The Spiritual Psychology of Self-love: The good, the bad, the ugly

Are you ready to unravel the intricacies of self-love? This blog post takes us on a journey through the evolution of self-love in Western society, from a moral sin to a trendy topic. While loving ourselves is the foundation for well-being, our cultural obsession with it may have unintended consequences. This post dives into its psychology, uncovers toxic aspects, and explores its contribution to the loneliness and narcissistic epidemics that define our era.

Estimated reading time: 16-21 minutes

The first time I heard of the concept of "self-love" was when I was wandering around aimlessly at a local art fair in Melbourne, Australia.

I had just been stood up by my date.

TBH, I didn't even like the guy, but the feeling of rejection pushed my already fragile self-esteem past its breaking point. I wanted to crawl out of my own skin and flush myself down the shitter of the nearest porta potty. You know that feeling?

So, picture this: there I was, 7,500 miles away from home and infinite miles away from myself, obsessively checking my phone every 5 minutes (err, 30 seconds?) waiting on some rando dude to validate my self-worth. Feeling like the lowest of the low about myself while searching for the nearest escape route to my existence. And that's when I saw it: the psychic booth.

I don't know what compelled me to walk into that psychic booth. At the time, I was a hardcore atheist and didn't believe in the supernatural. I suppose it was a testament to how desperate and confused I felt. If the rando dude couldn't validate my worth, maybe this psychic could?

Boy, was I comically wrong. You know that moment in a movie when your compassion for the main character turns into second-hand embarrassment?  But you can't help but feel amused because the cosmic joke is irresistible? That describes the story of my life when I sat down in front of the psychic for a reading: a cosmic joke.

I had a few minutes to spare before my "appointment," so I pretended to be fascinated by the little trinkets  'n things that were on display outside the booth (meanwhile, coming up with hypothetical scenarios of all the ways I would tell off my no-show date if ever ran into him). Amongst the ornate tarot decks, incense sticks, crystals, and other bejeweled amulets on display, one thing caught my eye and brought me back into my body:  a little book with a BIG title, "When Loved Myself Enough."

I started flipping through the book:

"When I loved myself enough I quit settling for too little."

"When I loved myself enough I came to know my own goodness."

"When I loved myself enough I began taking the gift of life seriously and gratefully."

"When I loved myself enough I began to know I was in the right place at the right time and I could relax."

"Self-love" was an idea that sounded equal parts absurd and intriguing. But not as absurd and intriguing as the captivating figure that beckoned me into her little corner of unseen realms.

I quickly put the book back--as if caught with my hand in the cookie jar--and followed her in, taking my seat. Unbeknownst to me, I must have given her really "bad vibes" because what she said to me within the first 5 minutes of our session nearly killed me. And no, that's not a hyperbole.

"You're dead on the inside," she told me--very matter of factly, as if she were delivering the price of a jar of pickles.

"Wh--what?" I wanted more clarification. What kind of dead are we talking about? Like, my soul had been extracted by demons? Am I emotionally unresponsive? Does my spirit need life support? AM I DYING??

I honestly don't remember much of what she said after that point, but does it matter? It took everything in me not to throw myself in front of a moving vehicle on the way home that night. Luckily, my best friend (at the time) talked me off a ledge. "Babe, you just need to love yourself," she advised me. I remembered the little book with a big message on display outside the psychic booth, and I vowed to myself that I would do whatever it takes to write my own version of "when I loved myself enough" one day. I spent the next 7-8 years studying self-love. That book is still writing itself, but in the interim I've gained some valuable insights that I know will serve others. And here we are.

The moral of the story is: don't trust the spiritual guidance of a stranger when you're at a low point. But hey, that low point? It turned out to be a pivotal moment in my journey.

This is the part where I tell you that I have this self-love thing all figured out. Nope. As it turns out, self-love is not something to figure out. It is not a mindset hack, quick-fix, or magic elixir. Hell, it's hardly even a practice. As with other spiritual concepts, self-love is a lifelong process, with many pitfalls and opportunities to mess up along the way (yay)! Fortunately for you, I've condensed everything I've ever learned about self-love--both academically and through my own spiritual self-study--into one single blog post and an e-book that I'll talk about later.

