Why Practicing Self-Love can Harm Us (& What to do about It).

Via Chris Dierkes
on Jun 28, 2015
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Gavriil Papadiotis/Flickr

Self-love is a hot topic nowadays—along with her cousins self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and self-acceptance—and understandably so.

There’s a gargantuan lack of love, compassion and acceptance in our lives, including (but not limited to) our relationships with ourselves.

Self-love is a genuine need that isn’t being met. As a result, a whole industry has sprung up around self-love and the concrete consequences of loving oneself (or not). A quick book search reveals that self-love is being taught as the key to falling in love, eliminating negative body image issues, clearing up financial difficulties, building self-esteem, healing old wounds, achieving one’s life purpose and finding true happiness.

Courses, programs, workshops and seminars all exist on self-love. Some are well conceived and offered, others less so (in my opinion). But more to the point, when exploring the better offerings, I find something interesting takes place.

Put bluntly, sometimes these teachings work and sometimes they don’t. Why is that exactly?

The typical response is that you are entirely in charge of your own reality and therefore if you follow the ten point (or however many points it is) system, you’ll be loving yourself in no time. The flip side is that if you don’t get the results you’re after, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough.

The system didn’t fail, you did.

I’m going to suggest an alternative explanation, one that doesn’t require labeling people failures.

Here’s my alternative. This idea comes out of my experience in my practice with clients. In my view, when a person is struggling with an issue like self-love, they fall into one of two camps (energetically speaking):

1. Those who have the capacity to love themselves but don’t do it.

2. Those who, try as they might, don’t yet have the capacity for self-love in their being.

What exactly do I mean by “the capacity for self-love?” At base, some people have the energy, the fundamental potential to love themselves while others do not (at least not yet).

Those in the first group have a memory, a feeling, an experience that resonates with self-love. Of course, the term self-love is just two words strung together. But what those two words point to is an actual experience, an actual energy, a real thing (namely, loving oneself).

People in the first group can link up their experiential understanding with the phrase self-love and make a match. They know what self-love feels like. Even if that feeling or memory is locked way down there somewhere and is covered over by a whole lot of blocks, false beliefs, and unprocessed emotion, it’s in there. It’s just a matter of getting past the blocks, releasing the false beliefs, and processing the unhealed emotions in order to connect to the memory or the feeling of self-love and bring it back to the surface (this, by the way, is what the courses are typically designed to do).

For the second group there is no feeling, no memory, no energy called self-love.

For this group it’s not about getting over the blocks or releasing the false beliefs that are interfering with their feeling of self-love. The feeling isn’t there. They could get rid of all the blocks, release all the false beliefs, and process all the emotions, only to find there’s nothing down there. There’s a more fundamental emptiness, in this case, that must be dealt with first.

Simply put, the second group doesn’t actually know what self-love feels like. It’s not for lack of intelligence on their part. They aren’t stupid; they mentally understand the meaning of the words self-love. What they don’t have is any energetic, experiential grasp of what the term self-love points to. Not because there is something wrong with them or because they didn’t try hard enough, but because it is altogether missing at the core of their being. They don’t have a memory or a feeling of self-love that they can link up with the words self-love.

Hence, they don’t have the capacity for self-love (at least not yet).

This situation, I believe, presents a serious issue for the whole industry building up around self-love. I see the vast majority of the books, courses and programs only created for the people with the capacity for self-love (group one).

Worse still, they are marketed as if they are speaking to everyone struggling with self-love. They do not explicitly distinguish between the two groups, and therefore promote their work as if it was the one and only solution for anyone challenged by the call to self-love.

So, yes, many in the first group can and do respond well to the treatment programs offered in those courses, but that is because they already have the capacity, the energy and the experience necessary to achieve the result. Individuals in this group may have substantial challenges activating the energy of self-love that is already in their being, but the energy is nevertheless present.

Individuals in the second group, however, have difficulty with self-love for an entirely different reason: they lack capacity to do it altogether. These individuals require a very different regimen to develop self-love, one they are not getting from the current slate of offerings (in my view). Worst of all, they are very often being shamed and blamed when they apply the techniques meant for those in the first group that won’t work in their case, no matter how perfectly they may or may not apply them.

