There are bits of advice thrown around about self love that we hear all the time. “You have to love yourself,” you say to a best friend whose relationship-defined self is quickly crumbling post-breakup. “You can’t truly love someone else until you love yourself,” moms and therapists all over the world retort.
But self love is a tricky concept. For some—those that Ross Rosenberg, author of the best-selling book The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, would argue are healthy, well-adjusted individuals—self love comes naturally. It’s something that is instilled in us from our parents at a young age, and we carry that love and respect for ourselves into adulthood.
“Self love is the foundational feeling every person has if they are raised in a healthy environment with healthy parents who make the child feel worthy and unconditionally loved. You think you’re worthwhile; you respect yourself, care for yourself and you protect yourself,” said Rosenberg. “Because you have self love doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes and have bad relationships. But there is a threshold for healthy people where they say, ‘this is bullshit, I don’t want to deal with this anymore. I’m out of here,’ because there’s a point at which you love yourself so much you value your own happiness and needs for safety and security.”
For those with a healthy level of self love, this is a subconscious dialogue that guides their relationships. But contrary to loving others, which seems to carry with it an effortlessness—the uncontrollable state of simply “falling”—self love is a practice that for many doesn’t come naturally. For these people, referred to as codependents, a love for oneself wasn’t instilled during childhood: “Codependents were traumatized as a child by being raised by narcissistic parents, and at the very core of every codependent is a sense of shame and self hatred,” said Rosenberg. And in adulthood, this lack of self love informs the romantic partners they choose, and the types of relationships they find themselves in.
Getting to the Bottom of Codependency: Self Love Deficit Disorder
Codependency is the term that is commonly used to characterize those lacking this innate sense of self love. But psychotherapist Rosenberg (who refers to himself as a “recovering codependent”) is shifting the conversation around the topic by re-naming it. “I never really liked the term codependency because I always felt it was a shameful word, and the word itself was very inaccurate,” said Rosenberg. “With most of the codependents I’ve treated it was almost always the same thing: they were able to go back and sift through all the major relationships in their life, and go back to their childhood in which they started off never learning from others to love themselves. In order to survive, they loved other people or took care of other people as a way to feel connected and safe; that is the origin of codependency.”
The term codependency is innately about others. A person’s tendency to focus on the needs of others over their own. By referring to this trauma as Self Love Deficit Disorder (SLDD), the focus is shifted away from “the other” and on to “the self,” which seems much more appropriate, as the healing process only begins once a codependent can turn inward and pinpoint the source of the trauma in their childhood.
“In those with SLDD, the absence of self love makes them feel unworthy, and that lack makes them susceptible to not only be attracted to selfish people or narcissists, but to attract that relationship,” said Rosenberg. “It’s almost an addiction; they’re so unhappy in their life because they’re taking care of everyone else and no one is taking care of them, they feel trapped, they are stuck in a cycle of loneliness and shame.”
Where Narcissism Comes Into Play
When discussing codependency, narcissism quickly becomes a pertinent piece of the conversation as codependents continuously find themselves attracted to and in relationships with this type of person. At first thought, the idea of narcissism seems the antithesis of codependency. But what may be surprising to many is that both stem from a very similar place, one in which a lack of self love is prevalent. Where they differ is how they responded to, and coped with, that lack.
With SLDD there is an awareness; these people are able to recognize their sadness, loneliness, and shame. If you have a friend who falls into this bucket and you ask them how they feel, they’ll tell you that they’re unhappy. But there is also a sense of denial: it’s too painful to admit it completely because they are then forced to face the trauma of their childhood, and admit that they’re in relationships where people really don’t love you them much as they’ve always wanted. They compensate by complete immersion of the needs of others—and the desire for everyone else to love them.
