Sometimes it is said that our capacity to love others depends on our ability to love ourselves — the capacity for self-love. This may or may not be so. However our capacity for self-love is certainly a precondition for our ability to live good lives. As a part of leading a good life is feeling good, the ability to love ourselves healthily is an essential part of our overall mental and emotional well-being.
Counselors see many clients with problems relating to love, and most describe their difficulties and pain as arising from love (or absence of love) for and by others. However, these same counselors often see that the same people have issues with self-love. The culture in which we love is highly conducive to all kinds of problems with self-love. We share norms and values of our communities which are based on concepts such as duty and obligation: our self-esteem and our recognition by others are often predicated upon our ability to meet the community’s expectations. We work increasingly long hours and spend an increasingly large proportion of our overall mental energy on work-related issues. Our private lives suffer, but along with private lives, our ability to adequately appreciate ourselves is also damaged.
Alain de Botton once wrote that our self-esteem is a direct result of the relationship between the community’s expectations which we accept, and our ability to perform and achieve various goals. The epidemic of low self-esteem and depression, which in many cases bears strong links with low self-esteem, according to Botton, lies in the fact that, while our resources to achieve various goals rise with time (we have more technology, for example) at the same time the community’s expectations rise much faster. The result is seemingly paradoxical: while with the passage of time, as we grow older in our civilizations, we are able to accomplish more thinks, at the same time with time we feel under increasing pressure, less worthy and less able to meet the demands that are placed upon us. The result is that 20+ million people take antidepressants, and many do not take them as medication for depression, but rather as an ‘enhancement drug’: a drug that helps them perform better in the face of everyday adversity which is made up by the ever rising expectations that they wake up to each morning. We are expected to do more things, and to do them with a smile. At the same time, our own inner suffering often goes not only unrecognized, but unapproved of: one is not really expected to pay much attention to one’s own pain and sadness, because that diminishes one’s ability to be a ‘productive member of society’. The result: an epidemic of unhappiness.
As someone said, we end up spending a large part of our day in cars which we are indebted for, but we need them in order to get to our jobs, which we may not love but we need them to make payments for our houses, in which we spend almost no time. It is no wander that ‘popping up’ an antidepressant along with the daily multivitamin comes to us naturally. It is difficult to love oneself if your day is such that you constantly work to meet the next expectation which, in fact, has nothing to do with who you are. Finally, it is very hard to feel content and plan a ‘good life’ for yourself, if your day is such that the only time when you can actually think about what a good life is for you is the half-an-hour before you fall asleep, without a notebook, a freshness of mind and morning optimism to look into the future with clear eyes.
How, then, do we love ourselves? Is there a method which we could remember, practice, or learn?
The method is the same as in loving others. Love is fundamentally an acceptance of the totality of another person. Love is not exhilaration, and it is not a positive pleasant emotions which lasts all the time. Love is a relationship with another person: the ability to appreciate their presence and the ability to adopt an awareness that we love them even when they irritate us, where this realization enriches us ‘on the inside’. I think that this means that love is basically a recognition of another person as significant to us — sufficiently so to become part of our life plan. Emotions play an important part in this type of relationship, but they are not all of it. German philosopher Axel Honneth argued that ‘recognition’ is a basic requirement for our identity, for our personhood, and our mental well-being. Sufficient recognition of someone else — as a lover, friend, human being and companion — amounts to love. The same principle applies to self-love. It is impossible to love ourselves if we do not recognize ourselves in all those capacities in which we recognize our lovers.
But what does this all mean in specific situations, when we face the pain or anxiety or the numbness of depression? How do we approach the difficult process of building self-love?
Consider the way to learn to love another person. We do this each time when we fall in love. The first phase is that you actually dedicate some of your time and attention to that person. You notice someone, and then you think about them. Sometimes you are immediately struck by them and become attracted to them, but more often than not falling in love requires that we ‘maul over’ someone as a candidate to become part of our lives, as well as about ways to approach them and win them over for ourselves.
Psychology operates with a concept of catexis, or mental energy. It is assumed that we all have a limited amount of catexis. According to some theories, catexis is generated by emotions, however I think that it is more useful to think of catexis as our general mental energy which derives from all mental processes and is at the same time consumed by other processes. After all, we are all familiar with the colloquial concept of ‘charging our batteries’ when we rest and do things that replenish our mental and physical energy, things that contribute to our well-being and prepare us for future trying situations. This, in the broad sense, is what catexis is.
When we fall in love with someone, we dedicate a considerable part of our overall catexis to that person. When we are young we spend sleepless nights thinking and fantasizing about them; when we are more mature we consider ways in which we could get to know them as persons and establish a relationship with them which would be best for the both of us, if not as lovers than as friends. There are innumerable ways in which we spend our catexis and time preparing ourselves to invite someone into our lives. This process is so demanding that sometimes it takes all of our time and energy: some people, when they are at a start of a relationship, find it difficult to work and meet their other commitments, because love takes so much of their energy. This is at the same time the reason why we are so often alone in the modern circumstances where we have so little time for our private lives. Some of us just cannot find time and energy to go out, to meet others, to dress up, maintain a casual and positive conversation, project good energy and optimism about the future — all these things are necessary for the start of a healthy new relationship.
The same reason makes it difficult for us to establish self-love. To do so, we need to think about ourselves and consider what kind of person we really are: which aspects of our personality are worthy of love by our own standards, and what a person like us would be able to give others as a lover, friend, colleague, neighbor, or parent. In other words, to establish self-love we need to understand ourselves and become interested in ourselves in exactly the same way in which, in order to love someone else, we first must become interested in them. And to become interested either in ourselves or in others we need sufficient catexis, sufficient inner resources in terms of mental processes, energy and time, to dedicate to the one we love, whether it is another person or ourselves.
Sometimes it is impossible to get to know yourself without a mirror. More often than not, that mirror needs to be both critical and supportive, both objective and able to provide creative interpretations. Especially in the circumstances where we have learned to forget about ourselves and have become accustomed to felling low because of it, ‘popping up a pill’ to get through the day, the aid of a mirror is a vital need without which we might flounder: our quality of life, our mental well-being, and our idea of the good life might all become lost in the murky reality of a depressing daily routine.
The mirror, the self-reflective tool, the beacon which guides us out of the murky waters, then, is counseling. In this sense, counseling is a tool to illuminate the way towards self-love, and self-love is a step in the direction of finding love in general. Finally, once we are able to feel love for ourselves and for others, we are pretty much in the clear of depression. The philosophical concept for this final outcome is ‘the good life’. It is probably a reasonable assumption that we all seek the good life, and it is probably fair to say that most of us never find it.
Good counseling is always about love. In fact, some philosophers describe good counseling as a loving relationship in itself. It is always empowering. And it always, whether we are immediately aware of it or not, leads to a better life, if not to an entirely ‘good life’.
Professor Aleksandar Fatic
Certified Counselor, Fellow of the American Association of Philosophical Practitioners