Reflections on the Meaning of Love

Self-Love (vs. self importance)

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love & affection.”


Self-love is about treating one’s body and mind with care and respect. This includes both the tangible, like eating healthy food and getting ample rest, as well as the more intangible, such as having an attitude of appreciation, rather than judgment, for the entirety of who you are.

Self-love is not the same thing as egoic self-importance. As acclaimed author Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in his book, The Mastery of Love, self-love “is not personal importance because you treat others with the same love, the same honor, the same respect, and the same gratitude you use with yourself.  Can you see the perfection in that?  It’s about honoring the God inside each other.” (p. 155).

Being authentic is a key component of self-love. Authenticity includes things like being assertive, showing yourself, and letting go of comparisons to others.

Being Assertive

Self-love recognizes that at our core, all human beings are of equal value and deserve to be treated with respect. This includes oneself. In this sense, being assertive is a type of self-love.  Personal interactions fall on a continuum from passive to aggressive, with assertiveness in between. When you are passive, you are disrespecting yourself in exchange for “respecting” the other person. On the flip side, when you are behaving aggressively, you are disrespecting the other in favor of your own needs and impulses.

Being assertive is the middle way, where you act and communicate in a way that respects both yourself and the other person. Females around the world get quite a dose of conditioning around putting others before themselves, so if you are female and reading this, be mindful of the need for balancing self-care with that directed toward others.

Showing Yourself

Showing yourself to others is another aspect of self-love.

It’s likely that virtually all people have been psychologically hurt around “showing themselves,” meaning that nearly everybody, to varying degrees, has some fear about expressing who they are on a deep level. For some, the conditioning is so heavy that knowing oneself – what one truly feels and thinks – let alone expressing it, can be hard to come by. But, virtually everybody can appreciate the oh-so-sweet taste of authenticity when they see it in themselves or others.

Knowing that you are loved provides a foundation of safety and ease from which to explore and grow – as an individual, member of one’s family, and the larger community in which one lives. Part of the experience of being loved includes being seen and understood.  This leads to feeling accepted and embraced by others, which naturally encourages authentic self-expression. There is a quality of expansion, of taking up more space in the world (in a mindful way). This stands in contrast to the state of fear and internalized judgment, which contributes to a shrinking quality, where one feels the need to hide parts of themselves.

In the book, The Courage to Love, psychologist Stephen Gilligan emphasizes love as the cornerstone of healing. In this writing on what he first coined as Self-Relations psychotherapy, Gilligan refers to love as a “skill” and describes how the related concept of “sponsorship” is a powerful means of healthy transformation in people.

“A basic premise of self-relations is that the river of life courses through each of us, bringing every experience known to humankind…we cannot avoid the basic experiences of fear, joy, anger, sadness, excitement, envy, and so forth.  The basic question is our relationship to this river of life.  We can fear and try to damn it, ignore and exploit it, or accept and work with it.  It is this latter relational skill that we call love.

In examining love as a courage and skill, self-relations emphasizes the principles and practices of sponsorship whereby the agency of mindfulness may touch and ‘be with’ something as a means to bring human value and transformation to it…the skills of sponsorship allow the natural process of change to occur.  Sponsorship occurs in many different contexts: a parent with a child, a person with her own experiences, a therapist with a client, an artist with an archetypal or artistic process, a friend with a person in need, a person in nature.” (Gilligan, 1997, pp. 96-97).

Gilligan goes on to say that “sponsorship skills include deep listening, proper naming, providing a place, expressing, blessing, connecting, disciplining, protecting, encouraging, and challenging.” (Gilligan, 1997, p. 97).

As Dr. Gilligan describes so eloquently, “sponsorship” helps foster authentic self-expression (i.e., showing oneself) and is a key component of self-love.

Letting Go of Unhealthy Comparisons

Self-love includes both accepting and valuing oneself.  One great way to increase your self-acceptance is by letting go of comparing yourself to others.  Our culture of competitiveness and individualism conditions all of us to play the comparison game.  Sometimes, we see ourselves as better than others, and more often than not, we feel that we don’t measure up. This is the case for virtually all people, even those who live and work in environments of high cultural prestige. For example, I’ve spoken with brilliant and successful physicians who have said how often they felt stupid in comparison to their peers.

