Being a fan of attachment theory and research, I had one of those—unfortunately rare—“ah-ha” moments when I came across a phrase about self-love in New Zealand philosopher Christine Swanton’s fine book, Virtue Ethics. Swanton made the case that self-love is a virtue that entails bonding with yourself.
“Bonding,” I thought, “That’s attachment.”
Accordingly, we might think of self-love as embedded in an attachment relationship, more specifically, a secure attachment relationship with yourself. We know from extensive attachment research that infants become securely attached with caregivers who are sensitively responsive, that is, emotionally attuned to the infant’s signals (e.g., cries) and appropriately responsive to them (e.g., relieving sources of distress and being comforting).
In essence, a secure attachment relationship provides you with a sense of safety and a feeling of security when you most need it, that is, when you’re feeling threatened or distressed. This comforting experience is called the “safe haven” of attachment. At the same time, having this safe haven provides you with a “secure base” for exploration: you can go forth in the world, confident that you can return to your secure base when you run into trouble. Think of the toddler on the playground who explores confidently as long as the caregiver is within view. Thus, with secure attachment, you are more self-reliant.
Sometimes I like to start patient education groups by asking, “What are the characteristics of an ideal relationship?” Invariably, we come up with a list that is characteristic of attachment security: trust, caring, compassion, empathy, acceptance, dependability and so forth. Then I ask patients to imagine, “What if you had this kind of relationship with yourself?” I refer confidently to the idea of a relationship with oneself, because all of us engage in internal dialog or conversation (and you might talk out loud to yourself sometimes too). This internal conversation can be highly emotional, sometimes painfully so. That is, you might criticize, attack, demean, discourage, or berate yourself, including cussing at yourself. To put it bluntly, this is akin to having an emotionally abusive relationship with yourself—potentially modeled on earlier relationships of a similar nature.
Having vs. doing
Alternatively, if you have a secure attachment relationship with yourself, your internal dialog will be more loving. That is, you will be sensitively responsive to your distress, in your own mind. You will be attentive to your needs—empathic, compassionate and understanding. You will encourage yourself, expressing confidence in yourself. Thus I think of self-esteem and self-worth not as something you have but rather as something you do (or fail to do): you esteem and value yourself, in dialog, in your mind (or fail to do so).
In his book The Search for the Secure Base, our colleague, British psychoanalyst Jeremy Holmes, calls this secure attachment relationship with yourself the internal secure base, which is a source of inner comfort and support. In their book Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics and Change, Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver have demonstrated the sheer power of the internal secure base in experimental research. They have found that merely thinking about persons to whom you are securely attached, or remembering comforting interactions with them, can evoke a feeling of security that provides a buffer from distress. Thus bringing to mind these relationship experiences can serve a function similar to being with a person to whom you are securely attached. Of course, there is no substitute for the real thing—face to face contact and comforting touch—especially when you are in dire need.
New tricks for old dogs
The basic principle is simple: for better or for worse, you learn to do for yourself, in your own mind, what others have done for you. I often hear, “You can’t love others until you love yourself.” How do you learn to love yourself? By being loved. All of us are inclined to repeat what we have learned in previous relationships. Just as you can create an internal secure base, you can develop something akin to an internal insecure base as a result of previous learning. In that case, you might be punitive or neglectful toward yourself.
But attachment research is hopeful in showing that the quality of attachment can change for the better—from insecure to secure—on the basis of new learning. Such new learning will be founded on establishing relationships with persons who are trustworthy, accepting, caring, empathic and so forth—in sum, sensitively responsive to your feelings and needs. But attachment in adulthood is a two-way street: to be sensitively responsive, the person to whom you are attached will need to be securely attached and will need sensitive responsiveness from others—including you.