How to Love Yourself: Max Stirner's Relationship Philosophy

10/21/2015 06:19 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2016
Love - Man head silhouette with hearts instead of brain
Love - Man head silhouette with hearts instead of brain

Imagine you are walking along the street. Unexpectedly, you see a couple of friends. They ask you to go for a drink. Do you go out of a sense of obligation or because it interests you? The philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856) would say that if you go because you feel obliged, you're either crazy or lying.

Although he was more famous for extreme individualism and inspiring radical feminists than for relationship advice, Stirner loved loving and argues that we can't have really rewarding relationships unless we love ourselves first.

That's not a free pass to be selfish, greedy, and hedonistic; rather, loving yourself means accepting yourself, taking an interest in yourself, and owning yourself. Stirner's philosophy is still timely because his idea about owning ourselves is essentially what we now refer to as authenticity.

1. Accept yourself

Life isn't about knowing ourselves, as the ancient Greeks would have us believe. Rather, the goal of life is to get value out of ourselves.

Life is to be enjoyed and squandered, so there's no sense in worrying about what we're not doing. There is no ideal self towards which we must strive. Letting go of self-sabotaging ideas about who we think we should be or become is a big first step in loving ourselves.

Once we accept ourselves just the way we are, we can focus on more interesting things like discovering our frivolity and living like a candle that burns at both ends.

We are perfect altogether! For we are, every moment, all that we can be; and we never need be more. - Max Stirner

2. Take an interest in yourself

One of the key problems in life, Stirner says, is the belief that we should be unselfish, self-sacrificial, and disinterestedly concerned for others. This is hypocritical because we don't love others for their sake; we love for our own sake.

We go for a drink with our friends because it interests us. Similarly, we love because loving interests us. Loving satisfies our desires, nourishes our passions, and enriches our lives. Loving is a great way to get value out of ourselves and there's no need to be ashamed of that.

If we can be honest with ourselves and brave enough to accept it, then we can free ourselves from dull, dutiful, or destructive relationships and free ourselves to pursue more authentic, meaningful, and interesting connections.

We [...] want to love because we feel love, because love pleases our hearts and our senses, and we experience a higher self-enjoyment in the love for another being. - Max Stirner

3. Own yourself

To own ourselves is to be self-determining and self-creating. It is to make sure that our choices are truly our own and made on our own terms.

I am my own only when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered either by sensuality or by anything else. - Max Stirner

One of the biggest problems in romantic relationships is that all too often they're not created on our own terms and then they implode under the weight of unrealistic and unsustainable expectations. Relationships spiral out of control when lovers obsess about what love should be like and how they should behave.

When lovers blindly adopt pre-established relationship rules and live according to the expectations of popular culture, parents, and peers, they are making themselves slaves to an ideal of love, which is an abstraction. It's not only inauthentic and insincere, but also absurd to subordinate ourselves to abstractions. Lovers who own themselves take control of their lives and relationship choices.

A leap from this bridge makes me free! - Max Stirner

And finally...

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was familiar with Stirner's work, criticized this approach for being decadent. It's also possible that lovers adopting this attitude end up in cycles of unstable, unreliable, and exploitative relationships.

Yet, decadence, exploitation, and fleeting flings are not necessary consequences of this philosophy. Serious, generous, and long-term relationships are possible when lovers continue to interest, inspire, support, and enjoy one another. They appreciate each other's changing qualities over time. Since they know the other won't stay out of duty, they take care not to take each other for granted. In loving ourselves and loving others for ourselves, we're opening up more possibilities for more enjoyable and authentic unions.

Skye Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love'.