It’s important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy comparisons.  If you are comparing your skill in something to somebody who has more skill, and this inspires you to higher standards of excellence, then go for it.  Learning from others and having positive role models is healthy and valuable. But, if your comparing mind takes you to a place of ego reinforcement (i.e., taking things personally by feeling “better” or “worse” than somebody else), than that’s something to let go of.

Making comparisons can be a quite limiting activity for two reasons. First, the fact of the matter is that you can’t really compare any two people.  No two people are alike in terms of both biology and life experience, even if they are identical twins growing up in the same household, town, etc.  Their experiences will never be the exactly same, no matter how similar. On a side note, valuable research is conducted whereby people are compared all the time, but this is done in a very systematic, highly-detailed way, which brings me to my next point.

The process of comparing that people do in everyday life tends to focus on outcome, which is only one part of the story.  To truly compare two people would be incredibly cumbersome, as it would involve tracking and analyzing an inordinate amount of information to actually make an accurate analysis.  The comparisons that most people make are usually on a more superficial level, which leaves out much important and useful data.

Let’s look at the Olympics as an example of this process. While the Olympics is an incredible display of athleticism, grace and grit, so many people get caught up in the win-loss aspect of the games, like the medal count.  People eagerly anticipate which countries will win certain events, and yet, at the same time, we all know who will likely come out on top.

Yes, it’s no surprise that the United States is the leader in the overall number of medals won since the start of the modern-day Olympiad.  An analysis out of Dartmouth College and UC Berkeley found that “Real GDP is the single best predictor of a country’s Olympic performance.”  As Professors Andrew Bernard and Meghan Busse wrote, “these results suggest that having resources to invest in human ability is important in producing success.”

Hmm, the United States, with all of its resources and wealth is winning the most?  No coincidence there.  Yes, there are multiple factors that go into athletic success, and you do find outliers here and there who defy the odds, but the fact remains that there’s a reason the US is the highest medal winner. It’s not purely about athletic talent and will, as some would like to believe. Yet, people get so caught up in how many medals each country wins, as if it’s a totally level playing field. This outcome-focused mentality leaves important information out of the entire picture.

In general, I believe that people do the best they can under their particular circumstances. Are there times when in hindsight you would have done it differently? Of course. But, that’s the value of hindsight. In the moment, people do the best they can with the intra and extra-psychic resources available to them. If somebody has a high level of motivation, ability, and resources, then the odds of accomplishing a goal are pretty high.  If an opposite scenario exists, like feelings of discouragement, undeveloped skill and limited opportunity, then the odds shift.

So, if you are comparing yourself to somebody else and finding that you don’t measure up, don’t stop at the place of judging yourself. Be curious and look beyond the top layer to learn more.  You may find some new information to act upon, or may simply connect with a feeling of greater appreciation for yourself. Either way, you’ll gain more from exploring the depths of inquiry, rather than stopping at the surface of comparisons.

As an antidote to the outer-focused comparing mind, look within and ask yourself, “have I done my best?” As Don Miguel Ruiz wrote, “Always Do Your Best. Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”

Cultivating Love for Self

In addition to what’s already been discussed, there are other approaches that can be helpful with cultivating self-love.  First, make the decision to take the direction of valuing yourself 100% of the time.  You need to decide, internally, that this is what you’re going to do, regardless of how you’re “feeling” or what feedback you’re getting from the outside.

Second, remind yourself that caring about and respecting oneself is an inherent quality that gets diminished by negative conditioning.  Unlearn the negative, by examining the evidence that supports your belief system.  You’ll find that most of your “evidence” is subjective information learned from other people (family, the media, etc.); information that isn’t actually factual.

Third, combat your internal critic by choosing to put attention on the things you appreciate about yourself – all of your strengths and idiosyncrasies – on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make changes, but you get to do so without the negative judgment.

Fourth, cultivate your strengths.  As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  Using your strengths not only fosters self-love, but it’s also correlated with greater happiness and wellbeing in general.  U-Penn Professor Martin Seligman, considered the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, has conducted years of research on the connection between personal strengths and happiness.  Learn more about his work by visiting the Authentic Happiness website, which includes a variety of self-assessment tools to help you identify your character strengths and virtues.

Next section: Curiosity and Love

  1. Good to hear this here.

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