Why do we need coaches and mental health professionals to teach us self-care?
When my spiritual mentor Leimomi Kelikuli pointed that out, it hit home hard. Most of us have never learned to take care of ourselves. We know how to reward ourselves with cocktails, shopping and vacations, yet this is often fuelled by a need to escape the pains of being human.
So, if you think that self-love is pompous, luxurious or narcissistic, then you’re probably most in need of it.
As a teenager, I joked that my middle name is Narcissa whenever I bought new clothes. But really, I was doing my best to nourish and celebrate myself, growing up in competitive Singapore where beating myself up and downplaying my achievements were second nature. But the tussle between ‘Am I being narcissistic?’ and caring for myself was the biggest demon I struggled with. Even using the word ‘self-love’ made me feel arrogant.
Fast forward years later as a psychologist and coach, I realised that at the heart of all healing and soaring, is the ability to love ourselves. Yet everyday I’m confronted with vehement protests that self-love sounds narcissistic.
Think about the last time you were shamed for daring to say you like the way you look, or pampering your body with exquisite lotions. Despite living in the age of the ubiquitous selfie, taking care of ourselves is still perceived as being ‘full of yourself’. My colleague Terri Cole (Psychotherapist & Life Coach) explains that unfortunately, we regard false modesty as a sign of proper upbringing, and this antiquated notion is weaved into the fabric of many cultures.
And so I wrote this for you, if you’re in need of self-love but deprive yourself of that, because society maligns it as narcissistic. I’d love for you to know that there is a chasm between self-love and narcissism, specifically:—
1. Narcissists don’t love themselves, self-love is about celebrating yourself
The nasty, self-entitled, abusive people we know— meaning, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder— don’t actually love themselves. Whether the narcissist is proud of their narcissism or masquerades as a victim, it’s rooted in fear and a crippling sense of insecurity. The narcissist therefore builds up a superior yet false sense of self, and will do anything to keep that mask intact. Typical behaviours include putting others down, abusing others, and wrenching the spotlight towards themselves, in order to feel better. But dimming someone else’s light doesn’t make your own shine brighter— and that’s one thing that narcissists don’t get.
Self-love, in contrast, is about celebrating yourself from a place of worth. My friend Michèle Jabre (Clinical Psychologist & Transformational Coach) asks why is it that the furthest people dare to say, when asked what they love the most about themselves, are things like strength, passion or loving nature. Because, being comfortable with loving the way we look truly embodies self-love. And I reflected that when I take pride in my looks, I celebrate all the blessings I’ve been given. This in turn opens me up to more that life can give. As Michèle wisely says, self-love is the basis of everything. It helps us to trust ourselves to make the right decisions across our lives, so we become the masters of our own happiness. So don’t wait till you lose the weight or makeover yourself— it starts right now, in the present moment.
2. Self-love is compassionate, narcissism is about taking
My friend Dr Jonathan Marshall (Executive Coach & Psychologist) says that at the root of love is deep acceptance and generosity. So self-love softens boundaries between people and within oneself.
Indeed, self-love helps us to be compassionate with ourselves, forgiving ourselves for the things we’ve done or failed to do, rather than to keep beating ourselves up for being human. Because true compassion comes from within, this helps us to become more understanding of others.
In contrast, narcissism is all about taking— where narcissists believe they are entitled to do so, at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing. From a spiritual perspective, Leimomi explains that narcissists are vampires who suck energy from others to fulfil their need for connection. Love is our birthright, and we all seek a connection to it. But narcissists act from their ego, inauthentically and selfishly.
So, if you consistently give from a place of love and compassion, you’re far from a narcissist.
3. Self-love is about showing up for yourself, narcissism is about showing up for no one
I was brought up to set, focus on and achieve goals. But they didn’t always make me happy. That’s when I realised that goals don’t mean anything if they don’t have soul in them. Meaning, we need to examine the intentions underlying our goals— they make the difference between a robotic life on autopilot and one of passion and fulfilment.
So for me, self-love is about having the intention to show up for ourselves, and in so giving ourselves the respect we deserve. To do that requires courage, because it’s so much easier to beat ourselves up and treat ourselves badly— after all, many of us suffer from persistent feelings of unworthiness. Showing up for ourselves means we accept that we have human emotions, treat ourselves right, and be there for ourselves, even if life isn’t flowing smoothly.
Afterall, we are the products of our choices, not just of our past.
Instead, narcissists cannot and don’t show up for themselves. According to Terri, they have limited insight or interests as to how their behaviours impact themselves or others. Therefore, they are unable to do the work to grow self-love and self-esteem, because they cannot know themselves deeply, express themselves authentically and draw effective boundaries.
4. Self-love heals your loneliness, narcissists are deeply lonely
Jonathan says that when love is deep, the sense of interconnection can be so strong, that the boundaries between people feel blurred. Indeed, think of the last time you connected deeply with someone— I’m guessing you felt human, listened to, and loved. These feelings are the biggest antidote to loneliness.
In contrast, Jonathan explains that narcissism hardens the barrier between people, because of the outward appearance of superiority that’s paradoxically entwined with deep-seated fear.
That’s not a healthy combination, and a surefire way to feel lonely. Because narcissists are always envious of others, they escape that feeling by making others feel envious of them. Taken over by a superiority complex, narcissists see others as tools to be manipulated to achieve their ends— that’s the first step to being unlikable! But, narcissists take it further by reacting with intense anger when they don’t get what they want. What we see, therefore, is a downward spiral of being and feeling alienated.
If you worry about being narcissistic. .
If you worry about being narcissistic, you’re likely not narcissistic. You’re likely an over-giver— someone who is too nice, and doesn’t know how to say “no”.
So, the one question I ask my clients is:— “Is love for your child, pet or lover a luxury?” Everyone looks at me strangely and says, “No”. Then I flip the script and ask them, “So why do you treat loving yourself as a luxury?” Their eyes widen. It’s an idea they’ve never entertained. But it’s the metaphorical apple in the Garden of Eden— once you take a bite, you cannot unlearn that knowledge.
Like Terri says, “Self-love is an attitude built on actual accomplishments mastered, kindness shown to others and living a life that makes you proud based on your own morals and values.” Indeed, self-love reaps beautiful rewards. In my work, clients come to me because they want freedom from panic attacks, trauma and their busy minds. What they find out, however, is that they learn to love and respect themselves along the way. The cascade of changes that are created— better relationships, sleep and career improvements— bear testament.
For years, I’ve been teaching people how to love themselves. And in turn, I’ve learned how much self-love has got to teach me— I was afraid of using the words “self-love” when describing my work, so I merely used “stop beating yourself up”. Today I’m owning it. So I’m writing this for you, to tell you how self-love isn’t a luxury, pompous or narcissistic. It’s your birthright. You are so worthy of it.