"Love yourself first and everything else falls into line."
As the co-founder of a successful retreat company in Sedona, Arizona, phrases like that were once part of my stock-in-trade. Like almost everyone else in the industry, I saw self-love as a panacea for virtually every modern ill from domestic violence to suicide, and felt certain I was on solid ground in doing so. After all, self-love is a staple of the $15 billion self-help industry in the United States; it's been touted by psychologists and educators as essential to personal well-being and professional success for more than 100 years; and my own life in Sedona seemed to confirm it.
Our clients wrote glowing reviews about how they had been working on their issues for years, and this retreat had finally been the big breakthrough they had always hoped for. Despite those reviews, I couldn’t help but notice that quite a few clients came back two or three times over the years, sometimes in worse shape emotionally than they had been in originally.
The magic bullet of self-love had not slain their demons after all. Mostly I think they were just lonely people who wanted someone to listen and care, and that’s what the retreat had really provided that felt so good. Unfortunately they had nowhere else to go but back where they came from, and that world was just as self-absorbed and uncaring as it had been when they left.
Is It New Age Or Old School?
Everyone knows the story of Narcissus, the handsome hunter from Greek mythology, who saw his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it, only to commit suicide when he realized this love could never be reciprocated. It was from this legend that Paul Näche coined the term narcissism in 1899, which the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka DSM-5, the primary reference source used by the American Psychiatric Association) now defines as a potential personality disorder, one of many that’s currently on the rise.
It turns out that Sedona, perhaps the capital of self-love, is no stranger to suicide. After a string of highly publicized suicides in Oak Creek Canyon, authorities finally erected a fence across Midgley Bridge in 2016 in an attempt to stem the tide of jumpers. It was the suicides that first caused me ask, if psychologists are promoting self-love as the ultimate path to wellness, while simultaneously labeling it a disorder, what's really going on?
The Rise of Self-Help.
The debate between those who think love is something we give ourselves and those who think love is something we give others has actually been going on for a very long time. If there's anything new about our time it's that self-love seems to be winning on a global scale. Advocates insist this is because it's a superior philosophy. Critics say it's simply the mantra of Western capitalism, a modern New Age "religion" that's devouring the planet with materialism, as 7.5 billion people strive individually to be all they can be. Self-love has now become the dominant paradigm.
The teachings of Phineas Quimby (1802–66), along with Helena Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine (1888). and her published journal Lucifer, are credited with launching the modern New Age movement.
Whether it was self-love or just self-absorption, the modern self-help industry as we know it began to develop right after World War II. We had just been though the horrors of a global war, millions had sacrificed their lives, the atomic bomb had been invented and we were feeling a little stressed by it all. What the world really wanted was a good self-help book.
Throughout the 50's, 60's and 70’s a string of psychologists like Eric Fromm and Abraham Maslow came along to fill that need. They proposed a re-evaluation of self-love in a positive light, arguing that it can be seen as different from being vain or narcissistic, meaning instead to care about oneself and take responsibility for oneself.
In the 90's the Internet exploded, and in the virtual world of selfies and social media that emerged, self-love was truly free to bloom with no restrictions. Gordon Gekko told us greed is good in the 1987 film Wall Street, and Rhonda Bryne gave us The Secret to manifesting anything we want in 2006.
The Real Question: Has It Worked?
Perhaps it’s time to ask what the result of all this self-love and positive thinking has been. How much improvement have we gotten for $15 billion a year? The best place to answer that question might be right here in the United States, where self-love has been promoted more vigorously than anywhere else. It’s the wealthiest and most powerful country on Earth, but the U.S. ranks pretty low on the list of happiest countries.
Stepping back from self-love for a moment into self-awareness, what we find is a nationwide opioid epidemic; the percentage of Americans using prescription anti-depressants has increased 100% and the suicide rate has increased by 24% since the 1999; and mass shootings have become a common occurrence.
The base emotional state these days seems to be one of loneliness, depression and anxiety, which in turn fuels a massive self-help industry heavily invested in promoting self-love. But what if self-love is like a heroin addiction: it feels good in the beginning, but it's really just more of the same medicine that's making us sick and isolated? What if we’ve become self-help junkies addicted to love; and the unrequited self-love of Narcissus is the only love we can get?
It All Depends On The Definition of Love.
Dr. Sue Johnson, author of the best-selling book Hold Me Tight, has suggested the ability to bond by sacrificing our own self-interest (even to the point of death) has been so essential to our evolutionary development, both as a species and as individuals, that we gave it a special word: LOVE.
From this perspective the real definition of love might be: “An attribute humans appear to possess in greater measure than any other species, which is the ability to give the deepest part of ourselves to another in a completely selfless way for the purpose of mutual support and emotional bonding."
