When I was a kid, I wanted to become the best. As is typical for a child who’s bullied, and even for some adults, being the best implies a victory, that you’ve exhibited your greatness to your tormentors and ultimately silenced them. Self-love in that respect is conditional, solely based on your ability to achieve superiority. Without it, you’re a reflection of perceptions.
Children, who often see the world in black and white, tend to think of life as being divided into winners and losers. And when they’re made to feel like they’re the latter, the can adapt by deciding to become superior to the former. I spend most of my waking hours trying to figure out how to make people like themselves in a healthy way. Online, we’re bombarded with countless articles on cultivating self-love; I even have a few up, too. But, how many people actually love themselves or know how to? What if love isn’t actually meant for oneself or, at the least, isn’t easily attainable? In a recent conversation with my client about the topic, she told me about a movement dubbed “body neutrality,” which she described as being a way to simply feel okay about your body; the goal wasn’t love or body positivity. To her, it seemed like the more reasonable option as she believed her body was impossible to love. And our conversation sparked a shift in my thinking about self-image in general.
Usually, when people say that they love themselves, their statements betray clinical narcissism. If I were to ask you how you felt about yourself on a scale from 1-10 and you told me “10,” I’d assess you for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. People who consider themselves to be 10’s conceive of themselves as being perfect; even an 8 or a 9 is reason for suspicion. And most clinicians will tell you that choosing a 6 or 7 on the scale indicates a healthy self-image. But that goes against cultural expectations and norms; people want to feel like 10s, despite the fact that no one actually feels that way, not even narcissists. If self-love is love, it seems, then self-love is a mirage. Every individual that I’ve met who’s told me that he loved himself fundamentally didn’t. And when I was a teenager, I wanted to convince the world of how much I did. But none of it was genuine.
For me, and I couldn’t accept it then, superiority was a lost cause due to my flaws. Even if I became more muscular, I’d still have a big nose. If I altered that, I’d still have a lazy eye. And so on it goes. So, if we’re pushing for self-love, I’d tell you that I can’t achieve it. My flaws may not disqualify my positive traits, yet they make me unlovable to myself. But again, self-love may be the wrong target. While it’s easy for me to discount others’ imperfections, I can’t do that for myself. And since the natural barrier between accepting ourselves and accepting others is so pervasive, where one is difficult and the other easy, I’ve resolved to halt my efforts to demolish it. Essentially, in a world where self-love and self-disdain appear as the only options, I’m arguing instead for self neutrality.
So what’s that? If you’ve ever seen the film 8 Mile, there’s a scene in it toward the end where the protagonist, B-Rabbit, exposes all of his flaws in the movie’s final rap battle. Rap battles are ordinarily contests that entail insults hurled at opponents, but, this time, the spotlight was solely placed on the MC. (Rabbit pretty much used his time to expose himself.) Did it mean that Rabbit finally learned to love himself enough to show it? Or that his flaws were inescapable and shouldn’t result in self-loathing? Rather than self-love, self-empathy ought to be the goal. Through it, we can accept that most of our flaws are not our faults and that it’s silly to hate yourself for something you can’t control. B-Rabbit won the battle because he gained what the others around him couldn’t: self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance is different from self-love in that there’s no pretense.
Self-acceptance is self-neutrality. It’s the ability say that you’re a flawed individual who possesses some good traits, but that the flaws are not your fault and, thus, don’t disqualify you altogether. Self-acceptance entails humility, the knowledge that being the best isn’t within your reach. Most of my teens and twenties were wasted on trying to prove my value when I was never going to believe in it to begin with; there would always be someone better. Getting off of the self-love treadmill is akin to leaving the hedonic one. Most of us put so much pressure on ourselves to finally feel good that we fail to acknowledge how much time is wasted on it.
I’ll never love myself and you likely won’t, either. But, knowing that others will continue to love me as I love them makes that pursuit more valuable than the other one.