I think about self-love a lot. And I believe there are two common misunderstandings we have about it.
For example, sometimes we believe that to be lovable, we must do great and awesome things. We believe we must stand out from the crowd.
For instance, we might believe we only deserve to love ourselves if we are the most talented.
Or we might we might believe we only deserve to love ourselves if we are the most beautiful.
“Pepita Bobadilla”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
If you are like a lot of people, you’ve probably tried to earn love at one point or another.
And if you do this for any length of time, you soon find it is an exhausting and impossible task.
After all, if we are only worthy of love when we accomplish great things, it means that only our accomplishments are worthy of love. Not us.
“Man Chasing Trophy”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Not only that, if we are only worthy of love when we accomplish great things, we will never feel secure in love.
That’s because no matter what we accomplish, someone else will come along eventually and accomplish greater things.
Then their accomplishments, it seems, negate our worth.
So, no matter how you look at it, trying to earn the right to love ourselves doesn’t work.
And so that brings us to the first misunderstanding about self-love.
Misunderstanding #1: We only deserve to love ourselves when we accomplish great things or are better than others in some way.
Many of us eventually figure out that trying to earn love by doing more is an impossible task.
(You can read more about this here: Why We Often Feel Bad about Ourselves.)
So, sometimes we decide that self-love means that we automatically deserve whatever we want.
And certainly that’s not true.
For example, it would be silly for me to assume that because I am worthy of love, this means that I automatically deserve to practice medicine.
After all, it is only reasonable for me to practice medicine if I have gone to medical school and met all necessary requirements.
If I want to be a physician, I need to practice being a physician (i.e. through education, internships, etc.).
On the one hand, most people understand that being worthy of love doesn’t mean we deserve to practice medicine.
On the other hand, sometimes people mistakenly believe that if we are worthy of love, it means we deserve people’s friendship.
Or it means we deserve people’s attention, time, or romantic interest.
And this certainly isn’t true.
For example, it is true that I am worthy of love. But it is not necessarily true that people should be my friend.
Friendship isn’t something to which we are entitled.
It is a relationship we cultivate with other by practicing kindness, care, vulnerability, encouragement, and other nurturing habits.
After all, if I am rude and selfish, I won’t be a good friend to anyone.
And people would be wise to steer clear of me if I continue to behave in this manner.
Thus, I don’t deserve to be a doctor simply because I am worthy of love. And I also don’t deserve people’s friendship simply because I am worthy of love.
So, this brings us to the second misunderstanding people have about self-love.
Misunderstanding #2: Self-love means that we deserve anything we want.
Now if you are like a lot of people, you may associate self-love with getting or deserving what you want.
And in fact, that is a common cultural message we receive.
For example, consider the beauty pageant phenomenon.
Beauty pageants suggest that pageant winners are the most beautiful and talented women in the world.
Accordingly, many people desire to be their friend or lover.
Beauty pageants communicate that the most beautiful person deserves to love themselves because they are the best.
Accordingly, the message goes, they also deserve everyone’s attention and love.
Or consider the movie star phenomenon.
Many people believe movie stars are beautiful and talented.
And they adore them.
In fact, if you ask the average person who their ideal partner is, they will often name a famous movie star or model.
Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Accordingly, we often learn that traits such as beauty and talent earn you the right to love yourself, as well as the right to undying devotion or attention.
It’s no wonder, then, that many people equate self-love with deserving whatever we want.
But, as we have seen, it is a misunderstanding to assume that because we are worthy of love, we deserve anything we want.
And if that is the case, we need a different way to think about self-love.
Thinking Like a Tree can help us cultivate this appropriate view.
Most of us recognize that trees don’t need to do anything special to be worthy as a trees.
They just need to do their tree thing.
For instance, when trees have all the sunlight, water, and nutrients they need, they grow and flourish.
Trees are beautiful just by growing into their natural tree selves. They are worthy of love, simply because they are trees.
The love I speak of here is recognition and respect for the unique treeness of trees.