In his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Buddhist philosopher Chögyam Trungpa notes that self-absorption is a well-known hazard for seekers: “This is the typical distortion of the Hinayana practice of self-contained meditation, self-enlightenment, and it is in some sense a form of aggression. There is no element of compassion and openness because one is so focused on one’s own experience."
It's true. Self-love can be a form of aggression. Its strongest advocates will tend to be completely unavailable when a crisis hits. Why? Because they don't want anything to disturb their quest for inner peace and total fulfillment, and therein lies the rub.
At some point almost all of us are going to run headlong into an overwhelming crisis, a moment in time when we are emotionally or physically unable to take care of ourselves. If everyone turns away at that moment, all the self-love in the world simply won’t be enough. Our real village consists of the people who are there during the most difficult times. The more we focus on self, the less resilient we are as a village. It’s never been more important to choose our friends wisely than it is in a self-absorbed culture that’s obsessed with status, money and power.
13 Reasons Why Self-love Is Failing.
The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s bestselling novel from 2007, provides a powerful look at the modern culture we’ve created and its consequences. Speaking in a voice from beyond the grave the central character, Hannah Baker, tells the story of her life as a bullied and abused high school sophomore, a life that tragically ends in betrayal, shame, rape and suicide.
One of the most poignant moments of the series comes at the beginning of Episode 7, when Hannah is describing her social isolation, "Humans are a social species. We rely on connections to survive. Even the most basic interactions help keep us alive. Statistics prove the subjective feeling of loneliness can increase the likelihood of premature death by 26%. If it sounds like I'm quoting from school textbook, I am. Too bad nobody bothered to read it."
Hannah’s voice refutes the story her self-absorbed abusers would like to tell: that she was just a troubled teen desperately seeking attention. 13 Reasons Why asks the question “Who killed Hannah Baker?” and comes to the conclusion that we all did.
Self-love advocate Elizabeth Bishop recently came to a radically different conclusion when she wrote:
“Suicide. Could there be a grander demonstration of self-destruction? I have
been personally impacted by suicide when we lost my nephew just over a
decade ago. I can recall thinking at one point, “If only he knew how much
he was loved.” And I realized that he probably did know it, but couldn’t feel it
or receive that love because he did not love himself. He had not developed
the capacity for self-compassion ― the very antidote that could have eased
his depression and suffering.”
But what if it wasn't the nephew's inability to receive love? What if it was the way our culture shames sorrow and trauma, by telling those who experience them that it's their fault? In this case we don't get to hear her nephew explaining in his own voice why he did it, but what if he didn't know how much he was loved?
Some psychologists (and lots of educators) have criticized 13 Reasons Why, claiming that it normalizes suicide, causing more teens to take their own lives. Putting aside the idea that everything should be openly discussed, opponents of the show apparently believe that a young person who has never been abused or bullied is going to kill themselves, as though a TV show about the culture is the problem, not the culture itself. The fact of the matter is that suicide is at record levels across all age groups, so maybe we should be talking about those underlying causes and exposing the connections.
What's easy enough to imagine is someone like Bishop working as the school counselor, when a student like Hannah Baker comes in to talk on the last day of her life. For those of us who believe compassion is something we’re supposed to give others, it’s also terrifying. Clearly Bishop would blame Hannah for the suicide. One has to suppose she would blame her for the rape as well, because there are no victims, right?
But what if suicides like Hannah's are just the inevitable consequence of living on a dying planet, in a culture unraveling from its obsession with materialism, and everyone around them being focused on self-love? If no one's willing to listen to her sorrows, how exactly is Hannah supposed to know she's loved?
13 Reasons Why ends with a dramatic plea from Clay, Hannah's would-be boyfriend and the story's other central character, "It has to get better. The way we treat each other, the way we look out for each other, somehow it has to get better."
The Airplane or the Raft?
Advocates of self-love like to use the airplane analogy as one of their intellectual proofs, because we all know that in the event of an emergency you have to place your own oxygen mask first before helping your child. Therefore we have to love ourselves first before helping others. I've even used the airplane analogy myself in the past.
But that analogy is about what's required to save both people, so it’s really a no-brainer. These days I think the true nature of love is better revealed by the life-raft analogy: the Titanic just sank and there's one small piece of debris floating in the water. It's just large enough one person. Now what?
Advocates of self-love might complain that this is an extreme scenario most people will never encounter, but I would suggest the life raft analogy is exactly where we are now as a species. The question before us at this very moment seems to be: "Are we willing to scale back on our quest for self-actualization, abundance and positive feelings in order take a more serious look at the problems and make room for future generations? Or do we forget about them and keep the party going?"
What About Religion?
