Nowadays social media tend to dictate trends. So-called challenges like the #IceBucketChallenge continuously fill the web. Sometimes, though created for a good cause, they put people’s health at risk. If we add to that a modern culture of alcohol, smoking, drugs, chemsex and of a toxic obsession about body image & weight, it seems to me neglecting or abusing our Health is unfortunately trendy. I write Health with a big ‘H’ as I see the wholeness of mental/psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual health to be the equation of Well-Being.
We live in a society praising more than ever unrealistic role models and lifestyles with unreachable body proportions and egomaniac stardoms of people who have no other talent than being self-absorbed. When you look online for health advice, the trend is to be a vegan gym addict obsessed by food and weight. Is this healthy? Isn’t it the other side of the same coin of those unrealistic role models? Doesn’t it create or reinforce shame, body image issues, eating disorders, lack of confidence and self-esteem for individuals who can’t or don’t relate to this modern archetype of health? I wish not to dismiss the perks of gym and veganism but to highlight a concern about associating health with body image, food and weight obsession. Like pretty much everything in life, Health is about quality & quantity, the quality being about attitude & perspective whereas the quantity is about regulation & balance. As a Counsellor, I believe self-love is a necessary focus for Health.
I already hear the critics about the danger of our society being already too selfish, narcissistic and that self-love is the focus of this toxic societal coin I just criticised. But self-absorption, unhealthy narcissism or unhealthy selfishness are nothing but distortions of self-love. I associate self-love with self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-respect and self-esteem which I like to perceive as an integrated whole called self-care:
How can we consider self-love without self-care? Can we love ourselves without caring for ourselves, and vice versa? And how can we love and care for ourselves if we don’t accept, respect and value who we are while being compassionate about our psychological & emotional experience, struggles, mistakes and failures?
I believe self-love is the key to self-realization (1). Self-realization is integrating consciously all our personality components as a whole, to come to terms with and accept who we are; acceptance being a component of self-love (2). On another hand, it is realising our soulful potential, our Higher Self (I mean that in a non-exclusively religious spiritual way). This might not be the only meaning of life but I share the belief of humanistic and existential psychologies that we all have ‘an inbuilt propensity toward self-realization’ (3) which represents a universal life meaning and purpose. As a Therapist, I consider facilitating self-realization for my clients as one of my core functions, helping them notably to become aware and remove obstacles (4). I don’t see how any self-realization would be possible without self-love, nor what could be healthier than realising our life meaning and purpose while and by loving ourselves.
With that in mind, I wish to challenge common conceptions about narcissism and selfishness. Through various contents and conversations, I noticed how narcissism and selfishness are strongly pathologized and only considered as negative toxic behaviours or personality types to avoid or “cure”. Though I wouldn’t contest that in some extreme cases they can become pathological, I think seeing them only in unhealthy extremes is a widespread misconception that focuses on distortions of self-love. I believe both narcissism and selfishness aren’t necessarily unhealthy and might even be desirable for our mental health. I would suggest that heathy narcissism represents the quality and healthy selfishness the quantity of self-love.
In my practice, I often invite my clients to reflect on, practice and nurture what I call healthy narcissism and healthy selfishness. It took me years of personal & professional process and witnessing others to articulate a non-definitive and evolving conceptualisation of those as spectrums, with at their core my model of ‘Self-Care equals Self-Love’. I need to empathise that those spectrums aren’t to be considered as a rigid way of perceiving someone’s identity but more as an invitation to reflect on the constantly evolving behaviours of one individual and how those behaviours are sourced by and impacting on their evolving identity and environment. Every human characteristics can be conceptualised into flexible and mutable spectrums within which it would be desirable to develop and nurture our unique healthy balance.
I believe well-being requires the healthy balance between the unhealthy ‘not enough’ and ‘too much’ self-love; hence my Narcissism Spectrum below.
Note I didn’t create the vulnerable and grandiose types of narcissism (5), qualified as narcissistic disorders by the DSM (6). I suggest to consider them as the two opposite extremes of the Narcissism Spectrum. Healthy Narcissism is self-consideration and humble confidence as the balance between the ‘not enough’ self-devaluation and the ‘too much’ self-idealisation.
Though quantity is involved, for me healthy narcissism is the quality of self-love because it is about learning how to love ourselves properly and to give ourselves the consideration we deserve. Partially caused by the inheritance of religious guilt, it appears to me that “I am a good person if I beat myself down” is a collective unconscious belief of what humility and self-esteem should look like. Auto-flagellation is self-hatred. Self-hatred isn’t humility. Owning everything we are, feel and do is. Healthy narcissism is owning both our strengths, weaknesses, qualities, flows, mistakes, struggles, failures and achievements, with the same ‘unconditional positive regard’7, empathy, respect, acceptance and compassion. Learning when to praise ourselves and when to face adversity with openness is real humility.
