How can we love ourselves in a way that feels good and enhances the quality of our lives, but isn’t selfish or narcissistic?
We all know the icon of the narcissist gazing in the mirror. Narcissists seem to love themselves extremely, and often to the exclusion of others. Mirrors reflect back how we feel about ourselves. Looking at our own image may be a source of delight, or it may trigger critical and unloving thoughts about ourselves.
How can we love ourselves in a way that feels good and enhances the quality of our lives, but isn’t selfish or narcissistic? Research finds four consistent differences between healthy self-love and narcissistic love. Here are four key questions to help you understand the difference.
1. Is there a need to leverage one’s own awesomeness against others?
Healthy self-love and self-esteem is based on believing that we have a number of positive qualities and that other people have these qualities too. If we’re not self-loving or secure, we often seek to compare ourselves with others – believing if we are better at a skill, simply “the best,” or “the fairest on them all,” we will feel better about ourselves. Needing other people to be less so we can be more is a common trait of narcissism. And, it’s not a very accurate way of perceiving other people. Research shows that most people generally rate themselves above average on key characteristics – it’s statistically impossible for everyone to be above average!
2. Is there more concern with looking good than performing well?
A narcissist focuses on playing the part of a caring friend, a devoted lover, or a good employee more so than actually performing that role with skill and competency. They’re much more concerned with how they look playing the role than with the actual quality of their performance, or how others are affected by their behavior. People with a high degree of self-love derive it from going a good job and taking responsibility for their part in things. While narcissists don’t have much incentive to do a thorough job or take responsibility when things go wrong.
3. Is there a focus on external validation?
Narcissists need others to validate their awesomeness. They need constant affirmation from others because they haven’t internalized a sense of worthiness, self-compassion, or genuine high self-regard. They may do all kinds of crazy thing to win praise and recognition. Narcissists also tend to measure their worthiness based on status symbols, like jewels, expensive clothes, gorgeous romantic partners, etc. People with healthy self-love are guided by their own internal values and act in ways that are consistent with them which sustains their good feelings about themselves.
4. Do emotions and attitudes seem “black and white?”
Research shows that narcissists tend to either love or hate things and aren’t able to tolerate the grey areas. People who have healthy self-love have developed more ability to tolerate uncertainty and subtler emotions. Healthy self-love is related to the ability to experience one’s own vulnerability which can be very threatening to narcissists. When we begin to feel our vulnerability, we naturally start to feel more self-compassion, and this leads us to feel more connected to others. If we can’t tolerate our own uncomfortable feelings, we’re more likely to project them onto others which can create conflict, isolation, and self-disillusionment
In my work on mirror meditation, I’ve discovered that the mirror can also be used as a tool for deepen self-awareness. So instead of using the mirror for self-admiration or self-criticism, you can use it to understand yourself. When we are more aware of ourselves, we are less likely to project what’s going on inside of us onto others, and we have more choices of how to respond to our feelings, and have less reliance on others for affirmation. Sit in front of the mirror for 5 minutes without distractions – notice any tendencies to self-criticize, or entertain yourself to fill a void. Simply sit and be open to your thoughts and feelings as you look at yourself with no goal other than to be present with yourself.