Posted on 30th April 2022 at 22:53
Greek philosophy tells us there are eight types of love, the sixth of which is Philautia or self love. Even at the time of Aristotle, two types of self love were recognised - a healthy form which formed the basis of a wider capacity to love and the less healthy form of self obsession. This unhealthy form became known as narcissism after the Greek myths character Narcissus, the beautiful son of a river god and who doted upon his own reflection.
It has long been commonplace to refer to someone as a narcissist. It has gained momentum in recent years to diagnose some controversial political figures and through the surge of popular psychology, social media, selfies and the contemporary reductionism of “we good, them bad.” The result is the widespread application of the term narcissism to self-serving individuals and to behaviours such as gaslighting.
The term 'narcissism' was first used by psychiatrists Paul Näcke and Havelock Ellis in 1889, to describe an individual whose preference is the love of their own body rather than the love of others. Psychoanalysts later expanded the descriptions with Otto Rank linking narcissism to vanity and self-admiration while Ernest Jones described extreme narcisissism as the "God-complex" in which a person behaves as aloof, self-important, self-admiring, overconfident, auto-erotic and exhibitionistic.  In 1914, Sigmund Freud suggested that all humans are born with a healthy level of narcissism which he called primary narcissism that later evolves outward as love for others. Difficulties arise when this does not happen and the individual instead turns their affection back on themselves. This, Freud described as a neurosis and called it secondary narcissism. Such individuals have an inability to love others, lack empathy, experience emptiness and boredom, and have an relentless need for power, often at the expense of others.  What causes the pathological version of narcissism? Psychoanalysts such as Heinz Kohut, saw pathological narcissism as a possible outcome to unempathic and inconsistent parenting (neglect and / or excessive pampering) or unrealistic expectations from parents. 
Getting back to the healthy form of self love. I think it is safe to say that many of us struggle with this concept. We find it easier to love others than we do ourselves which is particularly evident if we translate self love into self acceptance or self compassion. If we are born with a healthy level of narcissism but are not narcissistic in the pathological sense, why then is it so hard to experience or practice self love? Well firstly, maybe we do, at least some of the time. If we subscribe to the belief that when we do something for others, it is also for ourselves since it reflects positively on us. That nice warm, fuzzy feeling we get when someone thanks us for something we have done for them or treated them kindly in some way. Secondly, we must consider the contribution of the protocols of home and society from where we have internalized the messages of not being boastful, not being ‘too big for our boots,’ not have ‘notions above our station’ and of always putting others first. Showing compassion to someone else is virtuous whereas showing that same compassion to ourselves is not regarded as favourably. Thirdly, self criticism is a popular driver or motivator especially if it has been internalised from critical or hard-to-satisfy parents or when only achieving perfection earns us a bit of praise. If we are self critical and have low esteem – we may struggle to believe that other people can really accept and love us. We may remain distant from others to avoid rejection or we may go out of our way to appease someone so they will like us. At the same time, we hide our true self in the process or we may overlook when our feelings and instincts are trying to tell us something less favourable about those same others. We settle for less than we deserve. Self-loathing is a key feature of depression with anger also turned in on ourselves in a punitive fashion. In this context, it is clear why it is certainly healthier to have some positive self regard . When we have it, we don’t need someone else’s approval or love and we are more inclined to believe that we will find someone who we will love and who will love us in return. So when we talk about self love, we are talking about promoting emotional and psychological well-being for ourselves so that we take care of ourselves, relate healthier to others and are capable of a level of contentment. This enables us to function better in the world. For those who find it difficult to like, never mind love, themselves, the transition starts with realising how that might have arisen and then challenging the internalised voices and beliefs, substituting them with more benign and constructive ones. Then, setting up a practice of self compassion and self forgiveness and learning how to differentiate and address guilt and shame. Finally, acceptance of ourselves and working out what we want to pursue to enable fulfilment. That will go a good way! If you need help with this, get in contact here.
1. Ogrodniczuk, John (2013) Historical Overview of Pathological Narcissism. In: Understanding and Treating Pathological Narcissism". American Psychological Association: p 15–26
2. Freud, Sigmund (1914) On Narcissism: An Introduction. Standard Edition 14. London. Hogarth Press
3. Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of the Self. A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. London: The University of Chicago Press
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