Self-Love in the Age of Trump

There are two very different ways of loving yourself. Let's not confuse them.

Posted Apr 17, 2018

One of the less obvious negative effects of the Trump presidency is that it puts the self-help industry in a very difficult position. Self-love is a very important psychological state—and not just according to wacky self-help books. A huge psychological problem for our generation is low self-confidence—exacerbated by the visibility of our peers on social media. And it is difficult to be self-confident if you don’t love yourself. But how can we take the concept of self-love seriously in the age of Trump?

I want to stay away from the somewhat boring question about whether Trump is a narcissist. Whether or not he is, he is clearly overflowing with self-love. And for many of us this is not exactly an advertisement for the values of self-love. The question then is: Can self-love be salvaged?

There are two kinds of self-love. You may love yourself for the features you have. Because you are a great dad. Because you are a brilliant negotiator. Call this ‘mediated self-love’: You love yourself because you have certain features. If you didn’t have these features, then you wouldn’t love yourself.

This is the Trump-y kind of self-love. And it’s not great. There are so many other great dads and brilliant negotiators around, some of them even better than you. Mediated self-love makes you interchangeable with someone who has these features in spades. And mediated self-love does not make you self-confident. It does the exact opposite. It makes you want to prove that you are better than all other great dads and brilliant negotiators. Mediated self-love makes you hyper-competitive. Again, there is a certain president of the United States of America who may come to mind.

But not all self-love is mediated. You may love yourself regardless of what features you have. It’s not because you are a great dad that you love yourself. You just love yourself, no questions asked. Because it’s you. Call this unmediated self-love. That’s the kind of self-love that we should actually care about and this is what gives rise to genuine self-confidence.

The same distinction can be made about love towards others, say, your spouse or romantic partner. You may love your spouse because he is blond or funny or great at cooking Thai food. But there are so many other people around who are blond, funny and gourmet chefs. Why spend the rest of your life, or even part of your life, with him and not with some other funny blonds? This kind of mediated love is hardly a recipe for stable relationships without regret.

Real love is unmediated: it does not treat the loved one as interchangeable for someone with similar features. You love your spouse for who he is. He may change. Maybe he is slowly becoming less funny. And almost certainly becoming less blond at some point. But this should not mean that you will swap him for a blonder and funnier model.

Leonardo da Vinci famously wrote in his Notebook that “nothing can be either loved or hated unless it is first known”. This is not only false but so false it reveals something deeply true. If loving ourselves were always based on a clear knowledge of who we are and what features of ours are important to us, then there would be no such thing as self-love.

Self-knowledge is very difficult. And complete self-knowledge just an illusion because we constantly change. If self-love always had to be based on self-knowledge, this would still only lead to mediated self-love and turn all of us into little Trumps.

Love knows no reason, right? If this is true of the love of your partner, it should also be true of the love towards yourself. Somewhat unexpectedly, the negative example of the current president can actually help us to become better people.