"Thank yourself for showing up today and loving yourself," said the yoga teacher in the dim, sweaty room where I do hot yoga and try to shut down my brain.
The message to "love yourself", it seems, is everywhere: in Lizzo’s songs ("I'm my own soulmate), in Instagram meme aphorisms ("the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself") and in the messages peddled on dozens of TikTok accounts owned by people with *let me check my notes* zero psychological credentials.
The more life I live, the more fragile these phrases feel. I am thinking not just of my own life but about the life experience I have gained vicariously by proximity to the people I care about: holding friends’ hands as parents become seriously unwell, listening as they work through the breakdown of long-term relationships, offering comfort to new mothers when they feel overwhelmed.
Like body positivity, telling someone who does not feel good about life to "just try and love yourself a bit more" feels not only trite but, more seriously, like adding to their load.
Increasingly "self-love", like feeling "empowered" or focusing on "manifesting", feels like another headspace that women – not always but mostly – are told to work on in order to be happy, have good relationships and achieve professional goals.
"Self-love" has become ubiquitous. It is a movement so big that it almost feels like a secular religion. On Instagram, there are 98.5 million #selflove posts. TikTok videos with the same hashtag have racked up 56.1 billion views. Pop stars sing about it. Hailee Steinfeld loves herself, Nicki Minaj is feelin’ herself and Selena Gomez had to lose her love for someone else in order to find herself. More colloquially, I have noticed an uptick in the number of people I encounter who say things like "I'm just focusing on myself right now", "So and so doesn’t bring good energy into my life" or "I love myself and I really deserve X, Y and Z".
"Believing in yourself" is hardly a new concept on the self-improvement scene. It is the basic premise of Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book, The Secret, which pushes the "Ask, Believe, Receive" mantra as the basis for "the law of attraction" which, at its core, is the idea that if you love yourself, not only will other people love you too but things – like that expensive handbag you really, really want – will be drawn towards you, on the basis of good vibes alone.
The basic logic of this thinking is not difficult to grasp. If you turn up to dinner with friends, a job interview or a date and you are a huge puddle of self-loathing, other people will go out of their way to step around you because they want to avoid getting soaked. But even then there is a problem.
Dr Linda Blair is a chartered psychologist who has worked as a therapist for more than 40 years. She fears that contemporary culture, prone as it is to individualism as opposed to collectivism, is confusing self-love with self-respect or self-acceptance.
"I can see that [these ideas] are easily confused right now," says Blair. "So much social media content appears to suggest that if you are really putting yourself first, you will be wonderfully happy and successful, but that’s not how it works."
In Blair’s view, we should focus more on self-acceptance than self-love.
"Remember the Greek myth of Narcissus," she laughs. "He was so infatuated with his own reflection in a pool of water that he got too close to it and drowned."
The philosophy of self-love is, ultimately, that anything that feels good and right to you is worth doing over and over again. Anything that feels bad, depletes your energy, is a bit difficult or involves having empathy for the needs of others can simply be shut out and turned away from.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of this sort of thinking. Being your own "soulmate" (if you believe in such a thing) is safer than trusting other people, in all their flawed glory, with your feelings. One of the hardest lessons we will all learn in life is that everyone – no matter how wonderful and well-meaning they are – will let us down at some point. If you can rely on yourself and yourself alone, perhaps it softens the blow.
But can loving yourself really mean you avoid hardship? Can it really make you happy?
"I think accepting or being comfortable with your assets and recognising them is great but it has to be balanced out by being aware of your faults and committing to work on them," Blair says. "The reason for this is that once you can accept who you are, imperfect as that may be, you are able to offer this sort of acceptance – which really is love – to other people. When you are able to do that, you will experience happiness. Happiness is not loving yourself, in my opinion – it’s being able to give and share love with other people."
Considered in the context of the current economic climate, this is a powerful idea. With inflation still in double digits, making buying food, paying mortgages and rent or filling up a car more unaffordable than it has been in years, we need other people more, not less. In its current iteration, self-love as it is conceived of on social media or in pop music is hyper-individualistic.
That is not always appropriate because whether or not you are able to love yourself really depends on who you are and where you come from in the world. My yoga class costs $33. I can afford it, both financially and in terms of my time because I do not have caring obligations. But I am not convinced that lying on a sweaty yoga mat really constitutes love – of myself or anyone else. It might help me to take a beat and put things in perspective, which makes me better able to be there for those I care about. It is certainly not a loving practice if carried out in isolation as opposed to in relation to other people.
Quite the contrary; it is an incredibly selfish one.
It is important to like and accept the person that you are, to be proud of your achievements and aware of your limitations.
The alternative is to behave in ways that make you feel embarrassed or ashamed, which is like living life as though you are being forced to watch a showreel of painful lowlights on a loop, with new bits added constantly. The text you sent in anger and cannot take back, the look on the face of someone you care about when you let them down. Zoom in, and look at this bit where you really messed things up.
To like yourself – to live with integrity and stand by your actions – is about having self-worth and, crucially, respect. Not only for yourself but for the people you have relationships with. And that is very different from embarking upon a quest to love yourself at the expense of everything and everyone you encounter.
Love is a verb. Loving is an active experience, a skill that all of us must hone and develop in relation to others. Loving requires effort, like remembering to do cardio; the more you do, the better your muscle memory and the easier it gets. You want to live in a universe that hums with life and activity, not one in which you are cloistered away at the spa or, worse, at home, alone and not responding to anyone because you are practising a misguided form of "radical self-love".
As the world becomes a harder place to exist for the majority of people due to spiralling living costs, the pervasive but obscure requirement that independent women must "love themselves" before they can be loved feels more and more problematic.
Self-love has been used by various corporations to sell cosmetics. And while it’s certainly preferable that brands attempt to inspire confidence through their marketing strategies as opposed to preying on women’s insecurities, it creates a new kind of insecurity. Self-love has become yet another task on women’s to-do lists, another thing to perfect and, often, another thing to fail at because it is an impossible task.
You can tell yourself you are honing self-love when you avoid difficult conversations. You can pretend it is loving to be selfish. You can delude yourself into thinking that spending money on beauty treatments is a substitute for connection.
But what if you still have doubts about your career and need advice? What if you’re always a bit worried about money because living is cheaper in partnership with other people? What if you still feel lonely because we are social creatures?
In the empty church of self-love, supplicants sit before themselves in the mirror and search for answers but, like Narcissus, they do not find real love. Narcissus was the mortal son of gods but he was not a god. He rejected all romantic advances because of a blind obsession with himself which isolated and, ultimately, killed him.
The message of this ancient Greek myth is evergreen: humans need other people. Love has never been a one-way street that you can hurtle down alone for an entire life. It is a winding path, which inevitably converges on the paths of others – friends, family, colleagues, and partners. We have confused self-love with self-acceptance. And the former cannot exist without the latter because love is the creation and service of community. To love – to really love – you have to engage with the world, get up off your yoga mat and figure out how to accept yourself enough that you are able to support others.