How to Love Yourself Without Being Selfish

Self-care and self-love is a good thing. Well sort of.  Because at the same time, we are also told not to be selfish, because selfish people are often judged as bad and looked down upon in our society. This is an article to clear up the confusing and stressful mixed messages about self-love and selfishness. Most of us have been left to assume that healthy self-love is a delicate balance between selflessness and selfishness. This article will show you the way to authentic self-love in an awakened reality where both selflessness and selfishness do not exist.

A selfish person is viewed as someone who constantly does things for themselves. They keep taking things for themselves. That person is looked down upon.  A selfless person is one who constantly does things for others.  They keep giving away things to others. That person is viewed as virtuous and good.

Growing up Chinese, I was raised with strong messages of selflessness. As a child, I remember large dinner gatherings with aunts and uncles at Chinese Restaurants. There were large quantities of food ordered. It was far more than everyone could eat and in the end when the large bill came everyone fought for the check. The person who fought the hardest regrettably won the right to pay the large bill, was judged as generous and avoided being labeled as selfish. The person who fought the hardest without getting the check was the biggest winner because they gave the outside appearance of being selfless and preserved an internal selfish goal of not wanting to pay. This pretty much sums up the dysfunction that exists in our conception of selfishness and selflessness. 

I was also raised Catholic under the strong image of many saints who endured impoverished living while serving selflessly for the poor and the sick. The image of Jesus Christ’s barely clothed body suffering on the cross seems to project a belief that generosity or selfless giving to the point of personal suffering was the most noble status to achieve. This starts to make one feel guilty, bad or sinful for spending money on themselves when they should perhaps give all of it away to the poor. Therefore, I think I was like most and could not live up to such high standards of goodness and sainthood.

With these belief systems in place, I never felt good about myself. I saw that these belief systems are woven into all of our relationships with ourselves and others. The most important thing that governs our happiness is how good we feel about ourselves. Are there places where we feel like a good, very likable, loveable and generous person? Are there places where we feel we look bad, unlikeable, envied, despised, and considered selfish? These questions reveal why we may be driven to please as many people as possible, why we may set boundaries and why we may be willing to accept some people not liking us or calling us bad.

Most people understand the  importance of self-love and self-care. Many people will admit that self-love is just a healthy amount of selfishness that avoids becoming excessive and overly focused on the self.  However, it is completely subjective where that balance point is, which can become  confusing and stressful. Let me explain what I mean. 

Selflessness is considered generous and judged as a concept of “good”. Selfishness is considered the opposite and judged as a concept of “bad”. The thing many don’t realize is that a selfless person is often acting from a place of “not-enough-ness.” When this happens the outwardly selfless person can inwardly lack self-worth and needs others to witness them doing a selfless act. They seek a kind of internal  praise that is typically missing. If the selfless person doesn’t get sufficiently rewarded by others for their sacrifice they will start to feel resentment.

Selfishness also comes from this same place of “not-enoughness.” With selfishness, the person makes up for their lack of self-worth by claiming more external things. The truth is that both selfishness or selflessness both come from a state of insecurity and feeling like one isn’t enough. Both come from a place where we feel driven to do something to prove our worth because we can’t believe our mere existence alone is enough. If it were at all possible, what we’d like to do is act selfishly in private, but always be witnessed in public doing selfless acts. This becomes an exhausting and stressful life to live, but this is exactly what can happen in our relationships. Sometimes we are trying to make up for an inherent worth that we don’t believe in, so it prevents us from giving ourselves the love we actually need and crave.

Understanding self-love is about “being” not “doing.” Any love that is dependent upon “doing” is conditional love. Conditional love requires that you do something to prove yourself with outward physical action. Unconditional self-love is NOT about “doing,” it is about “being.”

I can give myself as much or as little love as I want and still come from a place of love. I can also take as much or as little love as I want and still come from a place of love. As long as I am in that place of self-love, I will be secure enough about my worth regardless of how much I decide to give or take external things in life. The secret is “being” and not “doing” self-love.

How can you get there? Having a self-love meditation or self-love mirror talk can help you start “being” self-love instead of “doing” self-love. For example, here’s one practice to try that I use and find very helpful:

  1. Find a place you feel safe that no one else is around to watch or can hear you.  The place needs to have a mirror so that you can see your face.
  2. Once in this place. Look at yourself and observe all the features of your face. Don’t try to fix anything on your face, just look and observe all your facial features. If you find this too intense, you can take small steps and make eye contact with yourself just a bit and then look away.  Then when ready, restore eye contact.
  3. Say to yourself “I love you.”  Then notice the feelings you may feel when you say that. Do you shrink back a bit? Do you hear a voice saying “this is silly?” Do you wish something were different?

For those who may think this is about practicing self-vanity, let me suggest some more words to say in the mirror. Say the following words to yourself in the mirror:

“I love you. I have been with you through every second of your life. Through all those tough times that seemed so unfair to you, I was there with you. In those places no one else was with you, I was with you.  I know what you’ve been through. I understand what you’ve really been through like no other. I applaud you. I love you. You are loveable. You are so important to me.  I love you.”

How’s that feel? Are there any critical feelings that make this feel silly or wrong? Is there something about you that you don’t like seeing in the mirror? This may be a very new way of looking at self-love and self-care.

Doing this self-love practice in your own privacy is creating a state of self-love. It allows you to come to “being” love as opposed to “doing” love. Once you can be love for yourself, you can soundly be the lover for others. You then model unconditional love for others. In this place of unconditional love, what you decide to do or not do is irrelevant.