“Worship yourself.” The new slogan for Nair, featured in countless commercials, speaks to the constant selfie-taking and picture-posting tendencies of Millennials and Gen Z. But when did being infatuated with yourself and your life become the cure for all ailments?
In fact, evidence shows that poor mental health is clearly linked to an inwardly focused worldview. A study published in 2001 analyzing the word use of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets found that “writings of suicidal poets contained more words pertaining to the individual self and fewer words pertaining to the collective than did those of non-suicidal poets.” The authors went on to conclude that “suicidal individuals are detached from others and are preoccupied with self.” The link between mental illness and self-focused thought patterns is reinforced by Dr. Carrie Steckl’s article on the link between self-focus and anxiety. The piece establishes that self-centric thought patterns are linked to an unhealthy hyper-awareness of oneself, and in turn exacerbates the symptoms of anxiety. Considering the flawed nature of humans, the fact that ruminating on all aspects of our being has negative consequences ought to be unsurprising.
And yet, “You have to love yourself first” never ceases to be typed in Instagram captions, blog posts and more. It genuinely makes me wonder when people started believing our default is to hate ourselves. I get up every morning with my needs, wants and goals on my mind. I feed myself, seek my own comfort and generally avoid anything that is unpleasant to me. Especially in our individualistic, American society, the effects of our innate self-love are pronounced. I’m going to college primarily so that I can get a job that I want, make the amount of money I want to make and create the life for myself that I aspire to have. Is this not self-love? Do not all people, even those who suffer from self-loathing, wish to minimize their own suffering and maximize happiness?
My view is not that taking care of oneself, eating well and having regard for your own desires are negative things. My prevailing point is that attempting to artificially bolster self-esteem through enhancing one’s self-image is not the answer, but self-forgetfulness is.
Self-forgetfulness does not mean neglecting one’s physical or emotional needs, but simply refers to a way of life that is not so self-focused. The idea of self-love implies that we do not love ourselves enough, and that is a problem. Self-forgetfulness asserts that we already have more than enough self-love; and ought to look somewhere else for love, validation and meaning.
Think back to the times in your life when you have felt most confident, free and at peace. These times don’t include when you couldn’t stop thinking about your appearance, your mannerisms, your responsibilities, your annoyances, and the list goes on. These instances are generally when you were blissfully unaware of yourself (unintentionally practicing self-forgetfulness), and simply living in the moment.
The introspective and inherently self-focused nature of self-love only exacerbates the problems of low self-esteem, negative body image, anxiety, and more. Try taking your eyes off yourself, instead of heaping empty validation into your head, and see if this begins to provide peace. By prying apart the notion that carefully building up my own self-esteem is the answer to my problems, I’ve learned that self-forgetfulness is the real key to lasting joy.
What then, you ask, should we love, adore or set our eyes on instead of ourselves? That’s for you to seek out for yourself. All I ask is that you consider looking beyond the mirror.