As I sit and write this column, frantic lovers rush by with flowers in hand, scrambling in front of one another on the sidewalk, leapfrogging the slow-footed on the escalators and staircases of the Underground, hurtling up, down and across every conceivable thoroughfare of London so as not to disappoint that special someone on the loveliest day of the year. You see, this was written on Valentine’s Day, and love was most definitely in the air.
But the kind of love I want to talk about today isn’t a romantic kind of love — or at least it shouldn’t be. The kind of love that interests me most is the love we reserve for ourselves. Some call it self-love; others, the more socially repulsive title of narcissism. Whatever you choose to call it, the love we feel toward and about ourselves is an undeniable part of who we are.
Practicing what is vaguely coined as “self-love” is generally considered to be the “good” way to love oneself, as opposed to its less admirable counterpart — narcissism. But what does “self-love” really mean? The term has gained popularity in recent years to counter self-hating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Rather than hating oneself for the aspects of our bodies arbitrarily determined to be flawed by convention or norm, we should love ourselves, and celebrate how flawless we are because flaws, unlike us, do not truly and independently exist.
Narcissism, on the other hand, is the adoration, bordering on and occasionally passing into obsession, that we feel for ourselves. Narcissism is patently ugly; nobody will ever admit to being a narcissist, even though most of us are. It’s easy though, in the 21st century, to fall for narcissism’s charms.
Our world runs on an unhealthy amount of self-adoration and self-contemplation; why else would people buy shoes, clothes and cars they don’t need, make ungodly amounts of money they will never spend and associate themselves via marriage with attractive people if they did not love themselves more than anything or anyone else? The materialism of today’s world encourages a level of self-obsession so toxic and so blinding that everything we acquire — clothing, vehicles, houses, spouses — are mere accessories to our most precious possession — ourselves.
While blatant, unabashed narcissism — the strain of self-love exhibited by media darlings like Donald Trump and Kanye West who have been quoted, respectively, with saying, “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” and, “My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live” — is certainly much different, and, most would argue, much worse than the aforementioned practicing of “self-love” that places an intrinsic value on every human being and body, regardless of your position on the fat-skinny or shy-sociable spectrum, the two are not so different as you might think.
Both place a premium on internal choices and value judgments, and encourage the dismissal of external opinions. For the narcissist, it’s because no one else can comprehend my brilliance; for the practicer of self-love, it’s because no one else can understand, much less categorize, who I am more capably than I can myself.
Indeed, I would argue that much of the rhetoric behind self-love (“Don’t let others label you,” “Only you can decide what is best for you”) is narcissism by another name.
That rhetoric would all be well and good if we were capable of being impartial, cool-headed appraisers of our own character, but we’re not.
We forgive ourselves easily. We slather on the praise and skimp on the criticism. Sometimes we require an external opinion — a friend, a family member, an employer or coworker, anyone — to tell us what we cannot bear to tell ourselves. These interjections, so long as they’re not out of spite, are healthy. We are simply not equipped to be our own judges.
There’s something called amour de soi, proposed by 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that can help us differentiate between healthy and unhealthy self-love. Amour de soi is a French term for “love of oneself,” and I think the crucial bit of the phrase is the choice of preposition — not “for,” but “of.”
We tend to think of love as something we direct at someone else, something we give to our crush or partner like we would a bouquet. We feel love for or toward someone, but love of someone is, in my opinion, something different.
You might argue that this is just a rhetorical gimmick, that swapping one little preposition for another doesn’t really change anything, but I believe that in this context, in the context of self-love, love for oneself and love of oneself are different things entirely.
Think about the way we use the preposition “for” — it suggests the exporting of something, the transfer of something of ours to someone or something else. “I bought this tie for you.” Or, “I’m so excited for the weekend.” We give the tie to someone else; we “give” our excitement to the upcoming weekend.
Similarly, when you or I harbor a love for ourselves, we transfer that love to something separate, something distinct, from ourselves.
Narcissus, the hunter who feels in love with his reflection in a forest pool, was not in love with himself, but with the image of himself.
I would argue that love for oneself is, in fact, love for the reproductions of who we are that we keep in our heads, glimpse in the mirror and filter on Facebook with a ferocity rivaling the steeliest keepers of the Iron Curtain.
Love for oneself is love for our one’s reflection — the physical reflection itself, and one’s reflection in the awed, admiring and envious eyes of others. It’s why narcissists feel so empty and, at the heart of things, unloved. All that love they’ve seemingly showered on themselves? It all went to their reflection. All to the image of themselves in their mind’s eye.
Love of oneself has no recipient. If love for oneself is directed at one’s reflection, love of oneself is directionless. I know this all sounds very vague and abstract, but I’ll try and offer a concrete example of amour de soi that reveals the difference between love of and love for oneself.
An example of amour de soi would be the smile that creeps unbidden to your lips when you’re doing something that makes you happy — something that would make you happy in a vacuum, that would make you happy even if no one else knew you were doing it.
Think of all the things we do simply because they lend us an air of glamour or hipness or danger, all the things we enjoy self-consciously, in the most fundamental form of the word, because we know they increase our standing in the eyes of others, and throw them out.
If you practice amour de soi, this happiness — just another word, in my opinion, for a momentary love of the world and all it contains — would be enough. If you have a love for yourself, however, you would take a picture of yourself doing whatever it was that made you happy; you’d write up a long and (in your mind) heartwarming account of how happy you were at that moment in time, post it on every social media platform at you disposal and spend the next few hours counting the likes religiously.
Amour de soi is the love that emanates from the self; narcissism is the love we give to the self. Amour de soi is impossible to fabricate and difficult to cultivate. Perhaps this is why it is so rare, and narcissism so widespread. Celebrating the shape of your body is no more an example of amour de soi than worshipping its reflection in the mirror or a forest pool.
Amour de soi is the happiness that comes to us when we do what we love, a true, organic happiness untainted by self-conscious gratification or self-contemplation or self-anything — not the vanity that masquerades as happiness when we learn to admire our own reflection.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.