This love is also the kindness we show to trees (and other plants) when we do what we can to nurture their growth.
And this kind of love also expresses compassion for trees when they suffer because of blight or pests. And we do what we can to help them so they can grow again.
There is something intrinsically good about trees. And showing respect, kindness, and compassion to them helps them express this goodness.
Nevertheless, it would be very strange if a tree decided that it deserves everything, simply because it is a tree.
For instance, it would be strange for a tree to decide it should have all the attention of all the other plants and animals in the forest.
And of course, that’s not the way trees behave.
In proper conditions, trees grow and express their tree selves.
And in doing so, they form a healthy ecosystem.
That is, they naturally form strong relationships with all the other plants and animals in the forest.
And they do this without demanding the attention of all forest life.
So, Thinking Like a Tree can still help us understand a proper view of self-love.
Just like trees have a natural ability to express their treeness, human beings also have a special ability to express their humanness.
On the one hand, our humanness is something that we share with every other human.
In fact, our humanness connects us to others.
On the other hand, our humanness is also original to us because of our unique, one-of-a-kind-life.
I call our original, one-of-a-kind humanness our unique goodness.
Our unique goodness is our ability to express reason and virtue in our original life.
(If you come from a spiritual tradition, you can think of your unique goodness as your divinity. Or you might think of it as the magic you possess because of God’s image and power in you.)
And it is our ability to do so for our good and the good of everyone else.
So because we can express this unique goodness, we are worthy of love.
The love I speak of in this context is the recognition and respect of our unique goodness.
Love in this context is also kindness that we express by encouraging our unique goodness.
But if we love ourselves authentically in the way I have mentioned above, it naturally leads us to love and respect others.
After all, if we possess unique goodness, so does everyone else.
So, loving ourselves authentically leads us to encourage and support others.
It does this rather than encouraging us to believe we automatically deserve people’s time, attention, and interest.
Interestingly, however, the more we love ourselves authentically, the more we naturally form meaningful relationships.
After all, who doesn’t love someone who respects themselves and respects and encourages others?
Who doesn’t love someone who keeps learning and growing in a positive direction?
I love to be around folks like this. You probably do, too.
On the other hand, sometime we get disconnected from our unique goodness.
When we do this, we forget how to love ourselves authentically.
And as a result, we often act destructively towards ourselves and other people.
For instance, we may engage in actions that harm our ability to grow in a positive direction.
And we may try to use or control other people.
We do this rather than thinking about how we can encourage them.
When we act destructively, we still deserve love simply because we are a human being.
And in fact, love can help us reconnect with our unique goodness.
Love in this context looks like compassion. That is, we can show compassion to ourselves for making bad decisions.
And other people might also show compassion to us when we act badly.
Showing people compassion helps us remember that people are never the sum total of their worst behavior.
There is always something more, and good, to them.
When people act badly, we can have faith in them. We can believe in their ability to reconnect with their unique goodness and grow in a good direction.
And these insights help us correct our misunderstandings about self-love.
Misunderstanding #1: We only deserve to love ourselves when we accomplish great things.
Correction: We deserve to love ourselves simply because we are human beings.
The love I speak of in this context is respect, kindness, and compassion for our unique goodness.
Misunderstanding #2: Self-love means that we deserve anything we want.
Correction: Just because we are worthy of love does not mean we deserve anything we want.
Proper self-love respects our own unique goodness as well as that of others.
As such, we cultivate loving relationships through respect, kindness, and compassion.
Proper self-love helps us nurture our own unique goodness, as well as that of other people.
And proper self-love is the best possible foundation for getting the good things we desire.
Proper self-love helps us know we are worthy and helps us cultivate loving connections accordingly.
This is very different from trying to earn love through achievement or through developing a sense of desert or entitlement.
If you would like to read more about proper self-love, you might like this course recently published:
You might also like bell hooks’ book All About Love.
You can find this book on Amazon or at your local bookseller.
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