Self-Love Isn’t Narcissism | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Self-Love Isn’t Narcissism


Many of us know the story of Narcissus — the boy who drowned because he fell in love with his reflection in a lake, and jumped in hoping to embrace his image.  At first glance, this story seems to be about the dangers of loving yourself too much.  If Narcissus had only taken his attention off himself and put it on others’ needs, we tend to think, he wouldn’t have died.

But a mentor of mine told me a different, and convincing, interpretation of the story.  As he pointed out, Narcissus didn’t actually love himself at all — he loved his reflection.  After all, Narcissus didn’t need to jump in the lake to be with himself — he did it because he wanted to be with the image he saw in the water.

I’ve thought of this story lately because I’ve been reading books that are critical of personal development as part of my research for an upcoming book.  I’ve noticed that one common criticism of personal growth ideas is that, by asking us to love ourselves unconditionally, they encourage us to be selfish — to focus only on our own finances, relationships and so on, and stop helping others.

I think this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of what self-love is, and I think it’s important to correct that misunderstanding in light of all the negative comments we’ve been seeing recently about personal growth.  In fact, I think personal growth, in its highest form, is about moving away from narcissism — away from loving the image we present to the world — and toward loving who we actually are.  What’s more, once we fully love ourselves, real compassion for others becomes possible.

Why We Fall In Love With Our Reflection

Out of necessity, when we come into the world, we’re deeply concerned about how others — usually our parents — see us.  Because our survival depends on their willingness to care for us, we quickly learn which behaviors please them and which ones don’t, and we shape our personalities to give them what they want.

Unconsciously, we carry this mindset into our adult lives.  We still think we need to win others’ approval, and so we design our careers, relationships, hobbies, and so on to appeal to the world.  Like Narcissus, we get fixated on the image we present to the world, as opposed to who we actually are.

Because it seems like our survival is at stake, we’ll do practically anything — including hurting others — to make sure the world sees us the way we want to be seen.  Our love of the image the world sees, instead of ourselves, leads to greed and abusive behavior.

What Real Self-Love Does

When we start to love ourselves unconditionally — no matter how others see us — the need to maintain the right image falls away.  Energy we once used up putting on a pretty facade can be used to care for others.  Helping people is no longer a strategy for looking like a good little boy or girl, or showing that we’re morally better than someone else — it’s now an expression of genuine compassion.

This is why, I think, we see a focus on self-love in many spiritual traditions.  For example, in Buddhist metta or loving-kindness meditation, the meditator is to focus first on loving him- or herself, and then to focus on the wellbeing of the rest of the world.  Similarly, Hindu teacher Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj told his students “by all means be selfish — the right way.  Be all; love all; be happy; make happy.”

When we truly understand what self-love is and what it isn’t, we can see why it’s part of many personal growth teachings, and the good we can do for the world by creating it within ourselves.

19 thoughts on
Self-Love Isn’t Narcissism

  1. judy

    Hi, Chris! I was just working through something today and your post helps clarify it. I’m so glad I read it. I like your distinction between our love for ourselves and our love for the image people see. You’re a smart one! Thanks for posting.

  2. Cath Lawson

    Hi Chris – I didn’t know about the story of Narcissus. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to be what everyone else wants you to be, instead of being yourself isn’t it? I know I did it for years. But your explanation makes a lot of sense.

    I started off by dropping what I wanted to do to please other people. But after a while, I guess I also got into a pattern of just doing what other folk expected me to do. You reach a certain point when you lose your real self to such a point, that you’re really not sure what you actually want anymore, or who you are.

  3. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Cath — I get the sense that many people (including me) have had a similar experience of being totally identified with the image we present, and losing sight of ourselves and what we want. I think that started to change for me when I saw how much I’d invested in maintaining the “right image,” and how little I actually needed to keep looking the right way for the world in my adult life.

  4. Jannie Funster

    Hi, Chris!

    I was not aware there are books out there critical of Personal growth and development. I wonder what their ” arguments” could possibly be?

    As Cath, I was not familiar with the story of Narcissus. Interesting. Nice painting too. Is it a Max Parish??

    I think that loving ourselves allows us to truly love the world. To me loving myself means foremost accepting everything about me.

    And Chris, I forgot to mention this — please feel free to speak to any and all kommints that come in over in Funstertown on my current review of your super- excellent Inner Productivity. I won’t be posting again for at least 2 or 3 days.


  5. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Jannie — yes, there are a bunch of such books (and blogs). They say things like “all this new-agey woo-woo emphasis on ‘loving yourself’ has increased crime and divorce in our society because it encourages people to be selfish.” Unfortunately, I’m not kidding. I don’t know of any book out there that addresses the critics, but that will soon change. Muhahaha!

    Your URL didn’t make it into either of your comments, but that’s okay — I’ll just plug you here: Jannie Funster, songstress, singerstress and humorstress par excellence and nonpareil. It’s Jannie — Ms. Funster if you’re nasty.

