One of the most important loves of our lives is the love of self, in the right measure, and in the proper perspective. Love of self is an important component in child development that helps produce healthy, fully functioning adults. The acquisition of a healthy love of self in the child can be disrupted or even completely blocked by a variety of factors: traumatic events; lack of love, attention and validation by primary caregivers; mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and attention disorders. Often, children perceive a disconnect between what their mind tells them they should think of themselves and what is generally true (smart, capable, likable) and how they feel inside about themselves (not good enough or even downright unlikable). This dissonance between self-perception and reality can be quite jarring to a child or adolescent’s mind. It often leads to experimenting with artificial means of enhancing self-esteem, or of at least shutting down temporarily the negative feelings about the self: alcohol, marijuana and other “feel good” drugs.
In the right measure, love of the self is not boastful, arrogant or self-centered — this would indicate a narcissistic personality, or in extreme cases even antisocial (chiefly manifested in a near total lack of empathy towards others). In the right measure, love of the self is strong and yet balanced by an understanding and acceptance of certain shortcomings or vulnerabilities that help the individual be fully human. There is a lot of good, some bad and even some ugly in all of us: the realization of this very human mix of characteristics does not preclude love of the self, it simply makes us more emphatic, compassionate and understanding of our and other’s shortcomings.
The proper perspective on self-love comes from positive experiences, but also from the successful survival of negative experiences that occur throughout our lives. For children and adolescents, this can be hard going especially in the absence of supportive parents, mentors and positive adult role models. It is not unusual for fully grown adults to be wrestling almost daily with an incomplete or insufficient love of the self. This usually takes the form of negative self-talk, a merciless beating one’s self up for even minor mistakes, a virtual barrage of negativity toward the self that is self-produced, self-contained and, for this reason, all the more harmful and tragic. Often, one’s self image does not match that which others have of this person; friends and co-workers may think that the individual is actually pretty good or even excellent in many areas; family members may observe, to their dismay, the contradiction between what they think of their loved ones versus what they think of themselves.
What can be done, when love of the self – out of no fault of the individual – was thwarted by an unfortunate set of circumstances in childhood or adolescence? Can it be regained? The answer to this question is an unequivocal YES! Will it be easy? No, it won’t be easy. What will it require?
It will require at least these three steps:
1. Becoming aware and accepting that the problem of self-love is real, it is a problem in the individual’s life, and that it should be the target of corrective action. This is the contemplative stage of change, when the individual at least knows there is a problem, albeit not knowing what to do about it.
2. Begin noticing all the dozen, hundred and thousand ways in which the individual reinforces negative self-esteem through automatic thought processes. When making a mistake, by action or omission, what do I tell myself? What insults do I hurl at myself, in my own mind? How many times a day do I think something negative about myself? A steady diet of negative selkf-talk fed to the brain every day, over weeks and years, can do some real damage to self-esteem.
3. Begin changing the pattern of negative thoughts by switching off the automatic thinking and becoming more intentional about what we tell ourselves, replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones, at least some of the time.
This initial three-step process of change must be consolidated and maintained over time to create lasting change. Often, the old habit of self-beating comes roaring back, like some bad programming routine that runs in the background, automatically. The important thing is not to give up on the idea that change is possible, that the effort is worth doing in exchange for a happier, healthier and better-adjusted life.