Discovering the Difference between Self-Love and Narcissism
Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal
There is an old Jewish folktale about a young man named Natanel. He was a very good looking groysemakher (man of influence)… at least in his own opinion. One day, while out for a walk in the woods, he came across a crystal-clear pool. He looked down into the water, and saw the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes upon looking back at him. Well, Natanel sat himself down by that pool and stared into the waters, so entranced by what he saw that he forgot to eat or sleep. Finally, he died… never realizing that what he saw in the water was not a woman, but his own reflection.
Okay, okay, you caught me! It’s not actually a Jewish folktale about a man named Natanel. It’s a Greek myth about a man named Narcissus. But the idea behind this story is one that affects everyone in our culture– Jew and Gentile alike– especially when it comes to dating.
See, most of us frown upon narcissism. It is not an attractive quality. When you say, “He’s so in love with himself,” the odds are good that you weren’t being complimentary.
“Okay,” you reply, “so I won’t be narcissistic. Seems easy enough. After all, I’m fabulous! I’m the most humble person in the world. I’m the best at not being narcissistic… Oops.”
But here’s where it gets tricky: In order to be successful at dating, relationships, and life in general, you have to both avoid being narcissistic, and, at the same time, love yourself wholeheartedly.
Say what now?
No, I’m not speaking in paradox. It is very possible to love yourself without being narcissistic. But first you have to recognize one very important fact: self-love and narcissism are two completely different things.
I would bet that you have, at some point, mixed up those two concepts without even noticing. For instance, if you’ve ever said “I don’t like to talk about myself,” or deflected a compliment (“Oh, no, I wasn’t that great/I’m not that pretty/I just threw this on”), you’re mixing them up.
So why is this such a big deal? The stigma against narcissism is so great that we overcompensate by denying ourselves pleasure in our own accomplishments. In other words, we go so far to avoid narcissism that we also avoid loving ourselves. And when you don’t love yourself, you tend to have a much harder time believing that others can love you.
Let me tell you, nothing cramps your dating style like a deep-seated existential doubt about your own lovability and general worth as a human being. It’s like getting lettuce stuck in your teeth times a thousand.
The difference between self-love and narcissism is often subtle, but it is profound. For instance, someone who has healthy self-love is open to sharing their interests and passions. Someone who is narcissistic will share those interests and passions without also letting their date share. Notice how neither of those examples involve completely not talking about yourself. Great relationships happen when two interesting individuals are interested in each other. To make that happen, you must both share, and be open to others sharing with you.
So, as you go forth into the dating world, keep this in mind: You can live with humility without talking yourself down; you can be proud of yourself and your accomplishments without being vain; and you can love yourself without being a narcissist! And no matter how hot your date is… don’t forget to eat and sleep. Remember what happened to Natanel… er… Narcissus!