A 2021 article in The Humanistic Psychologist attempted to break down the idea of self-love, finding three main themes: “self-contact, defined as giving attention to oneself; self-acceptance, defined as being at peace with oneself; and self-care, defined as being protective of and caring for oneself.”
Sounds great, right? We should all love ourselves, lift ourselves up, and be kind to ourselves. But despite its popularity, the concept of self-love can be confusing – and is sometimes used as a mask to hide behaviour that is actually toxic.
“Self-love is all about giving yourself permission to receive unconditional love and support from yourself, despite the inherent imperfections of being human,” says Hala Abdul, a psychotherapist based in Canada. However, self-love can be tainted when it is “misused as an excuse to get away with certain behaviours, which can often breed toxicity in your interpersonal relationships.”
So, how do you know if your self-love is toxic? Watch for these signs:
When it hurts others
Have you ever seen someone justify rude or disrespectful actions by saying “if you don’t love me at my worst, then you can’t love me at my best”? This type of attitude isn’t self-love because self-love doesn’t hurt others.
“Some people think that saying or doing whatever they want is them speaking their truth or being authentic,” says Michelle Baxo, love and mindset coach, personal mentor, and author of Power Love Dating. “But prejudice, hate, judging, dismissing, or harming others in any way is a toxic expression of self-love. These folks missed the true purpose behind these acts of self-love.”
Examine how someone’s behaviour makes you feel. “If someone is repeatedly making you feel dismissed, unimportant, or straight-up mean, then this is toxic,” Baxo explains.
She recommends first giving the person an opportunity to change their behaviour by explaining how you feel and negotiating a respectful way to handle the situation.
“If the person shows no remorse or repeats the behaviour, then consider releasing them from your life or moving to more of an acquaintance status,” she added.
When it avoids conflict
Avoiding conflict is not showing yourself self-love. Alice Mills Mai, a licensed mental health counsellor and owner of Centering Wholeness Counseling, says self-love should never be used “as an excuse to avoid conflict, avoid being vulnerable, or disrespect other people’s boundaries and autonomy.” Conflict is a healthy part of any relationship, according to Mai, and can help you grow.
“If you find yourself avoiding conflict because it is ‘negative vibes,’ then you should reflect on what conflict brings up and why you are avoiding it,” she says. “A loved one may bring up a specific thing about you because they love and want to be in your life.”
She adds that self-love “is about acknowledging your humanness, and as a human, we all make mistakes.”
Keri Kirk, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, says that sometimes people use boundaries as an excuse to avoid conflict.
“Although setting boundaries is an essential part of healthy self-love, it’s important to recognise if or when setting boundaries becomes an avoidance strategy to avoid conflict or to avoid having difficult but necessary conversations in a relationship,” Kirk says.
Difficult conversations can be awkward, but they are important for growth and healing.
When it exhibits toxic positivity
“Positive vibes only” sounds good, but it could be used to dismiss healthy growth or open, honest communication – which is not great for your well-being.
“‘I’m only surrounding myself with positivity’ can be such an amazing and inspiring notion,” says Michele Goldman, a licensed clinical psychologist at Columbia Health and Hope for Depression Research Foundation media adviser. “However, this statement is often said when others are expressing some type of emotion other than happiness or joy. Therefore, it is used to invalidate other people’s emotional experience instead of acknowledging and validating them.”
This is known as toxic positivity. “People can cut you off with a smile and an arm around your shoulder with a platitude like, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything,’” says Bridgit Dengel Gaspard, a licensed clinical social worker and author of The Final 8th: Enlist Your Inner Selves to Accomplish Your Goals. “That’s shutting someone down in the name of the alleged superiority of cheerfulness. This stifles your emotions and needs in deference to toxic positivity.”
When it is an excuse for unhealthy behaviours
Sometimes, people think self-love means “doing what feels right for you.” However, this can be misused as a way to encourage unhealthy behaviours.
“Actions that end up hurting your relationship with yourself are not true self-love,” says Naomi Torres-Mackie, a licensed clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, head of research at The Mental Health Coalition and adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University. “This would mean after engaging in this ‘self-love’ you feel down, bad about yourself, or disconnected from yourself.”
