Self Love, Selflessness and Selfishness

The other day, a friend and I were kicking around the topic of self-love, a concept, we soon were reminded, That’s not simple. Most of us know we need to love ourselves and we could probably be a lot better at it.

So what is self-love? The definition is not so clear, perhaps because love is not easy to define.

Self love: Whose world is it anyway?

Along with the topic of self-love, my friend and I considered the idea of worldview. He pointed out that each person has a unique perspective, or worldview, that revolves around the person who holds that view. And so, he concluded, each person exists for himself. This was his take on the familiar idea of “looking out for number one.”

I didn’t agree that we all exist for ourselves. We do need to care for ourselves, but I don’t think we exist only for ourselves. We need to care about others, and not just because it’s a nice idea that sounds right, but because our own survival depends on our connection to those around us.

As is often the case when we let our initial reactions get in the way of true communication, I realized that, while I took issue with my friend’s statement about worldview, it was just one or two words before I could agree.

He seemed to be saying each person’s worldview revolves around that person and that the world as he or she knows it exists only in the mind of the observer. In other words, each person operates from a particular worldview, and the only world we can know is the one we ourselves observe.

But what if we learn to step back and widen our view, or at least acknowledge we are limited by our own view of things? We don’t each have our own world. We just have our own view of it. We are just a small part of the one world (or universe, if you prefer).

Love yourself

We do need to love ourselves in order to survive, and again, not just because it sounds nice and it’s the right thing to do. Think about how quickly you would be destroyed if you didn’t protect yourself from danger? Often, danger is concrete and obvious : the saber-toothed tiger, a madman with a gun, a hurricane, hunger, etc.

But what about being taken advantage of, put down, undervalued, criticized, or ignored? Those things are dangerous when they damage our self-esteem and threaten our ability to love ourselves. Subjected to such damage over time, we slowly die.

At first we may only suffer emotionally, but emotional damage often leads to physical illness. So it’s not hard to argue that we need to love and care for ourselves, and we need to do that before we can care for or love anyone else.

But do we also need to care for or love anyone else? I’m sure different people have different ideas about this, but I believe we cannot love ourselves without loving others as well. Because once we truly love ourselves, we recognize that we are part of a whole human experience. Once we truly love ourselves, we realize that we are love, and love cannot be contained.

Self love includes others

Many people put the needs of others ahead of their own, thinking this is the right thing to do. Selflessness is an admired quality, but not if it undervalues the person caring for others. In fact, true selflessness may be very damaging and dangerous.

I’m not talking about selfless acts, because there are times when it’s good, loving and noble, to put our own needs aside for a moment, or an afternoon, or a weekend, and let someone else come first. What is damaging is considering our own needs to always be secondary to the needs of others.

A healthy person is not selfless. He or she receives something in return for attending to the needs of others, and that’s how it should be. True selflessness would amount, in short, to death. So while we cannot love ourselves without loving others as well, and we also cannot love others until we love ourselves, we also cannot love only others or only ourselves.

There’s one world, and we’re ALL a part of it

Like it or not, we humans are interdependent. We need each other, but we need to choose our relationships wisely so we’re not exhausted or used up.

A lot of this choosing depends on our own personalities. Some people are more easily drained and need fewer relationships, while others thrive on interaction with others and need as much of it as possible. Neither is better than the other.

What we’re taught about ourselves and about caring for others also comes into play. Our personal histories influence how easily we’re able to make wise choices about the people we let into our lives.

In the end, each of us is the expert on our own needs, as well as our own ability and willingness to offer ourselves to others in a healthy way. Our bodies, our mind, and our spirits tell us when we’re doing a good job with ourselves and with others.

We also know when we have work to do on one end of the spectrum or the other. Like many things, it’s a question of balance, and the scales usually tip back and forth as we travel through our lives.

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Maria Kuzmiak, M.A. is a health and well-being writer with a background in nutrition, psychology and education and a passion for yoga. She has written hundreds of articles, blogs and newsletters for clients in health-related fields, particularly those specializing in yoga, natural medicine, nutrition, and spiritual health and healing. Maria has also worked as a nutritionist, teacher and technical editor. Learn more about her writing at

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