Without further ado, let's dive in:

The Psychology of Self-love

Back in the day, self-love was seen as a moral sin. Our parents' generation and the generations that came before were too busy working themselves to the bone to prove their worth.  Self-denial was seen as a virtue carried over from religious dogma that emphasized humility, asceticism, and putting others' welfare above one's own. Suffering through self-sacrifice was the path of morality purity and righteousness. This perspective permeated much of Western society until the 60s and 70s when the counterculture rose to realize, "hey...we don't have to live like our parents. We can define the pursuit of happiness on our own terms." What a revelation!

This era marked a significant shift in societal values around self-love, as we learned that it's okay, even essential, to appreciate ourselves without carrying the guilt of past generations. However, there's a twist in this tale of social transformation. As the pendulum swung from self-denial to self-love, it swung a bit too far (as social movements typically do). In our quest to break free from the dogma of the past, we might have inadvertently unleashed a new beast--narcissism and selfishness.

This is not just a theoretical paradox; it's a lived reality for many, including me. Although my own self-contempt and self-neglect was not born from religious dogma, it was sourced from the same psychic mechanism that lead me down the path of extreme selfishness. It may seem contradictory--how can self-contempt and extreme selfishness coexist? The answer lies in the shared psychic mechanism: narcissism. Put a pin in that. I'll explain.

But first, let's talk about the actual psychology of self-love and what it means from a scientific perspective.

i. The Self-positivity bias

The scientific term for self-love is known as "self-positivity bias," a concept that describes our inherent tendency to perceive ourselves more positively compared to the average population. In simple terms, it's when you rate yourself as more awesome than the average Joe or Jane. You can think of this as the ego's incessant need to center itself and see itself in a positive light. This is not always a bad thing; in fact, it is necessary for well-being. Cultivating self-positivity boosts your self-esteem, motivation, and determination. On the flip side, not having it might just send you down the mood and anxiety rabbit hole.

In a study that looked at how the self-positivity bias influences the way we process information, the researchers found that our brain pays special attention to information that has to do with ourselves (no surprises there). But what's fascinating is that we tend to pay more attention to negative information, especially when it doesn't align with our own self-views. In this study, when participants were presented with positive words that matched their self-views, the brain seemed to say, "Eh, no big deal," showing only a small response. However, when it came to negative words or traits that didn't align with their self-views, the brain seemed to go, "whoa, hold on a minute!" This effect was more pronounced in individuals with low-self esteem.

If we apply these findings to the context of self-love, it would indicate that self-positivity (what we colloquially call 'self-love') helps us establish an "internal environment" which work together to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

But what does it actually mean to have self-love? What does this look like in practice? Science has an answer for that too:

ii. The 3 aspects of self-love

Humanistic psychologists have given us a neat theoretical framework for self-love that can be broken down into 3 components:

  1. Self-contact
  2. Self-acceptance
  3. Self-care

All together, these 3 components comprise a learnable attitude of self-kindness. Read that again. Self-love is a learnable attitude of self-kindness. Let's briefly break down each of these 3 components:

Self-contact refers to actively exploring our inner world, engaging in self-reflection, and finding harmony among the various, sometimes contradictory facets of our identity. It's a way of questioning and understanding ourselves on a deeper level. For example, facing our fears and anxieties instead of avoiding them, asking ourselves why we feel a certain way, what we truly want, and why we react to situations in specific ways. This quality of self-dialogue is considered fundamental for self-love because it leads to greater self-awareness and understanding.

Self-acceptance is defined as being at peace with yourself by having unconditional positive regard toward your limitations, imperfections, and shortcomings. Self-acceptance is a core dimension of self-love that includes the totality of our entire experience: accepting that even aggression, self-criticism, and moments of self-contempt can be part of our emotional landscape. This quality of self-acceptance means that we welcome all emotions equally, freeing ourselves from judgement and the pressure to conform to idealized standards. Authenticity is key.

