Do You Hate Self-Love? This Could Be Why

Experiencing narcissistic abuse since early childhood may result in having the idea of self-love and true love a wee bit backwards. If you feel like these concepts are cringeworthy and don’t belong in a ‘real world’ – here’s why and what to do about it.


Reading time: 25 min


Key points:


  • To people coming out of narcissistic relationships, the concept of self-love often seems mystified when presented by traditional psychology or spirituality experts.

  • What abuse survivors know as ‘normal’ is the opposite of love. Their attempt to express or act on self-love would be met with the abuser’s punishment in an effort to purge it out.

  • It is a reasonable response to adapt beliefs about reality that would help one survive experiencing prolonged abuse, and make sense out of living with pain and cruelty, that at the same time would not match the reality of living abuse-free.

  • To adapt more supportive and constructive beliefs that would help survivors in their lives requires confronting their perception of reality, realizing what unhealthy beliefs they hold, and why they have adapted them. This process can help them validate that those beliefs were applicable and logical in the toxic circumstances and helped them survive. But as they heal and change, they can finally decide to let them go as no longer supportive and create new ones that might support the kind of life they would like to have instead.

  • This process has a coaching and therapeutic effect, but it takes time, practice, and a lot of patience.
The What and The Why of this Article

This text is for people who want to know and understand what self-love is but feel that majority of information online sounds glib, implying that such thing should be self-evident, or on the contrary, available only to the spiritually enlightened. Such an approach to the idea of self-love makes it sound mystified, vague, unapproachable, and unrelatable. So if that’s you, and you feel not addressed, here I’d like to try and change it.


This article introduces the subject of self-love, focusing on normalizing the sense of estrangement to it. I will briefly mention my personal definition of self-love here, but I will elaborate on it in a separate post.



Every story begins at home


When you grow up experiencing and/or witnessing abuse until your 20-ties, 30-ties, or longer, it doesn’t make for much experience and understanding of what real love is. And who gets it, and why.


This might be your story. It’s definitely mine. Additionally, I had no idea about self-love until someone told me about this concept in my 20-ties (!), and I was bewildered. Self-love? You mean like self-absorption? Like narcissism? Until then, I only heard about big star actresses being in love with themselves, and it sounded unhealthy and like something embarrassing.


That was an entire bunch of misconceptions right there (not just about self-love but also about actresses – that deserve their own therapy sessions) based on the toxic model of love and life I received as a child.


No wonder I didn’t understand what self-love is – I didn’t even know what true love is, so I had no starting point. Back then, I associated it with giving and receiving… pain, mainly giving it to me and receiving it by me as well. If it hurt, it must have been real love.


If you feel this might also be your problem, I’d like you to know you’re normal. If all you see since you were born is domestic abuse and you still think that love is warm, safe, and loving – you’re a unicorn.


Growing up like this or staying in a relationship where our loved one keeps hurting us, won’t stop and justifies it, makes for an environment that is toxic, dysfunctional, and destructive to all our ideas about ourselves, the world, and life. Withstanding such circumstances over a long time influences how we perceive reality. It becomes ‘the normal’. We create conclusions about what’s real and not real – not possible, not be expected, and not working – based on what does and does not happen in our experience. Developing disbelief in love/self-love – is a normal psychological response to this abnormal situation. I’d like to spell it out: your struggle to understand self-love is legitimate. There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s something wrong with what you had to go through.


The backstory of self-love


So perhaps you might know already how we develop a blueprint for all basic life concepts in childhood based on what we see and what we get, and that it influences our perspective of self-love.


To appreciate it even better, let’s not forget how abusers might stigmatize our need for self-care by labeling it as weakness. Then let’s add toxic positivity and emotional bypassing of some people who talk about it, and we have a perfect basis for feeling skeptical about it ourselves.


The effects of abuse don’t have to be permanent


The exposure to narcissistic abuse for a prolonged time is a cause of developing patterns of self-abuse, self-neglect, and self-abandonment, which are the opposites of self-care and self-love. To recover from it, we need to undo these changes. This requires a therapeutic process that starts from facing the truth about what happened and articulating it to express what we feel about it, which means to tell it like it is. The next step is to learn the lessons we need to learn from this experience (i.e., how to recognize danger, protect ourselves, etc.), which allows our minds to find peace. Finally, we need to build up new foundations, including beliefs, to make us feel more supported in life.


