Me: “Greyson, who do you love?”
Greyson: “I love Mama, I love Papa, I love Violet, I love Greyson!”
Me: “That’s great, buddy!”
Variations on this happy exchange have been commonplace in our home for years, ever since our 5-but-now-perilously-close-to-6-year-old first started uttering sentences. And our 3-year-old Violet now utters similar things, having learned well from her big brother the importance of spreading your love to every member of one’s family. Including that too-often-neglected member…
The first time Greyson expressed this sentiment, I must confess it caught me off-guard for a moment. He loves himself? Is that healthy?
Then 2 seconds later, or maybe even just 1, I rejected that knee-jerk response in its entirety. It was a residue of the ‘90s trend (in the ecosystem where I grew up) of seeing self-esteem and self-love as worrisome, “worldly” things. As signs of selfishness and vanity.
I remember hearing warnings about “the self-esteem movement” and how it would ruin children by essentially making them into little demigods who revere themselves at the expense of all else. There was a real fear that self-love was a kind of kryptonite for humanity. That God intended for us to think of ourselves as innately worthless, or at least as innately worthy of strong skepticism.
That philosophical topic, the innate goodness or non-goodness of humanity, is a topic for another day.
But the operative question here is: Why would we want our children to extend their love to all their friends and family, and even to humanity on the whole, but not to their own sweet little developing selves? Why would I ever resist having my child be a huge fan of himself? Isn’t that a big part of what makes a human being not only well-adjusted and happy, but also able to love others?
The answers to these questions seem clear to me now that I’m an adult. Yes, I want my children to love themselves, and like themselves.
Just like I want you to love yourself, and like yourself.
Just like I want me (and must convince myself in my darker moments) to love myself, and like myself.
In a way, I think this premise might be the linchpin of healthy parenting, and the linchpin of healthy adulting in general. Not to mention the eternal pursuit of mental health.
Ask yourself this, and don’t let your knee jerk in any direction but really ponder the question:
Are more problems and evils in the world caused by people who have a generous amount of self-love (and self-acceptance)?
Or are more problems and evils in the world caused by people who, deep down in the cauldron of their soul, harbor self-loathing and have an unhealthy relationship with themselves?
It’s a very tricky question because we (rightly) think of most of the bad actors on the world stage as being toxic narcissists, obsessed with their own vanity and thus drunk on the power they can wield over others. So it’s not an irrational premise to think that people who break all the rules of civilized society are the ones who think — or seem to think — a great deal of themselves. It’s easy to think of the Donald Trumps and the Vladimir Putins and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world as people who love themselves far, far too much.
But there needs to be a sharp distinction made between toxic vanity and healthy self-love. Toxic vanity is a deeply corrosive thing. But it’s often a result of self-loathing in a person for whom real love (and self-respect) were not properly modeled during adolescence. So what looks like self-love can be a warped permutation of self-hate. A person who isn’t at peace with themselves can end up turning their devastated sense of self-worth into a virulent vanity that poisons everyone around them.
Healthy self-love, on the other hand, is an entirely different thing. Valuing yourself, accepting yourself, and feeling comfortable in your own skin are traits that lead to good outcomes in people who are even halfway well-adjusted.
As the phrase goes, hurt people hurt people. And a similarly true adage might be…
Loved people love people.
This applies both to those who are well-loved by others (their parents, their spouse, their children, their friends) and also to those who receive plenty of self-love. The more love we receive, including from ourselves, the more inclined — and the more emotionally capable — we are to love others.
The Beatles once said: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
The flipside of that is true as well: The love you make is equal to the love you take.
Which is to say, our ability to love each other is quite often a function of the love we have received. And the person we often receive the least amount of love from is the one we see in the mirror, gazing back with scorn and skepticism.
So the more we can accept, embrace, and love ourselves, the more love we will have to freely distribute to everyone around us — thus making the world a better and brighter place.
So be lavish with your love in every direction. Just like Greyson and Violet, who have never been given any societal construct to counter their innate acceptance of themselves.
After all, every person deserves to be loved. Deeply and unconditionally.
Even that ruthlessly judgmental person you know. The one you see every day in the mirror. Tiredly frowning at his furrowed brow. Brow furrowed as he noticed his tired frown.
Because that guy? That girl? They deserve to be loved too.
Just as deeply. Just as unconditionally.