Narcissus - The First Guru of Self-Love
So you’re looking for love. One day you’ll happen to tell a friend or acquaintance that you’ve come to a point in your life where you are ready to meet someone and I can guarantee, at least once, you will be told that what you should do first, is love yourself. It’s well intentioned but what does it really mean? It’s a common mantra you will hear over and over again in the spiritual/New Age/self-help community. It varies to a certain degree but the basic gist is that in order to find romantic love and have a relationship, you must first practice self-love and it’s close relative, self-acceptance. As someone who has endeavoured to self-enquire and self-develop it was always a mantra I took as gospel and took for granted. On some level it made sense. If you want to find someone special, you should kinda be special yourself so that you can attract that in The Other. After many years of living and exploring this concept, I feel it’s time to call absolute bullshit on it once and for all. Platitudes like this are basically just meaningless without context and qualification. Here are some bullet-points regarding this reflexive phenomenon:
The idea that you need to love yourself at first sounds reasonable but on closer inspection, is in fact the epitome of narcissism. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a beautiful hunter. The story goes that whilst gazing at and admiring his reflection in the river, he fell in love with himself. This self-love was so deep he became distressed that a love this profound could never be requited and so he killed himself. I think you know where I’m going with this… So my simple question is, what does self-love consist of? If we are talking about building self-esteem and having the assertiveness to set healthy boundaries, then I’m all for it. But then, why not just call it that? Because this is never explicitly said in the self-love mantra, instead, people genuinely looking for wisdom in fact begin to associate self-love with concepts of mainstream body images and cultural trends. What actually emerges is self-gazing and self-love becomes predicated on ones physical appearance, diet, practices of various New Age therapies and a shopping list of attributes that The Other must possess. These things, as lovely and as life affirming as they undoubtedly are, do not form an adequate foundation for healthy relating. Self-love is not the same as relating, which is quite possibly the most important and key component in relationships! Connected to what is learnt from childhood, our issues in relationships often aren't about not loving ourselves enough but actually stem from unconscious patterns of relating that have been established while growing up. I once knew a guy that, like Narcissus, loved himself like no Other could but on reflection I see this was a form of avoidance, rather than a healthy expression of self-worth. Self-love here was an inability to compromise and see ones own fallibility. Therefore we see that relating is not just about your love of self but also about authenticity, surrender, trust and humility when relating to The Other. And actually, realising we are not always the most important person in the equation. Which brings me to my next point…
If relationships are about relating and The Other is a mirror, then self-love is an incomplete equation when it comes to the subject of romantic love. How are you to know which aspects of yourself could improve without the feedback, relating and experience of The Other? Let me tell you a personal story. Before I last became involved in my last relationship, I was single for around seven years. This was predominantly out of choice as I had realised, after another previous failed relationship, that I had some healing and self-work to do. In this time I really took this self-work very seriously and a new me emerged so that when I finally met my partner, I was at a point in my life where I could honestly say I ‘loved myself’ and felt ‘whole’ blah blah. Well… Lol. What I discovered quite quickly was that this self-work was wholly incomplete without the responsiveness and mirror of The Other. Suddenly in a new relationship, all kinds of stuff came to the surface and this could only have occurred through the act of being in an intimate relationship with someone else. So I would categorically argue this – we do not heal first then attract a partner, in fact we attract a partner that shows where we still need healing. Which brings me onto my next point…
In a nutshell, the self-love mantra is saying that you need to be a highly self-developed person in order to find love. Did you hear my laugh from where you are sitting? If we are to say that in order to find love we ought to be enlightened first, then you need only look outside your window. All of those people out there in relationships are all enlightened, yeah? In fact I would suggest the very opposite is true. The more enlightened one becomes, the more unlikely it is that you will attract romantic love. This isn’t because you suddenly become more special and better than others and they can’t meet your impossibly high standards. It is actually because the path to enlightenment is specifically designed that way. It is a lonely journey of self-enquiry in order to become closer to God/Truth/Reality. Becoming enlightened certainly isn’t about being rewarded with the relationship of your dreams at the end! That’s a misnomer. Again, I need to reiterate, my issues here isn’t the desire or motivation for individuals to better themselves in whichever ways they see fit, my issue is that we are confusing objects. Instead of invoking vague notions of Self-Realisation as relating to romantic love, we should be encouraging practical knowledge about the complexities of relationships. Often, most of us are having difficulties in relationships, not because we are not enlightened, but because of unresolved issues and traumas from our past. Unfortunately, meditation alone will not help with that when embarking on an intimate relationship with The Other. Which brings me onto my next point…
Worthiness of Love
Let’s keep it 100, when it comes to the self-love mantra, the idea that somehow you have to be something other than what you are in this moment in order to be worthy of love is actually a contradiction in itself. On one hand we are teaching self-acceptance but on the other we contradict this by saying that you have to be something else in order to find love. Essentially we are telling people that the reason they cannot find love is because they are not good enough. This feeds either insecurities or narcissism rather than equipping people with better tools for connecting with one another. This is because it often leads to self-gazing as opposed to confronting your own personal difficulties in relating. It doesn’t matter if you are broken, wounded, have endured trauma, have insecurities, sometimes feel lonely, sometimes doubt yourself – YOU ARE STILL WORTHY OF LOVE. In fact I would suggest that most of time in these instances, love is exactly what you need. And not just the ambiguous love of the Universe or God or whatever but the actual warm bodied, living, love of another human being.
Which leads to my conclusion. We are social creatures by nature and we seek the comfort, company and companionship of The Other in what is one of the most innate desires within the human experience. Relationships are not something that are rewarded to you once you feel ‘whole’ or whatever, often our difficulties arise when we are unaware of patterns of behaviours and patterns of relating that hinder us from a healthy interdependence with The Other.
So next time someone unconsciously repeats the self-love mantra to you, understand that it is actually an affront to your self-esteem. It also distances you from real self-work that takes place when interacting with The Other. Instead, allow the intrinsic urge to merge with The Other to initiate a self-discovery of a different kind. The moral of this story is that talking about self-love is incomplete if it does not include the story of The Other in our quest to find The Self. It is through this dance we ultimately come to find that there is no Self and no Other after all, but just One. One Love.