In her clinical practice, Torres-Mackie sees people overdo self-love. “Maybe taking a 20-minute break from work is your form of self-love that leaves you feeling replenished and ready to take on your next meeting,” she explained. “But taking that to an extreme – stretching a 20-minute break to a three-hour one that helps you avoid a difficult project — that qualifies as false self-love or self-love turned toxic. This also often happens with substances, especially food and alcohol, which can feel like treats and a way of taking care of yourself but overindulging causes more harm than good.”
Gaspard adds that “self-love can be toxic when you hide behind self-care as a form of denial.”
“For example, ignoring the seriousness of a symptom by ‘treating’ yourself to a series of massages instead of going to the doctor,” Gaspard continues. “Another example is using self-care to avoid responsibilities like buying yourself things that feel good in the moment while you ignore your growing mountain of debt.”
“Self-love is about taking care of yourself — mentally, physically and emotionally. It is not all pampering and positivity.”
When it doesn’t allow room for growth
If self-love tells you not to change yourself, it isn’t self-love.
“Self-love can be a toxic behaviour if it encourages you to disconnect emotionally or put a positive spin on situations that require a bit of healthy shame – the experience of reflecting on situations for self-growth and re-evaluation of your core values,” says Shannon Chavez, a licensed psychologist and a sex therapist for K-Y.
“Toxic self-love can also create unrealistic goals and expectations that can create toxic shame,” Chavez says. “This gets buried deep in the psyche and overshadowed by positive statements that are empty and not a reflection of how you really feel or your behaviour.”
Examples of these toxic positive statements include: “Put yourself first, no matter what” or “Love yourself no matter what.” Chavez says these statements don’t encourage change, vulnerability or learning.
“Some self-love messaging also puts pressure on people to see growth as meeting goals, striving to be better, prettier, thinner and stronger,” she says. “It implies that what we go through is problematic and we must get rid of it rather than learn from it.”
With that being said, self-love can still be positive. It’s all in how you approach it. Chavez recommends making sure positivity is “more than a quote you throw up on social media or words you tell yourself daily.” Instead, “make your practice of self-love a daily reminder of how you can become a better version of yourself,” she says.
When it is selfish
Self-love is about “accepting one’s imperfections while also striving to evolve in healthy ways,” according to Carla Marie Manly, a practicing clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly. “Those who really love themselves strive for respectful balance and harmony across all relationships.”
So, if your self-love disregards others’ feelings, is dishonest, or is narcissistic, then it isn’t true self-love.
“The key red flag of toxic self-love is the strong narcissistic element that permeates this type of behaviour,” Manly says. “Toxic self-love almost always creates some sort of penalty or cost for others – whether through boundary violations, negative communication patterns or disrespectful behaviours. Also, toxic self-love can be spotted by comparing it to true self-love, which is guided by respect, empathy and consideration for the self and others.”
So, what exactly is self-love then?
“Self-love is about taking care of yourself – mentally, physically and emotionally,” Chavez says. “It is not all pampering and positivity. It is a mindful act of awareness of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour as a way to improve your life. Self-love helps you set good values, boundaries with others, and protect your energy. It is about self-compassion and learning to have a better relationship with yourself – inside and out.”
Goldman suggested starting your self-love journey with self-compassion. “If we have a lot of negative self-talk or negative held beliefs about self, it may feel unattainable to strive for self-love,” Goldman says. “It’s OK to strive for self-compassion or self-forgiveness instead of self-love when you embark on this process.”
To practise self-love, Kirk suggested journaling loving affirmations about yourself to read back, getting proper nourishment from well-balanced meals, staying hydrated, and more.
“Taking care of your needs, spending time in places where you feel loved, as well as doing things to fill your cup back up are all ways that you show yourself self-love,” she adds.
Finally, don’t forget to be honest with yourself. “Practicing self-love is all about recognising that you’re a human, and so it’s OK to give yourself permission to make mistakes and not get it right,” Abdul says. “It’s also OK to give yourself the space to grow as a person and explore who you are each day.”
Self-love should be something good for you and those around you. Anything that justifies rude, abusive, negative or hurtful behaviours (for yourself or others) is actually toxic behaviour in disguise. Recognising this hidden toxicity is the first step in changing it in yourself or avoiding it in others.