Healthy narcissism is letting go of our fantasies about who we should or would like to be, and learning to love ourselves for who we truly are and could become. It is knowing when and how to look and focus inward, outward or both. A healthy narcissism allows empathy and selflessness, because it is about balance and because self-love isn’t exclusive but intricate with loving others.
I see healthy selfishness as the quantity of self-love because it is learning to know when and how much to give ourselves, others or both in terms of time, treats and efforts. Healthy selfishness is our existential freedom that stops where the freedom of others starts8. It is about healthy self-indulgence and interconnectedness. Here again, no healthiness without balance and regulation. If we constantly behave too selfishly, we might fuel egomaniac/narcissistic tendencies. We may push people away, not receive love and end up not loving ourselves. Like for many extremes, we might adopt them alternatively. And not enough selfishness is also harmful.
Healthy selfishness and good will9 are inextricable. Good will is about aiming the welfare of others and/or humanity without being detrimental to ourselves. Too often I see individuals putting their sense of self-esteem and self-worth into devotion and self-sacrifice. Note that helping others solely to value ourselves may demonstrate a misplaced ego and unhealthy narcissistic tendencies potentially inherited from guilt, religious or not.
Self-sacrifice, - no matter how pure one’s intentions can be -, is a distortion of good will and by extension a distortion of self-love through a lack of selfishness. This lack is the unhealthy selfishness I often work on with clients identifying with being ‘The Loyal Child’, ‘The Dedicated Parent, Partner or Friend’ etc. I try to help them learn to use the qualities of being responsible for and loyal to someone for their own benefit. I facilitate their reflection by questioning them. Don’t we need to be loyal to ourselves? Responsible for ourselves? Wouldn’t it be preferable or even necessary to be responsible for and loyal to ourselves before others? If we see ourselves as the tool helping others, how can we help them with a damaged tool and how will we help them if we come to break it? Would a Driver neglect their car? Would a Therapist neglecting their well-being be able to take care of their clients’ well-being? (That is a funny one.)
THE REGULATING ROLE OF OUR INNER CRITIC
Now, finding your healthy balance of narcissism and selfishness to develop and nurture a healthy self-love can be very difficult and challenging. As evoked, both narcissism and selfishness also require a certain quality and quantity to constitute the same traits for a healthy balanced self-love. It entails trying, experiencing, failing, finding a balance, evolving, losing that balance, and working on finding a new one. It necessitates a constant and renewable introspection, exploration and regulation.
A regulation that can be facilitated by communicating with our Inner Critic. A negative and controlling self-devaluating and self-sabotaging Inner Critic is incredibly common if not universal. By communicating adequately with them, we may reduce their negative impacts.
We need to learn to listen to our Inner Critic without considering they tell the truth, hear what they have to say, and through introspection and exploration get to understand them and the value their messages might hold. Sometimes what they hold is why and how fragmented our self-love still is. Listening to them with a compassionate and empathic dialogue may well be the key to restore our self-love. I say restore because we are born with it and it gets wounded even before we realised we had it. It is a very hard practice to listen to our Inner Critic without taking on board their negativity. I encourage my clients to listen to their Inner Critic, thank them for what they had to say, and tell them if and maybe even why they won’t be taking something on board.
When The Inner Critic is too loudly negative, refuses to be dismissed, I sometimes invite my clients to tell them to “F*** off”. My clients generally report how empowering the latter can be. Note that dismissing quietly or with the latter after an active listening is completely different from repressing or denying our Inner Critic. It is facing them, controlling what we do with them, whereas repression and denial are a good guarantee of being controlled by them; hereby the importance of dis-identifying from them through awareness10.
Hopefully, a healthy communication with our Inner Critic will allow us to grow, turning negativity into constructive feedback, but also discovering their positive side. Note that positive and healthy are interchangeable adjectives that we talk about Inner Critic, narcissism or selfishness. I hope by now positive narcissism or selfishness won’t feel like an oxymoron. As a Counsellor, I seek for my clients to become partners with their Positive Inner Critic in their quest for self-love and self-realization.
I have so much more to say about the stigmatising conception of self-love, narcissism and selfishness, and I am aware I haven’t given any practical tips on how to develop them in a healthy way, and develop this regulating and enriching partnership with our Inner Critic. I will say it is a personal journey, with or without a therapeutic support. I just wish here to make the challenge of self-love an everlasting health trend. Well-being through self-love and self-realization, wouldn’t it be the greatest challenge of all? Let’s practice self-love as our daily self-care hygiene. #TheSelfLoveChallenge.
1 A Psychology of the Spirit, by John Firman & Ann Gila.
2 Loveability, by Robert Holden.
3 & 4 The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin D. Yalom.
6 “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.” Definition by The American Psychiatric Association. [https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm/feedback-and-questions/frequently-asked-questions].
7 Psychosynthesis: Counselling in Action, by Diana Whitmore.
8 Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, by Walter Kaufman; lecture by Andy Blunden [https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm].
9 Unfolding Self: The Practice of Psychosynthesis, by Molly Young Brown.
10 Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings, by Roberto Assagioli.