I can’t stress this point enough—if a person does not have the capacity for self-love, no amount of sincere effort to practically implement tools and techniques to love themselves will make a difference.

So, can anything be done for the second group?

Yes, it can. The process involves building up the energetic and experiential capacity for self-love in a person .

Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is that an individual currently lacking the capacity for self-love meets with a skilled energetic practitioner who introduces them to the state and energy of Love, capital “L” Love, Great Big Love. The practitioner guides the individual to learn how to allow their little “s” self to be embraced by and enfolded into that Love.

A real energetic and spiritual transformation ensues.

As a result, the person experientially knows what self-love feels like. They can link up the phrase self-love with a feeling, a memory, even a bodily sensation. Capital “L” Love “installs” the feeling of self-love in their being, giving them the capacity for self-love. At this point, they may still find it hard to benefit from the practices described in the books and courses, as this nascent self-love energy still needs to be nurtured and cultivated.

Working in this way, I believe we can offer the best possible chance to reach individuals in both groups, particularly the second group.

The process to cultivate self-love should, if nothing else, be a loving one.


Relephant Read:

The Self-Love Myth.


Author: Chris Dierkes

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Gavriil Papadiotis/Flickr


About Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes is a soul interpreter, combining his training in energy healing, intuitive work, pastoral care, and spiritual guidance in ways to nurture and accompany the healing and growth of souls. He acts as a translator between a person and their soul, translating the communication of their soul into the language of the everyday world so that they may come to understand the language of their soul themselves. He lives in Vancouver, BC with his wife Chloe and baby daughter Sage. Connect with Chris on his website.


9 Responses to “Why Practicing Self-Love can Harm Us (& What to do about It).”

  1. GrammarMantis says:

    I read it, and it is quite well thought out in the idea and execution, but I lost you at the end there. So to trigger a discussion, I pose the following questions:

    1. How can one discover whether or not they have the capacity for self-love?
    2. Does self-love stem from a feeling of worth and pride?
    3. If yes, can a systematic (but personalized) series of exercises and events be used to build a foundation of self-worth and pride?

    For example, let us assume you and I know each other personally, and physically meet often. In your dealings with me, you find that I don't have the capacity for self-love because of a lack of a solid foundation of self-worth. You find that it stems from, say, my beliefs that A) I don't have any discernible skillset and say, B) I am a disappointment to my father. *
    Would going about a series of classes, such as a woodworking workshop, a cooking course, a Spanish course, and an accounting class, begin to establish an argument against belief A? Could that then be used to tackle belief B and hence establish a capacity for self-love?

    *I realize people are more complex than that and usually deal with a string of issues, but for discussion's sake, I have isolated two common issues.

    Thank you again for the article.

  2. Emilie Mitcham says:

    I love this article and the way you are offering nuance on a complicated subject.

    I get your point, and I think it is a really good one. I would not have thought of this myself,and am in a position of offering this idea (heal the world when we practice self-love) in my career. So, this will be informative and helpful for me, moving forward.

    Nicely done. Thank you.

  3. Hi GM,

    Thanks for asking these questions–they're good ones.

    1. In response to your first question generally a person learns (in my experience) by trying to develop some practice or so of self-love and then find out whether it actually takes or not.
    2. This is a really good question and there's lots to explore potentially here. I'm not sure that lack of self-love capacity always comes from self-worth issues, One can certainly affect the other, or both can happen as a consequence of the same basic scenario (like the lack of familial love you mentioned). But I have met and worked with folks who have a good sense of self-esteem/worth (or strong enough let's say) and still struggle with self-love. Maybe because they were raised to think that loving other people is a good thing but loving oneself is selfish.

    Overall I'd say self-love is really more a product of grace rather than something one attains or earns. Which is why I would distinguish it from say developing a healthy sense of self-esteem or pride (which is obviously a good thing). But the danger in equating those two or making self-esteem a necessary prerequisite for self-love is that (for me) it sets up a dynamic whereby the person feels they have to earn love. They have to earn the right to love themselves. They have to accomplish something (e.g. having healthy pride) in order to feel loved. This makes the love of their self conditional, which I feel is the source of the problem.