"You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection". This quote has been widely circulated on the Internet and attributed to Buddha, even though Buddhist scholars have completely debunked it, pointing out that Buddhism emphasizes loving kindness towards others, not towards self. In fact, virtually all of the world's major religions have made accommodations to self-love in the modern era, but it doesn't appear to have been part of them originally.
Christianity - Using "Love thy neighbor as thyself" as an endorsement of self-love requires us to ignore dozens of other verses that are far less ambiguous, such as Matthew 16:24, ""Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." In it's origins Christianity is all about loving others and self-sacrifice.
Buddhism - Asserts that self doesn't even exist (the concept of "Anatman" or no-self).
Hinduism - Asserts that the self does exist (the concept of "Atman") but the suffering that results from this (samsara "wandering") can eventually be overcome with sufficient lifetimes and a state of perpetual bliss (nirvana "extinguished") may be attained.
Islam - The word itself means "surrender," and it's primary doctrine is that the greatest struggle of our lives is the internal conflict between the egotistical self and the will of God.
Indigenous - Traditionally tribal people place a tremendous importance on the village and the group. In fact, that's exactly what they've struggled to preserve in the modern era, with varying degrees of success.
The (Quiet) Mindfulness Revolution.
It's completely accurate to say that self-love has become a catch all term for self-respect, self-awareness, self-discipline, self-care and self-acceptance. Those are all good things. There are no limits on how much self-awareness we should have. When advocates of self-love have to add "but not in a narcissistic kind of way," it's an explicit acknowledgement that there are strict limits to how far one should go down this path. Unfortunately something vital seems to have been lost in the translation when self (with no limits) was relabeled to SELF (with very strict limits).
After 20 years of meditation practice I’ve certainly learned how to deliberately put myself into a state of joyful bliss. Accomplished through a combination of breathing, visualization and gratitude, the ability to intentionally create an internal state of joy is a wonderful skill to have. That's especially true for caregivers, who must use their empathy to connect with clients, but protect themselves from being swamped by constant exposure to the suffering of others.
Wanting to “feel happy” is the reason most people seek out self-help books and New Age workshops in the first place, so it’s easy to think we’ve gotten everything we wanted --- and discovered the key to salvation --- when we first learn how to intentionally create that internal state of happiness. It’s also easy to become addicted to it, forgetting that mindfulness was always meant to bring an awareness of both joy and sorrow. In my experience people are often devastated when tragedy comes to call, their friends flee, and their house of self-love comes crashing down around them.
For that reason I believe a worsening social and environmental crisis will soon shift our focus once again to the unlimited versions of self instead, and the most respected teachers will be using powerful words like intentional joy and bliss, combined with consequence, humility, responsibility and sacrifice.
After many miles and many teachers I’ve come to believe that the mind does not exist solely for an awareness of itself. To be grateful for what serves us is the easy part. The middle path Buddha spoke of calls for an awareness of the relationship between self and all that exists. That’s the harder part of enlightenment, but the meditation on relationship is where compassion arises.
Perhaps Mother Teresa summed it up best when she said, “I can only love one person at a time - just one. So you begin. I began - I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn't pick up that one person, I wouldn't have picked up forty-two thousand.”
SOME POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
The Grief & Trauma Resource Center is working to change all that, starting with two initiatives. The first is The Grief Network, a collection of private Facebook groups that provides a free online support group in your local community, moderated by those with more experience in how to find your way through the darkness -- the modern equivalent of village elders. It's the perfect place for sharing and inspiration, as well as arranging free therapeutic activities for members such as potluck dinners, hiking, gardening and book clubs with like-minded people who understand what you're going through. Members can also refer each other to grief-friendly businesses and services in their local community. Join today and help build the village you've been looking for.
Beyond Cliches & Platitudes: Emotional Intelligence For Grief & Trauma
Statistics show that at any given time about 75% of the population is going through some sort of personal tragedy, and ALL of us will eventually go through a crisis ourselves. That means whether we're aware of it or not, we all know someone right now who is experiencing grief, divorce or trauma. Yet most of us feel like we don't know how to help.
This two hour seminar is perfect for anyone who wants to "be there" and offer effective emotional support to a friend, family member client or co-worker in difficult times. It's designed to relegate worn out clichés and platitudes to the dustbin, replacing them with a powerful new set of tools. You'll learn the specifics of what to say (and what NOT to say) to the most important people in your life, at what may be the most critical moment of theirs. Upgrading your emotional communication skills is guaranteed to be life changing both personally and professionally. Click here to learn more.
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Ed Preston is the Founder of The Grief & Trauma Resource Center, an online directory created to provide more accurate information to the general public about grief and trauma. His own decades long journey with grief has lead him down many paths. He holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology, is a scholar of the Orphan Wisdom School, and a breath meditation teacher.