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Examples of Bad Self-Love and the Consequences

Oct 19, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

In our last two weekly reflections (the archive is here) and in the last Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode, we have been exploring the importance of ordered self-love. In agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas, I have been making the case that ordered self-love is a prerequisite for loving your neighbor.

In today’s reflection, I want to offer you some examples that illustrate how our love for neighbor is greatly impacted by how we love ourselves. Summarizing Aquinas’s thought, Anthony Flood, in his excellent book The Metaphysical Foundations of Love, writes that “Proper self-love both sets the standard for how to love others and imparts the ability and inclination to do so.” (p. 20).

Flood shares with us that Aquinas believes that “Each person relates to others in a manner shaped and informed by how he relates to himself.” (p. 117). Let us consider these quotes for a moment. Proper self-love is both is a template and a standard for loving others. In other words, we are inclined to treat others as we treat ourselves. How we treat ourselves is the default “template” for how we will treat others. Flood writes:

[Love of self] is logically prior to love of neighbor and serves as a template for the latter. If a person loves himself rightly, he will love others rightly. On the other hand, if he relates to himself through a disordered love, he can neither relate to others rightly nor enter into a deep union with them. (p. xi).

How we love others generally reflects how we love ourselves. If we love ourselves in a disordered way, our love for others will necessarily be disordered. If we love ourselves in an ordered, proper, healthy way, our love for others will also be ordered, proper, and healthy.

Flood writes, In the place of the good of union with others, the wicked person [with disordered self-love] gravitates toward bodily goods – wealth and the pleasures of food, drink, and sex.” (p. 78). These correspond to the deadly vices of greed, gluttony, and lust. The wicked person is still loving himself – still seeking a perceived good for himself, but he has cut himself off from the entire spectrum of goods and is narrowly focused on very limited goods, goods that do not bring him to loving union with God or with other people.

So let’s see how ordered vs. disordered self-love impacts the love of others through some specific examples.

Example 1: Chocolate and toddlers

In episode 82 of Interior Integration for Catholics titled The Many Faces of Grief Inside Us, I shared how I often resort to eating chocolate to cope with grief. A part of me also generates impulses to eat chocolate when I have been experiencing conflict or difficulties in close relationships, usually family members. That part of me wants me to have a good thing – to be soothed, calmed and to experience a taste sensation that will distract me from grief or anger or disappointment or anxiety. That part of me can believe that chocolate is the answer. Milk chocolate. Not dark chocolate. No nuts, either. Just milk chocolate.

And if I let that part drive my bus, I can eat a lot of chocolate, to the point of being gluttonous. Why? Because I want inner peace, I want a sense of being OK inside. But eating chocolate in that way does not foster union with God or with anyone else – when I do that, I pull within myself, I am licking my own relational wounds, I am closing myself off from others in a self-protective way, so that others cannot hurt me. I am isolating myself and insulating myself with chocolate. Misusing milk chocolate in this way is not a viable solution. It does not resolve my grief or internal distress – it just covers distress over, and at best gives me a brief reprieve from the intensity of my emotions.

Because chocolate eating is one way that I love myself with a misguided, improper love, it forms a template for loving others. Imagine my little toddler grandson is visiting and he is stressed out because so many of his aunts and uncles want to hold him and play with him, and he is tired and in distress. Might I not be tempted toward trying to relieve his distress in the same way that I do my own, to reach for the chocolate? If I did, that would be me loving him in a disordered way, because a stressed out, overstimulated, sleep-deprived toddler do not benefit from chocolate. That toddler needs someone to attune to their needs, to talk with them, protect them from too much relational intensity, find them a quiet place to sleep and so on.

Example 2: Shopping and possessions

Imagine a middle-aged woman in a difficult marriage who frequently feels ignored and devalued. To feel better about herself, she “treats” herself to some small gift, an item she buys on the internet. Hitting the “buy now” button on Amazon brings a rush of endorphins, a temporary feeling of satisfaction and distraction from her emotional pain. At the same time, that kind of shopping represents a protective withdrawal within herself. She is not purchasing things that she needs or necessarily even wants, and the purchases do not foster connection with God or her neighbor.

When her teenage daughter comes to her in distress and angst about her social relationships in high school, the mother is inclined to love her daughter in the same disordered way that she loves herself. Rather than connect in a real union with her daughter, a relationship in which the daughter feels seen, heard, known, and understood, she invites the daughter to shop online together.

The mother is seeking for her daughter to have the perceived good of the endorphin rush and the temporary relief from distress that she herself feels when she buys an item for herself. This kind of online shopping does not foster a real connection between mother and daughter, which the daughter is needing and seeking. Instead, the mother is modeling disordered and dysfunctional self-love to the daughter, even though the mother’s intention is to help her daughter through a difficult time.