    This is my question/challenge to some of what I see out there which too often to me are making self-love something one has to achieve. It makes self-love an end result. Pride is definitely something one can develop/cultivate. Self-Love for me is a bit trickier. For some people it seems to work that way–although as I suggested in the piece I think that's because they had that capacity at least stored somewhere already. I think in those cases they've less developed self-love as re-activated the capacity that already lay within them. But for others their lack of self-love becomes another thing they castigate themselves for. "Why don't I love myself? What's wrong with me?" So if we make self-love something one needs to achieve in order to feel like a worthwhile person, then self-love practices can easily strengthen negative debilitating shame. (This is a real problem).

    In other words, I find self-love i's much more about accepting that one is loved rather than trying to love oneself. The latter often seems to me very circular (the self trying to love itself). I think self-love is often about trusting that another loves us and beginning to trust their vision of us more than our own tendencies towards self-hate or self-critique. I've found this for example in my marriage, where my wife loves me and through that love sees something of me that I struggle to see of myself. Overtime I've learned to take the vulnerable (but powerful) step of trusting her view of me, even though I don't necessarily feel or see it that way. And the same goes vice versa, with me loving her and her choosing to accept my love even though that wouldn't be the natural response in her system. Over time the love of the other has begun to change the self-love of the individual.

    3. So for me then the "practice" of self-love gets some " " around it. I use the " " because in one way yes there is a practice (or practices) that can help. But they aren't practices in the way that term is normally used–i.e. something you have to do and work hard at and then at the end you've achieved your result. Which in this case would be a sense of self-love. The "practice" I've found most helpful is letting the normal self-sense for a period kind of move to the side. A person steps out of their normal self-sense for a bit. Not completely, but just enough to create a bit of room. And in that room the person comes to experience Love, Capital L, Big Love, more directly. An Unconditional Ground or Source of Love. They learn to feel and connect to that sense of Core Love, of Unyielding Love, a form of Love not dependent on anything. Not dependent one whether they have succeeded in worldly terms or not. Whether they have self-pride or not. But completely radically Free Love, i.e. Grace.

    And then the "practice" (and this part is practice, this isn't easy) is to accept that Love. To accept that one's self is held and loved by Love. I've sometimes found in this process people take on the perspective of Love and then as Love they embrace their little selves as almost a little child or version of themselves that they hold as if in their laps. Which is why I talked about self-Love rather than self-love.

    I hope that makes sense. In the experience of it it's actually much simpler than all the conceptual differentiations (which are important but in my view secondary). Thanks again for your questions. Peace, Chris

  4. Barbara Banfield says:

    Self-love has been a lifelong process for me, not a series of prescribed steps. I'm one of those people who didn't have a reference point for self-love. When I was 30 years old I took a step that was an act of love towards myself (gave up alcohol as it was getting in the way of me being able to let go of an addictive relationship). However, I wasn't "experiencing" self-love at that point. The "experience" came as a result of meditation as "Love" is a state of being and not a feeling. Maybe some people had experienced that love when they fell in love. For me, it was a totally new experience. Prior to that experience, I experienced love as excitement, sexual attraction, wanting to be together all the time, missing. The Love I experience through meditation is expansive. The love I experienced prior to that felt more contracted. I never bonded with my mother so I've had to navigate relationships through an attachment disorder compounded by sexual abuse before I could even talk. Healing for me has been on an energetic level. Decades later, my behavior towards myself reflects self-love. I really show up for me. I live a healthy lifestyle. I've let go of rigid ways. I stop doing things that hurt me. For example, sugar was making me moody-I was able to give it up without a problem. It just happened because I could no longer ignore doing what felt best to me. In the past, sugar was a major addiction that I couldn't let go of. My process has been very organic. Any time I tried to force a behavior change it didn't work for long. Self-love is also reflected in the men I choose to date these days. I can still be hard on myself and that feels awful. I have to remind myself to have compassion. It takes discipline in that I need to meditate and take things slow so that I can resource the state of being "in-love". So again, that is how I resource "Love" – that is how I open my heart. I connect with the love inside me, the love that I am. The love that we all are. Thank you Chris for writing about this today, it really gave me a chance to respect and appreciate my process.

  5. Hi Emilie,

    wonderful. I'm really glad you enjoyed it and found it helpful. Thanks for letting me know.