  6. Wilma Ham

    Hi Chris
    I always think of having a love tank. When my own love tank is full, I can easily give to others, when it is running empty I have no longer much to give.
    Thus it is good to be running on full.

  7. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Wilma — I think that’s a great way to describe it — just telling ourselves “I should be more giving” isn’t going to do much if we have nothing to give.

  8. Tom Volkar / Delightful Work

    Hi Chris, I’m glad you’re taking the lead on this one. I really don’t get the self-help backlash either. Without a lot of reading and self-examination I’d still be clue-less about presence, awareness and love. I think being selfish is a very good thing particularly in areas right livelihood of because it allows us to become more able to be generous with both time and money to others. Like you’ve said. if we aren’t choosing for us for who are we choosing?

  9. Stacey Shipman

    My husband and I had a conversation similar to this just yesterday.

    In the past, I had been accused of being “selfish”. And what I’ve come to realize after years of personal development and study is, that selfishness (for me) was a matter of two things: 1) protecting myself and 2) a cry for help because inside I was hurting.

    Until you can heal yourself and feel good on the inside, you cannot help and care for others the way you need or want to. And you must care for yourself mentally, physically and spiritually in order to experience true integration.

  10. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Tom — that’s a good point, that we need to gain some understanding of ourselves if we’re going to meaningfully work with others, particularly as coaches and other helping professionals. I think self-examination seems self-indulgent to some people because they don’t see that part of the big picture.

  11. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Stacey — I definitely resonate with what you’re saying about “selfishness” coming from a desire to protect ourselves. And I think spiritual practice is all about understanding that what we are, at our core, doesn’t need to be defended, which leads to less suffering both for ourselves and for those around us.

  12. Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord

    I am so glad you wrote this, Chris, and also sort of happy that there’s a backlash against personal development right now. To me that just means that it’s about to win over a whole new group of people. (I tend to find that I am most resistant to things I’m about to embrace.)

    I loved how you put this, “In fact, I think personal growth, in its highest form, is about moving away from narcissism — away from loving the image we present to the world — and toward loving who we actually are. What’s more, once we fully love ourselves, real compassion for others becomes possible.”

    Thanks for sharing this with all of us; what a great way to start the week.

  13. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Megan — I like that way of putting it — I think the anti-personal development writing out there has given me an opportunity to get back to basics and understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, and has inspired a whole new strain of writing. That realization that you resist something when you’re about to embrace it sounds like really valuable awareness to me.

  14. Robin Easton

    Dear Chris!!! I just LOVE this. YEAH for you! I am really with you on this. It is SO good to see it here. There are so many things that come to mind. One I have experienced from people I know, who are good people, but very entrenched in one religion or another and I’ve been stunned when we talk about loving ourselves and how strongly they shun this concept. They will tell me exactly what you discuss here, that it’s selfish to love oneself. “The bible says this and that…” And only “god” can love us if “he” chooses and “it’s greedy, self centered and narcissistic to love one’s self. I actually forget that people still think this way. But when I really stop and look back into my past I remember well my culture brainwashing me into believing that it was selfish to love self, and even to take care of one’s self. or to say “no”, set boundaries, etc.

    I think all these messages not only “shame” us into NOT loving ourselves, but they also degrade, humiliate, control, repress, and hence actually stop us from REALLY learning how to to love OTHERS.

    I have found that once I learned to love Robin, loving others was just an automatic off shoot that happened from a GENUINE place of deep love, connectedness and understanding. In fact, I could love others so much more deeply, compassionately. To forgive, love and be compassionate with myself immediately invoked those same feelings toward others….toward ALL life.

    I think this is just a VERY powerful post and I am really glad you wrote it. I have found that it’s almost an illness in American society, which teaches that we have NO RIGHT to love ourselves. We are being selfish. So this article is like fresh clean air, it’s soothing, soul healing, written with compassion.

    Sorry this long, but I just had one last thought; reading the story of Narcissus, I felt it was beuatiful that he fell in love with his reflection and “fell” into the lake. My expreince in the wild was a bit like that. I “fell” into myself and it was like falling into a deep clear lake, which was very much like my soul. The lake and reflection to me could represent the soul. A reclaiming of our purest soul. I find that singularly beautiful.

    Thank you so much dear Chris – I am moved by this whole post, by your open heart and the resulting wisdom from it. I applaud you. Hugs, Robin

  15. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Robin — I’m glad you got so much out of the article, and I can definitely get how deeply you care about this issue. I definitely resonate with what you said about how being shamed actually makes it difficult to love others — it turns “I love you” into something we say to be a dutiful child or partner, rather than something we actually choose and mean. And if we lack experience forgiving ourselves, we won’t know how to do the same for others.

    I like your take on the Narcissus story as not so much of a cautionary tale, but as a metaphor for how we can learn about ourselves by really immersing ourselves in nature and in life generally.

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