Self-care, while it may seem obvious, goes beyond just nurturing our needs, or participating in activities that bring us joy. An important aspect of self-care also has to do with how we respond to setbacks or hardships. True self-care embraces moments of difficulty as part of the human experience, offering comfort and self-compassion in challenging times. Another facet of self-care is our relationships. It involves actively shaping relationships in ways that contribute to our well-being, which includes setting boundaries and distancing ourselves from toxic or draining relationships.  

In a nutshell, the psychological attitude of genuine self-love can be boiled down to 7 characteristics:

  1. Knowing ourselves
  2. Accepting our limitations
  3. Admitting to being aggressive or judgmental
  4. Welcoming all emotions equally
  5. Treating ourselves with kindness during difficult times
  6. Shaping our relationships
  7. Doing what makes us happy

Sounds simple, right? Ah, but there's a catch. There's always a catch.

When 'self-love' is toxic

Is there such a thing as too much self-love? Short answer: yes. Long answer--it depends.

Self-love is toxic when it becomes a trendy, spiritualized buzzword that uses self-love as a means to an end.

Let's break this down:

As we discussed in the earlier section on the psychology of self-love, the psychological underpinning of self-love is the self-positivity bias. Note the word bias.

Biases are built-in mechanisms that are a natural part of human thinking. Biases are necessary for our survival and have evolved as a way for our brains to process and integrate information so we can make quick decisions in complex situations. As such, there is nothing inherently good or bad about having a bias. However, biases affect how we perceive and interact with the world, make choices, assess risks, form opinions, interpret information, etc. As much as they can help us navigate a complex world, our cognitive biases can also lead to perceptual distortions, inaccurate judgements, illogical interpretations, or irrational decision-making. This is why it is essential to be aware of our own biases and actively work to mitigate their impact so that we can learn from mistakes and grow as individuals.

When it comes to self-love, the self-positivity bias can either help or hurt us. This is because self-positivity is based on a broader cognitive mechanism that psychologists called self-enhancement. Bear with me, this is going to make so much sense by the end of this post.

Self-enhancement is our tendency to emphasize our positive qualities and believe that we are the main reason for our successes, while giving little to no credit to outside factors, including other individuals. A common example of self-enhancement is what psychologists call the 'better-than-average' effect, based on the finding that most people rate their attributes and abilities--such as attractiveness, intelligence, leadership ability,  patience, or even driving a car—as 'above average', and rate others as 'below average.' This shows how we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light compared to others.

While self-enhancement is important for our self-esteem, confidence, and motivation, it can also make us overconfident about our abilities, which puts us at a disadvantage in decision-making, especially when it comes to risk assessment.

Now, back to the self-positivity bias which is the psychological underpinning of self-love. Self-positivity is a specific manifestation of self-enhancement, but it serves the same goal: to enhance our self-esteem and self-confidence, especially in the face of harsh criticism. When we are not aware of the self-positivity bias, it is very easy to mistake self-love with toxic behaviors. Below are 6 toxic behaviors that disguise as self-love and their corresponding narratives that are widely promoted in the new-age, pop-psychology self-love scene:

  1. Harming others or being disrespectful & rude under the guise of 'speaking your truth.' (E.g. "If you don’t love me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best.")
  2. Avoiding or shutting down conflict under the guise of 'personal boundaries.' (E.g. "If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.")
  3. Invalidating your own or others' experiences under the guise of 'positivity.' (E.g. "I'm only surrounding myself with positivity.") 
  4. Engaging in unhealthy, irresponsible behaviors under the guise of 'self-care.' (E.g. "I'm just doing what feels right for me.")
  5. Refusing to change behaviors or traits that are harming yourself and others. (E.g. "I love myself no matter what.")
  6. Prioritizing own needs, desires, and interests over the well-being of others ("E.g. "I'm putting myself first no matter what.")

When the self-positivity bias (i.e. the ego) remains unchecked and unexamined, the line between genuine self-love and toxic behaviors becomes blurred. These toxic behaviors, despite being celebrated and encouraged through trendy Pinterest quotes and feel-good affirmations, do not represent genuine self-love but rather epitomize a superficial, performative version of it. Genuine self-love does not harm our relationships, stagnate our personal growth, or lead us down the path of selfishness and narcissism.