  6. Hi Barbara,

    Wonderful. Thank for your sharing your process. It's a very moving one. Blessings to you on that path. Peace, Chris

  7. Candice says:

    This is interesting, and funny as it's the exact same thing that I have been fighting with my therapist about. She says, love yourself. I say how? I need directions, steps. I read so many articles and they say, just let go, just appreciate yourself, just meditate, just tell yourself that you love you; but all of these "justs" make me feel even worse because I can't "just," because I do not know how.

    Do you suggest a particular program/book/whatever to use to see if I am 1 or 2? Some of the stuff out there just looks plain old hokey. Maybe I should rephrase this, do you suggest a particular program/book/whatever that lacks most of the woo-woo for a very, very atheist, logical, type A personality with a few "who cares" tendencies?

  8. Candice says:

    This is interesting, and funny as it's the exact same thing that I have been fighting with my therapist about. She says, love yourself. I say how? I need directions, steps. I read so many articles and they say, just let go, just appreciate yourself, just meditate, just tell yourself that you love you

  9. Thank you for this article Chris. I resonate with a lot of what you describe from my own journey, especially the distinction you draw between self-love and self-Love. I spent years trying to love myself more – either as a strategy to achieve happiness and fulfillment in life, or as a destination to get to where I would no longer suffer. While it was helpful to raise awareness of my negative thoughts, and try to replace them with loving ones, trying to love myself more eventually became another way of beating myself up for not loving myself enough. This past year I experienced for the first time unconditional Love for my whole self, not from my self, but through a remembrance of Love as an ever present energy in the Universe that is already holding all of me in Love, and learning to allow that to Love flow through all of who I am. This latter part is a practice I continue with, but it is not a destination or a strategy anymore, rather an experience I can choose to allow myself at any moment.

    What I am wondering about is what you describe as the capacity for self-love. I have a couple of questions which I have shared below with some of my own budding philosophy from my self-love/self-Love journey and from witnessing my coaching clients embark on similar journeys to love themselves more. I would love to receive any thoughts you have.

    1. Would you say that the distinction you make between the two types of people – those who have the capacity in their being for self-love and those who don’t yet – is really binary?

    I sense capacity for self-love (small l) more on a gradient rather than binary categories. I would say that depending on our life circumstances – the degree to which we had the experience of love from others as an infant and throughout our life, (and also the degree to which our ancestors had the experience of love), and the types of conditions that were placed on love – would all play into how accessible various aspects of self-love are for each of us. It may be easier for one person to love certain parts of themselves but other aspects of themselves repugnant because that was what was reinforced with love as a child (which aspects are loved and which are repressed will be different for each of us). Therefore, I do believe the degree of self-love each of us are able to cultivate will vary greatly (for example, an individual with an extremely violent and abusive childhood, and with similar violent patterns in the person's ancestry, would likely have access to love for limited aspects of themselves). However, I have a hard time believing that there are people who have no capacity for self-love (possibly no self-love is present in certain people who decide to commit suicide, although I haven't fully considered this idea).

    2. Is the distinction (capacity/no capacity for self-love) really necessary?

    While helpful to consider how we are relating to self-love, my thoughts are that considering whether you have capacity for it or not is not likely necessary, since what we are really looking for is Love. What might be more helpful to consider is the extent to which our experience of small 'l' love plays into how accessible allowing big 'L' Love is for us. I say this because I believe is that self-love and all forms of small 'l' love from others, is always conditional (i.e. self-love on its own never 'works' in the sense that it is always either a strategy or a destination, and, therefore, inherently conditional). I would say that what we are really longing for and what is our work as humans is to remember we are held in Love (unconditional Universal/God/Spirit/Energetic Love), and to allow that Love consciously into all of who we are. My preliminary thoughts are it may be more challenging to allow ourselves Love in this way depending on our experience of love (and therefore helpful to consider where we fall on the gradient of self-love), but I believe we all have the capacity for Love, as Love simply Is (therefore it could be possible and maybe in some cases preferable to bypass the self-love distinction/consideration all together).

    I appreciate any comments you have in response to my thoughts.

    Thank you for writing such a beautiful and thought provoking piece. It has helped me grow in my own understanding of love and Love.

    With love,