In this example the mother’s improper self-love prevents her from loving her daughter in an ordered way. As Flood notes, “… having disordered self-love prevents a person from loving others with a true love of friendship.” (p. 22).

Example 3: Self-protection through intimidation

See in your mind’s eye a 32-year-old father who grew up in a very rough neighborhood where looking weak set you up as prey for the neighborhood predators. Early on this man developed street fighting skills and used them with the positive intention of trying to keep himself safe. Physically dominating others was a dysfunctional way this man tried to love himself.

When his six-year-old son was being bullied in first grade, the father taught the boy one of his favorite sayings: “Strike first, strike fast, strike hard!” The father trained his son devastating fighting techniques that could physically harm the other boys. The father was trying to love his little son – sharing with him the perceived good he thought had protected him. In reality, he was teaching his son to curl inward, to rely on violence, to devalue the bullies as enemies to be hurt and dominated, and instilling a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world view in his little son.

What his son needed in his distress was his father’s attunement, hearing about what made him an object of persecution, and to consider other solutions that we open to relational connections — perhaps the intervention of school authorities, and possibly conflict resolution skills. But what his father needs in order to love his son well, is to first love himself well. As Flood writes, “Thus, proper self-love forms a key condition for both developing a true friendship and nurturing and sustaining the friendship over time.” (p. 117).

Example 4: Sharing a joint under the bleachers

Imagine a socially awkward high school junior, who was invited by classmates in the “420 Club” to hang out with them after school by the football field. The 420 Club members listen to music, talk, and smoke marijuana together. For the first time in his life, under the influence of the company and the drug, he feels included by his peers, and special. He senses he has found the answer to many of his problems. He believes he has found a way to love himself and to be loved by others, but there is no real relational connection in the group.

When he sees the troubled freshman neighbor walking home alone, in a desire to help him and care for him, and using his own experience as a template, the junior invites the freshman to the 420 Club, willing for him the (perceived) good of feeling accepted and the perceived benefits of getting high – another improper, disordered attempt to love because the relational connections were illusory, and not ordered toward the highest good of the club members.

As Flood notes:

The wicked person’s self-love predominantly loves the inferior characteristics of himself at the expense of this full personal self as a rational being. He loves the wrong sorts of things, or at least, he loves things that, while good, are loved at the expense of higher goods. Thus, even under the best of circumstances, when a person attempts to will goods to another with the love of friendship, the goods in question will not be appropriate. (p. 22).

And that is exactly what happened in this situation – marijuana and the false companionship of drug users will not solve his problems, and they do not lead him to his highest good.

Malice and hatred are not needed for vice to prosper

One point I want to emphasize is that all kinds of harm and evil happen without malicious intentions. So often, I run across people who believe that for real evil to be present, there must be malice. On the contrary, so much evil happens from other causes: ignorance, fear, attempts to self-protect. No malice is necessary.

In fact, Aquinas argues that hatred comes last. Consider this: hatred is not counted among the seven deadly sins. As Flood notes,

… one might think that, if the virtue spring from love, then the vices must bring from hate. Aquinas responds that hate does indeed oppose love and charity, but because love comes first, hate must come last. The deadly sins with prideful self-love at their root slowly eat away at the good until no good remains, and hate fills the void where the love of the good should be. (p.79).

Flood then quotes St. Thomas in the Summa:

Consequently, it must first of all fail in that which is less in accordance with nature, and last of all in that which is most in accordance with its nature, since what is first in construction is last in destruction. Now that which, first and foremost, is most natural to man, is the love of what is good, and especially the love of the Divine good, and of his neighbor’s good. Wherefore hatred, which is opposed to this love, is not the first, but the last thing in the downfall of virtue resulting from vice. (ST II-II, q. 34, a.5).

So indeed, the road to hell is paved not only with good intentions but also with disordered attempts to love. Hatred and malice come last, as consequences of disordered self-love and a failure to love God and others. Disordered self-love is the root of sin, and such improper love leads to isolation, a loss of the highest goods and sorrow. Flood notes that “Sin causes sorrow over the good. Sorrow culminates in the hatred of neighbor, self, and God.” (p.94).

What inoculates us against such sin, sorrow and ultimately hatred is first to receive and embrace the love of God and then to love ourselves properly in order that we be equipped to reflect God’s love back to Him and to others.

So how do we love ourselves better, in a more ordered way? Stay tuned. More on that in upcoming weekly reflections.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Check out our resources page with alphabetical listings by topic of most of our Souls and Hearts offerings.

P.P.S. If you are interested in why we have difficulty tolerating authentic love from others, check out a vintage episode of the IIC podcast titled Why We Flee from Real Love.

P.P.P.S. Don’t hesitate to give me feedback on these weekly reflections at What was helpful to you? What was not helpful? How can I make these reflections better? And any other constructive feedback you would like to share.

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