Speaking of narcissism....

When 'self-love' is code for narcissism

I want to zoom in on that last point about how self-love can become code for narcissism. Still with me?

I often refer to a favorite article of mine, authored by existential psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, titled 'The Science of Spiritual Narcissism.' This article holds profound implications for our spiritual practice. I highly recommended spiritual seekers to read it.

In the article, the author refers to a series of studies that explored spiritual superiority in spiritual seekers who practice yoga and mindfulness. The researchers found a bidirectional relationship between spiritual practices and narcissism; in other words, spiritual practices can be used to bolster narcissism, and some individuals with narcissistic tendencies may be drawn to certain spiritual practices.

Furthermore, this effect was mitigated by the self-enhancement bias. In other words, when spirituality is used as a tool for self-enhancement, it leads to spiritual narcissism. This happens when, rather than using these spiritual practices for growth and well-being, we use them as a means to fulfill personal development goals--like greater confidence, creativity, focus, achievement, success, eating habits, sleep and even happiness. When spirituality becomes just another skill to practice, the self-enhancement bias kicks in to make us feel 'better-than-average.' From there, it's a slippery slope to the 'I'm-enlightened-you're-not syndrome,' a core symptom of spiritual narcissism.

Rather than quieting the ego, spiritual practices can boost the ego when they are used as a means to an end. Instead, the author suggests making our spiritual practice about our spiritual practice: to cultivate a witness mind so we can catch the ego in self-enhancement. All the other benefits that we seek--compassion, focus, happiness--are a side effect not an outcome of our spiritual practice. In other words, the positive benefits from our spiritual practice occur naturally as a consequence, without being the intended goal. This subtle, yet significant nuance is important because it emphasizes that the main focus of our spiritual practice should be on the process itself, rather than the intended goal.

In our Western society, self-love is largely approached as a means to an end. Instead of cultivating genuine self-love for the sake of loving ourselves, we pursue self-love to meet personal development goals, striving to be prettier, stronger, better, thinner, happier, more successful, more popular, more productive, more positive, less stressed...the list goes on.

When self-love becomes a means to achieve a personal development goal, the ego starts to self-enhance itself, using our self-love practice as yet another way to fulfill its incessant need to be seen in a positive light. When the self-positivity bias remains unchecked and unexamined, the line between genuine self-love and toxic behaviors becomes blurred and self-love becomes code for narcissism.

Genuine self-love isn't something you chase as a goal. It's the result of authentically engaging in the 3 aspects of self-love (self-contact, self-acceptance, self-care) where the attitude of self-kindness is cultivated organically through these meaningful experiences.

The self-love Paradox

In the section on the Psychology of Self-love, I talked about the apparent contradiction between self-contempt and extreme selfishness that are sourced from the same psychic mechanism of narcissism. Now that you know how narcissism manifests through the unchecked and unexamined ego (through the self-positivity bias), let's unpack this paradox.

One of the most common misconceptions of narcissism, as you probably are aware, is that narcissism means having an excessive love for oneself. In reality, narcissism often masks as a fragile ego characterized by a deep need for excessive admiration and attention. Beneath its confident facade, a narcissistic ego often harbors feelings of crippling self-doubt and fear of rejection or criticism. In other words, the self-positivity bias is on overdrive, working overtime to protect the ego from anything that threatens its already fragile self-esteem. To protect from these feelings, a narcissistic ego develops a grandiose self-image and seeks constant validation from others to feel worthy. It often engages in compensatory, toxic behaviors like the six behaviors mentioned above, to shield itself against feelings of inadequacy.

People who are high in trait narcissism often lack the empathy required to form deep, meaningful connections with others. This is because a narcissistic ego needs to focus all of its energy on maintaining a positive self-image, which is barely held together by a thread and can unravel at any moment. As such, their relationships tend to be shallow, transactional, and based on what others can provide to boost their fragile ego.

