Beginning in high school, I saw more and more messages on social media proclaiming over and over the importance of self-love. I remember reading that when you felt sad, stressed, or anxious, you should take time for self-love. Examples of self-love included taking a hot bath, eating your favorite food, eating sweets, cleaning your room or organizing your space, and calling a friend. But unmitigated self-love can lead to a self-destructive cycle, where you’re controlled by your emotions. Settling in too deep into this cycle can lead to a cycle of unhappiness.
What Is Self-Love?
According to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, “Self-love is a state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions that support our physical, psychological, and spiritual growth. Self-love means having a high regard for your own well-being and happiness. Self-love means taking care of your own needs and not sacrificing your well-being to please others. Self-love means not settling for less than you deserve.” It’s driven by emotion. If you feel negatively, then you may turn to self-love to feel better.
Self-love means taking care of your own needs and not sacrificing your well-being to please others.
You can also see different flavors of self-love on social media. Searching “self love Instagram” on Google yields over one billion results, with the top one being a blog detailing self-love accounts you should follow. Instagram-flavored self-love tends to be based on positive messaging and relatable memes, and that made up a lot of the messaging I saw in my youth.
How Can Self-Love Be Destructive?
The problem with self-love is that it puts the self at the center of everything; it states you are the most important thing, and it’s important to take care of yourself above all else.
While taking care of yourself is good, when taken to its extreme, it becomes self-centeredness. The ambiguity in its definition also allows for morphing into self-centeredness. After all, what does “not sacrificing your well-being” really mean? What’s stopping someone from saying it begins at being inconvenienced? If taken too far, you’re placed at the center of everything, which doesn’t help when the world doesn’t actually revolve around you. The current mainstream portrayal of self-love leads to people having an attitude of entitlement, which can lead to self-destructive behavior.
One example of this self-destructive behavior that’s been affirmed by the self-love movement is body positivity. When the body-positivity movement — defined as “the assertion that all people deserve to have a positive body image, regardless of how society and popular culture view ideal shape, size, and appearance” — is paired with self-love, the consequences of it can be worsening health. When self-love calls for appreciating yourself and having a high regard for your own happiness, and when body positivity calls for having a positive body image no matter what, you’re led down a path of accepting yourself, even when your habits and lifestyle are ultimately going to hurt you in the long run.
Should We Ignore Our Emotions, Then?
The answer is “no.” Emotions are important and have been with us since the very beginning. When humans were hunting or gathering resources for survival, fear allowed them to survive. If we never felt fear, we wouldn’t have known to remove ourselves from perilous situations or to move faster or more carefully through them to get out safely.
Emotions are indicators of what we need to do to survive.
Today, emotions are still indicators of what we need to do to survive. Stress can indicate we have too much on our plate, or that we’re trying to get too much done all at once. Anxiety stems from fear, and if we look into why we’re feeling anxious, we can come up with a realistic plan of action for how to avoid making our fears come true, or we can bring ourselves out of that space by talking to ourselves about why we shouldn’t be feeling that fear.
Is Self-Love No Good?
Dr. Jordan Peterson, in his book, 12 Rules For Life, wrote one rule that may be the best way to approach, or maybe even redefine, self-love: “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” Self-love is good, but not when taken to an indulgent extreme. Rather than regularly treating yourself with things that may make you happy only in the short-term, such as eating unhealthy comfort food or taking time to relax instead of facing your problems, it’s important to treat yourself as someone you’re in charge of taking care of.
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
Would you allow your friend to regularly eat their feelings, or spend a lot of time relaxing or wallowing in their own sadness in an acknowledgment of their feelings? Would you encourage them to indulge in self-indulgent behavior in the name of self-love or body positivity because they should love themselves, even if they’re making themselves unhealthy? We want our friends to be happy and healthy, and we want the best for them. If we can call them out when they’re on a self-destructive track, shouldn’t we call ourselves out, as well?
When I was young, I bought into Instagram-flavored self-love. When I was taking time to relax, or focusing on myself and my own feelings, I inadvertently became more and more driven by my emotions. Feel sad? Self-love. Feel angry? Self-love. Instead of facing a negative situation head-on, to come out stronger on the other side, I was making myself softer, less capable of facing difficult situations. Ultimately, self-love tactics don’t remove your problems, only provide a brief respite from them. So I wasn’t actually any happier in the long-term.
Emotions are good and important for our survival. But we can’t allow them to determine our behaviors, without the restraint of any logic. Without any discipline, we’re at the command of our emotions, and we only become weaker.