Self-love is the Ultimate Unselfish Act

by Janine

“Selfishness and self-love, far from being identical, are actually opposites.  The selfish person does not love himself too much, but too little.” – Erich Fromm

Self-love is often considered a selfish act; that somehow loving yourself means you have less love to give others.

When I consider my own self-love, I’ve noticed that it is often followed by a tinge of guilt. Why is that?  I wanted to find out so I decided to explore why my love for self and guilt are connected. 

While researching, I came across Erich Fromm, a sociologist who wrote the book “The Art of Loving” where he makes a compelling case for why loving oneself is an unselfish act. Therefore, not something we should feel guilty about. 

In his book, Fromm introduces three primary ideas around self-love that really resonate with me.  They tap into how humans have been taught to engage with the concept of self-love, what it means to actively love, and how self-love and selfishness are often erroneously viewed as one in the same. 

The Concept of Self-Love

I didn’t really start thinking deeply about what it means to love myself until my mid twenties.  

For the first 25 years of life my motives were more about fulfilling others’ expectations than about truly loving myself. It’s only been in the past ten years that I’ve started to piece together my own definition of self-love and began practicing it unapologetically. 

For me self-love is about listening to myself, honoring my gifts and desires, and using them to be of service to others and myself. 

Figuring this out has been such a relief.  My self-love definition has been a compass I’ve followed in recent years, and has helped me remain connected to the person I want to be and to how I want to show love to others.

To determine how you define self-love ask yourself what thoughts and actions demonstrate your love for yourself? Get specific and list things that you do and say to yourself that convey love.

What It Means to Actually Love

According to Fromm “genuine love is an expression of productiveness, and implies care, respect, responsibility and knowledge. (Love is) an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person.”

My interpretation of Fromm’s definition is that love is effort with the intention of supporting one’s joy and personal development.  Love is active, and produces positivity and success.  Love is purposeful.  It’s aim is to uplift and expand. 

I especially appreciate this definition because it makes love a little more tangible.  It takes love beyond a passive, nebulous, mystical feeling.  Love is wanting and working toward a life in which you are thriving, content and at peace.

The Morality of Love

In this quote, “While it is virtuous to love others, it is sinful to love oneself.”  Fromm confronts the commonly held belief that loving oneself is akin to selfishness.  He asserts that we have been taught to believe that self-love is ego-driven, self-absorbed, and ultimately immoral. Whereas loving others is principled, upright, and proper.

This seems to me to be more about optics than actual impact. 

Those who are perceived as loving others are seen as giving, and of good character; while those thought to love themselves are perceived as greedy and self-centered.  Fromm says that this separation of love of self from love of others is at the root of the belief that both can not be done simultaneously.  

In other words the more love you have for yourself, the less you can give to others.  

Fromm also warns about what I call “righteous unselfishness;” this is when someone wears their unselfishness as a badge of honor.  He writes “unselfishness can be a neurosis, which people tout as a redeeming quality, often linked to depression, exhaustion, and failure in love relationships. Neurotic unselfish people say they don’t want anything for themselves and live only for others, and are proud that they do not consider themselves important.”

He implies that the danger with linking one’s moral standing to your uncompromising devotion to others and total lack of devotion to yourself is that it is unfulfilling, leads to resentment and deep dissatisfaction with life.    

The Problem with Measuring Love

The belief that you can’t love yourself and others is problematic because it turns any amount of love for yourself into love not given to others. It leads to harmful emotions like guilt and shame. 

For example, parents who subscribe to this belief may be conflicted about loving themselves and their children, or their spouses. 

This belief tries to do the impossible – quantify love.  It also makes the false assumption that love is scarce, finite, and only good if it is given to others and bad if we give it to ourselves. 

I think this view of love as quantifiable and finite, coupled with the belief that self-love is bad is at the heart of many destructive beliefs about love that result in us torturing ourselves. An example is the belief that “my friendships suffer because I love myself too much.”

Fromm argues the opposite. He says that self-love is admirable.  “If it is a virtue to love my neighbor as a human being, it must be a virtue and not a vice to love myself, since I am a human being too.” 

He believes that self-love and love for others is connected, and that one’s capacity to love others is directly connected to their ability to love themself. 

The Difference Between Self-Love and Selfishness

Fromm says that selfish people lack genuine concern for others. They are only interested in themselves, want everything for themselves, and feel no pleasure in giving, only taking. 

In fact he says, “Selfishness and self-love, far from being identical, are actually opposites.  The selfish person does not love himself too much, but too little.”

He goes on to say that they “look at the world, from the standpoint of what they can get; they lack interest in the needs of others, and respect for others’ dignity and integrity.” Fromm doesn’t mince words when it comes to his thoughts on the selfish.

He makes clear his belief that selfish people actually suffer from a lack of self-love, which has resulted in their selfishness. Fromm argues that the selfish are left empty and frustrated because they don’t genuinely care for themselves. They search to fill that void, and the emptiness manifests in self-centered narcissism.   

Behaviors motivated by the ego, and a sense of lack are not love; they are fear.  I believe that fear and love contradict each other.  One is connected to the worst, most shallow part of us.   The other seeks the highest in us. 

One definitive way to tell whether you’re coming from a place of self-love or selfishness is to get honest with yourself by answering the following question: Are my actions motivated by a desire for my own growth, dignity and happiness or because I feel empty and fearful?  

Creating a Self-Love Plan

To create a self-love plan, let’s go back to Fromm’s definition of self love “genuine love is an expression of productiveness, and implies care, respect, responsibility and knowledge. (Love is) an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person.”

You can use Fromm’s definition as a starting point to create a self-love plan that best meets your needs. To do this, check in with yourself regularly on three points.

  1. Care and Respect: Do I genuinely care for and respect myself? How do I know? If not, what do I want care and respect for myself to look like? What do I want to start and stop doing to illustrate my care and respect for myself?
  1. Growth and Development: How am I working toward my personal growth and development?  Am I progressing in this area? How do I know? What do I want to start and stop doing to facilitate my personal growth and development?
  1. Joy and Peace: What am I doing to contribute to my personal joy and peace? Is it working? How do I know? What does a joyful / peaceful life look like for me? What do I want to start and stop doing to honor my joy and peace?

Summary

  • To love is to actively work toward the growth and happiness of the loved person (including yourself).
  • It is virtuous and healthy to love yourself. In fact, loving yourself increases your capacity to genuinely love others.
  • Selfishness is about the ego and motivated by feelings of fear and lack.
  • Create a self-love plan and check in with yourself regularly if you feel you want to focus more in this area.

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