To be described as a ‘narcissist’ is generally to be insulted. Narcissus was someone who was in love with himself. But being ‘in love with’ yourself and loving yourself are two different things!
In my career I have been called upon to help and support a number of people who are struggling with depression. From that experience I noticed certain recurring themes or characteristics. One of them was the tendency for people who are depressed to be harsh on themselves – for example, to be very critical of something they have done when they would not have been anywhere near so critical if it were someone else who had done it.
But, of course, it isn’t just people wrestling with depression who can have a negative view of themselves. Self-esteem is a consideration here too (and indeed an important factor in depression). People who have a low level of self-worth (in other words, people who do not love themselves) can create a range of problems for themselves (not least being unduly harsh towards themselves and being hypercritical).
One such problem is that, if we are giving people the message that we have a negative picture of ourselves, we are, in effect, inviting them to adopt a negative picture of us too (and if they do that, then that is likely to reinforce our low sense of self-worth – creating a vicious circle). This is part of assertiveness. Trying to negotiate win-win outcomes when we are, in effect, doing ourselves down, becomes much harder than it needs to be.
But loving ourselves isn’t just about self-esteem or self-worth. It is also about feeling comfortable with ourselves, comfortable ‘in our own skin’ as it were. So, in this sense, it is a spiritual matter, part of our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. Many people (those who have been traumatised at some point or who are wrestling with unresolved grief issues, for example) can find this very difficult, but it is a worthwhile goal to pursue none the less.
To love someone does not mean that you have a perfect relationship with them and the same applies when it comes to living ourselves. It does not mean that we will feel entirely comfortable with ourselves or will have no aspects of ourselves that we are not happy with. But what it boils down to is that, if we do not love ourselves despite our flaws and imperfections, then why should anyone else feel able to love us?
But as well as loving ourselves, we need to respect ourselves. Saying yes when we mean no, not objecting to things that bother or diminish us or telling ourselves we can’t do something before we have even tried does not reflect an attitude of respect. We are back to the theme of being harsh on ourselves – often we treat ourselves with a low level of respect that we would not feel comfortable in applying to others. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that respect for others can and should begin with self-respect.
So, while we don’t want to go to the self-indulgent extreme of being ‘in love with’ ourselves, nor do we want to miss out on the benefits of loving and respecting ourselves by going to the other extreme of adopting a negative attitude towards ourselves.