Narcissism gets a bad rep in our society; indeed, it is a toxic trait that poisons our soul and everything else around us. But the reality is, trait narcissism is the dominant personality trait in our Western society, becoming somewhat of an epidemic. The uncomfortable truth is that narcissism is a spectrum and pretty much everyone is on it. The more we deny these inherited (not to be confused with inherent) traits in ourselves, the more power they will have over our lives. This the quality of 'shadow work' that wildly and unrelentingly gets missed in new-age spirituality circles. In this context, the bidirectional relationship between narcissism and spiritual practices makes sense: spiritual practices can be used to bolster narcissism, and some individuals with narcissistic tendencies may be drawn to certain spiritual practices. This is why many spiritual seekers fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing and other toxic behaviors.

Spiritual bypassing and other toxic behaviors happen when self-love is pursued from a fragile ego, which only emboldens the self-positivity bias and boosts the ego, instead of quieting it. Instead of leading to genuine self-love, it leads to narcissism. This is why spiritual narcissism runs rampant in the new-age scene.

Honestly, much of our learned selfishness and inherited narcissism stems from latent trauma which is only exacerbated by our stressful lives and our failed mental healthcare system. The National Council for Behavioral Health estimates that 70% of Americans have experienced some traumatic event at least once in their lives. This is why I advocate for social responsibility and  trauma-informed practices in business and beyond (I have a course on ethical entrepreneurship that you can check out here).

In a culture characterized by collective trauma and trait narcissism, the solution to the self-love paradox is not more self-love. The solution is to reject hyper-individualism and embrace a new ethos altogether--one that places community healing and collective liberation at its center and is fueled by a deep desire for social change.

Rethinking self-love: toward collective liberation

In a society where narcissism is an epidemic, is it any surprise that loneliness has also become an epidemic too? Could it be that our hyper-individualistic society that places an exaggerated importance on self-esteem has created a culture of narcissists? Could it be that a cut-through competitive environment where self-sufficiency reigns supreme has turned self-love into a tool for survival? Could it also be that the commercialization of self-love has turned loving ourselves into a profit-generating commodity, which has lead to more self-focus, more narcissism, more social disconnection?

These are important questions to ponder, dear reader.

The fact is, social connection is not only essential to our health and well-being, it is as vital as food and water. Yet, the conventional self-help and wellness movements insist that personal success is the pinnacle of human potential, and we should all be striving for it as the ultimate purpose and meaning of life. This idea is contagious and it has spread like a disease. Many psychologists have already challenged frameworks like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and I'm with them: I say it's time to rethink this hierarchy and swap self-actualization with social connection, like our life depends on it..because it does.

To address this epidemic of loneliness and isolation, it requires a collective commitment to fostering relationships and nurturing communities of care. It asks us to put down our self-help manuals and make social connection a priority. It beckons us to reject conventional narratives about personal success as the ultimate purpose of life, and define ourselves and our lives outside of capitalist interests.

Remember that a core tenet of healthy self-love is self-care, which extends beyond our yoga mat to include social connection and community ties as essential to our well-being. Conversely, self-love distorted by hyper-individualism can alienate us, making us feel isolated and overly self-absorbed. It is crucial to recognize when conventional narratives package toxic behaviors as self-love and when we unconsciously buy into these harmful ideas.

Loving yourself beyond the trend

If your curiosity is piqued and you'd like to delve even deeper into this topic, I invite you to read my new e-book "Demystifying Self-love: Loving yourself beyond the trend." In it, I unpack many of the concepts I discussed in this blog post and more. I've also included reflection questions to invite readers into collective shadow work. Collective shadow work is next-level ego-work that entails breaking down the barriers around our hyper-individualized self to acknowledge the role we play in unwittingly contributing to those very social problems that we wish to solve. These were the exact reflection questions that helped me liberate myself from the confines of the self-help industry’s commercial interests and cultivate an authentic connection with myself. I'm honored to offer this e-book as a powerful tool for self-transformation on your self-love journey. If you are on the path toward collective liberation, and interdependence is something you highly value on your spiritual process, this ebook will bring much clarity and insight to your self-transformation and personal growth.

Thank you for reading this blog post! I would love to hear your thoughts, ah-ha moments, and what really stood out to you.


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