We change all limiting, unhealthy beliefs by realizing:


  • what they are – naming them
  • what they were based on and how they used to serve us (i.e., to survive) – their root cause
  • how they’ve stopped being helpful right now – recognizing the need to update them
  • what would now serve us better

You can treat it as a coaching/therapeutic exercise and journal about it or create lists. The first one could name your beliefs about love based on your ideas and your experience. The second one could point out different ways in which these ideas have helped you in the past.


The third list would try to recognize how these ideas might be allowing you to accept drama and lose hope for good love, keeping you stuck where you are. Creating the final list would mean examining other options to create a new idea of love – a more healthy one. Since we’re changing beliefs based on experience, this will be a little bit of an exercise in imagination and suspension of disbelief. Ask yourself this question: In a perfect world, if everything was magically possible, what would an ideal love look like? You could also do a little research and look for inspiration in books or online resources.


Once we have the concept of love worked out, we can confront the idea of self-love that we’ve had so far. I thought, for example, that self-love is somehow close to being self-absorbed, self-possessed, self-indulgent, and spoiled. Why? Because my values were humbleness and modesty that I misunderstood as self-deprecation, self-loathing, self-contempt, self-disgust, and self-hate. I believed that doing all these things made me a good girl. That it makes me normal and acceptable – and it did, but only in the eyes of toxic people, who could be as abusive and exploitative as they wanted without me complaining about it.


One of my clients thought self-love is narcissistic and a luxury that no one deserves. This was interesting because he’s developed this idea based on the criticism he was receiving when he wanted to rest or do something for himself, for a change. His narcissistic mother claimed she could never afford to do that, painting herself as a model of family devotion. She also insisted on everybody doing for her what she, as a grown-up, was supposed to give herself. So when my client was trying to provide for himself what he was, indeed, responsible for – self-care and what his mother was unable to provide for herself – my client was being accused of being egocentric, which was his mother’s projection.

Narcissistic parents want the most control because it lets them keep receiving their narcissistic supply and exploit their victims. They glorify and idealize a person only when it puts them in a good light. They provide understanding or forgiveness when it can foster dependence or guilt; otherwise, they tear down a person’s sense of self, safety, and individuality. If their co-dependent has dysfunctional ideas about love and self-love, it’s very convenient for them but unhealthy for the victim.


If self-love isn’t selfish, then what is it?


In short, it’s love directed to oneself. Love is understood not as a romantic, passionate infatuation but a lasting bond based on deep care and wishing someone the best.


Self-love is unconditional positive regard towards oneself. It can be a feeling, but more importantly, it’s an action. If you love yourself, you treat yourself as a whole being, not fragmentary (noticing only your mistakes, for example). You can acknowledge your mistakes and, at the same time, keep in mind your intentions to always do the best you can, believing in your potential to achieve it. Potential is a keyword – meaning that you know it doesn’t always work out, but you generally can.


It consists of:


fairness, truthfulness, kindness, compassion, empathy, appreciation, respect, forgiveness, faith, courage, strength, and responsibility.


It’s an ability to:


  • Encourage and empower yourself to do things for the highest good of yourself and others,
  • Take responsibility for your own mistakes with self-respect and dignity,
  • Take responsibility for living the best life you can and for realizing your own potential,
  • Take responsibility for keeping yourself safe and well-nourished, and at the right time to encourage yourself to grow.


Additionally, for people who experienced the trauma of abuse, abandonment, or neglect, there’s another crucial question about self-love: who gets it and why? It’s not evident for many people talking about this subject, but people like us, who had their sense of self and self-worth deconstructed and destroyed and now hear – ‘just love yourself’ – might first need to figure out how is it that they deserve it and no one can take it away from them?


So how is it possible (read: permissible) for you to have self-love?


  • Because you are a living being. Nobody is more important or less important than you, and you are not more important or less important than anybody else. You are just as important as others, which means you deserve kindness, care, and respect just as everybody else.
  • Because you can suffer and feel pain, which makes you, just as other living beings, worthy of compassion, and that’s part of what love is.
  • Because you have the ability to be loving, and that makes you have value. We have a capacity to do good, and that makes us worthwhile.


How to develop a sense of self-love:


Rule 1: SLOW-MO


Forcing it and telling yourself that you have to love yourself can feel like you got into an arranged marriage. You can’t force yourself to love anyone, and that includes you as well. Treat it the same way – get to know yourself first a little, see what you can appreciate about yourself, cherish memories of when you did something nice, and it made you feel good. Realize you made yourself feel that way.


