me. This, for many of us, is not easy work.
Years ago, I used to work with teenagers regularly. There was one particular young girl who stands out in my mind among the many teenagers who came to us over and over in order to get pregnancy testing. Their lives had obviously not been easy and while some presented a sweet demeanor, most carried an air of defiance about them. This girl had already come several times within the past weeks for pregnancy tests when finally one day, exasperated, I asked her, “Why are you trying so hard to get pregnant?” She answered simply, “So I can have someone who loves me.” This broke my heart and left me momentarily speechless. This is the work. We as humans all have a natural need for love, connection, and belonging. If our early experiences don’t support our perception of our own worthiness, we might end up looking for love in all kinds of odd and, sometimes, painful places. But here is where we find grace - self-love is a muscle that can be strengthened with practice. Sometimes it’s helpful to put someone else in our place and ask ourselves, “If a person I loved was in this situation, what would I have them do? What would I have them say?”
In the wellness world, we often speak of the importance of warm supportive social connections in decreasing stress, increasing immunity against illness, and boosting our overall sense of well being. The more subtle addition less spoken of is the self-love we can nurture so that we actually allow ourselves to show up as we are and accept the support that is offered to us. I hope I've convinced you that a healthy abundance of self-love will not make you into a narcissistic person. During this month, I invite you to love yourself extravagantly without reserve. Practice breathing deeply, and notice how your body feels each day. Love yourself in all your messiness and all the stickiness of life. Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Don’t worry about being too much or not enough. The people who really love you don’t care and won’t ask you to be anything other than what you already are.