How do we fall in love? It often starts with someone giving us attention, showing genuine interest, care, doing nice things for us, wanting us to feel good, and doing all sorts of things that could do that. We feel seen, understood, we can be vulnerable, and it’s appreciated. And in the case of a healthy scenario, we develop trust through consistency over time.


So take it slow. Treat it as an ongoing process that you’re starting right now. There’s no point in creating unrealistic expectations and assuming that after months, years, or decades of experiencing abuse, you’re supposed to figure out self-love in one sitting. And then feel it straight away.


It took years to develop the idea you have now. Although you can create a belief in a single moment if the experience is strong enough, it is usually a process that takes a lot of repetition. You would do yourself a big favor if you prepared yourself that it might require time to undo this and then to form an accurate, realistic, functional, and sustainable idea of what self-love might be for you. One that you can keep in your life long-term, and see that you can trust it and rely on it. So work on it, think about it, and don’t push yourself.


Rule 2: Self-Support is a good beginning


In the meantime, start by practicing self-support. It’s more lightweight at an early stage of recovery. And more logical because it’s easier to see that if we don’t support ourselves, we are self-sabotaging ourselves, and that’s counterproductive for any life. The reasonable and good thing to do is to support ourselves.


How do we do that? By creating a habit of asking ourselves good quality questions, like:


  • Is this thought or behavior supporting me? What kind of thinking of action would?
  • What would be the smallest thing I could do to feel more supported?
  • Do I need more rest, more peace, more reassurance, or more encouragement from myself right now?
  • What could help me feel more stability and balance here?
  • Where could I look for help (a professional, friend, book, resource)?


Rule 3: Manage your expectations


Start small, and even then, you might see the results very quickly. Just be prepared that it might wave. You’re going to have better times and more challenging times; some days, you might be tired, exhausted, moody, cranky, or depressed. When you’re low, you’ll see the world and yourself differently. That’s normal, but that’s not the time to make conclusions about your reality and yourself. When it’s hard, take care of yourself. Learn to rest, not to quit. Wait till it gets better and pick it up. Don’t get hasty; remember, you’re creating long-term changes in yourself. Every step forward counts. That’s called progress.


Rule 4: Self-love is the opposite of self-tyranny. Resist the indulgence to be hard on yourself.


It’s really important to clarify where you are at this point in time to set realistic expectations. Recovering from narcissistic abuse takes time, patience, and courage. Enduring abuse influences us in many destructive ways, the foremost being – we internalize abuse and do it to ourselves ad infinitum, even when the abuser is not there. It must seem ridiculous to suddenly think about self-love after we’ve been conditioned that the opposite is the right thing.


But the good news is that just as any other significant change we attempt – this one too is a process, and once we start, we tend to forget to see the whole picture, to the benefit of our sanity. Every small change we make feels big, just as it should. So take it easy. Keep making these baby steps, and they’ll compound into a great journey. And each step moves you further away from where you are, which is the whole point.


Take heart


Try to remember not to get discouraged when you come across a resource talking about self-love in a way that might sound overly simplistic and naïve. The chances are that this source was aimed at a different reader, someone who is just too wrapped up in the over-achiever culture, and so all they need is this light-hearted version. Acknowledge that in your situation, this easy-going perspective might be just inapplicable.


Validate your experience and your reality at this moment in time. I’ve been there myself. That’s why my message to you today is one of gentle encouragement and hope. You can change because our brains can change. We keep our neuroplasticity until the day we die, which means we can learn, unlearn and relearn as long as we live. With the right effort over time, people can overcome their trauma and recover. And self-love is the ability that can make it all happen.


When you love yourself, you recognize that it’s not about being perfect, that’s impossible. It’s about looking at yourself in perspective – the entire context in any given moment in time. When you love yourself, you’ll know that you always want to do your best, and it means a different thing at different times. Loving yourself is knowing that you can’t control the circumstances or other people. It means that you know your needs, respect them, and therefore you give yourself what you need. It also means engaging in a caring dialogue with yourself to understand what’s best for you right now.


This way, holding a hand over your heart, you’ll find your way out of any circumstances and towards any destination you choose. It puts you back in touch with your intuition, your inner guidance system. You’ll never have to feel lost, and you’ll always know what’s the right thing to do—one step at a time.


If reading this, you have felt a little more understanding towards yourself – then you’ve already practiced self-love.


The ability to recognize that your responses might be natural, relaxing about it, and giving yourself a break – is practicing validation, compassion, and kindness, which are a part of love. If you can do that, you can learn, and learning is the most important ability in the healing process.