Narcissists, on the other hand, block this trauma out: “A person with a narcissistic personality disorder is not conscious of what is wrong with them. Because they were so neglected they shut down inside and learned that the only person to take care of them is themselves,” said Rosenberg. “Underneath it all, there is a person who is deeply shamed, deeply broken, who often hates themselves, but they can’t get to it.” The reason many narcissists appear to have an immense amount self love is overcompensation. “Narcissism is ‘all about me’… because they were so damaged, the only way they can feel good (because they don’t have self love) is to create this vision of this good self. They repress their feelings of self hatred, and they focus on the feeling of self importance, so the narcissist acts like they love themselves, but it’s all about deficit and they don’t know.”
At the core of both is this lack of self love; the difference simply comes with how the individual compensates for that lack. And these contrasting modes of compensation place them opposite each other on Rosenberg’s Continuum of Self.
The Continuum of Self: The Relationship Between Codependents and Narcissists
At this point you’re probably asking: Am I codependent? Am I narcissistic? Are my relationships healthy? Placing yourself on Rosenberg’s continuum of Self will answer these questions. The concepts aren’t back and white: much gray area exists between the two, and it’s in that gray area that healthy individuals will fall. While full-blown codependents or those with narcissistic personality disorder will fall on the outskirts of the scale (-5 or +5), most people are somewhere in between. “The scale is a key measure on the two types of people: one type is someone whose more oriented towards the needs of others, and the other is one who is more oriented with their own needs,” said Rosenberg. “There’s all sorts of variations, that’s why I don’t like the word codependency: someone can lean more towards the taking care of others side, and not enough taking care of themselves, but not be a codependent.”
Rosenberg breaks down the personality types for each number on the scale. Identifying which description speaks to you, will place you on the scale, which can be eyeopening when it comes to your own relationship with self love and how it informs your relationships with others.
So how does where you fall on the scale define your role in a romantic relationship? This is where the Human Magnet Syndrome comes into play, which basically says that people are attracted to their exact opposite on the scale. For example, if you are a -2, you’re going to be attracted to someone who is a +2. “It’s like a dance, people match up perfectly depending on where they sit on this continuum,” said Rosenberg. “Zero sum balance is a mathematical equation that says that people who pair up to zero are stable, where stable means the relationships is likely to last and endure.”
But this is where unhealthy levels of self love come into play. If you fall within the healthy range on the scale (somewhere between -2 and +2), you will find yourself in a healthy value pairings: -2/+2, -1/+1 or 0/0. A -2/+2 couple may not share an exactly equal exchange of love (the -2 person will find themselves doing more for the other person), but they still experience a balanced and mutually satisfying connection, and since both partners feel respected and content, the relationship will work.
If however, you skew further towards codependency or narcissism, the value pairing, while stable, is not a healthy one. “If you’re a -5, super codependent, you’re going to fall in love with a +5 narcissist,” said Rosenberg. “They add to zero, which is stable, but unhealthy. It’s likely to last because despite the codependents pain, he or she is going to stick around. So the balance is not always a healthy balance, but instead how people fit. They can fit because of what’s wrong with them, or because of whats right for them.”
With this scale in mind, healthy individuals won’t find themselves attracted to, or in relationships with, a narcissist: ”If you’re a -2 care-taking but healthy person, and you go on a date with someone who is a +5, you’re going to have no tolerance for him. You will think he’s full of himself and conceited; theres no chemistry,” said Rosenberg. “But if you’re a -2 and meet someone who is a +2, you may think they talk a little too much about themselves, but you’ll find them a little bit edgy, self confident, and charming and you’re going to fall for them because they fit you perfectly.”
The Healing Process: Moving Away From Dysfunctional Relationships
If you find yourself falling towards the outer edges of the scale, you may suddenly see the connection between your own lack of self love and your pattern of engaging in dysfunctional relationships.
“You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what’s wrong with it; the human magnet syndrome explains that the reason why you keep ending up in these relationships isn’t because you have bad luck, or there are always these ‘narcissist pigs’ out there, it’s because there’s something about us that’s damaged or traumatized, that drives us to the same people over and over again; and that realization is huge to healing it,” said Rosenberg.
Once a realization is made that there is a lack of self love at the heart of your unhealthy relationships, the recovery work begins. Seeing a therapist who will help you delve into the unresolved trauma from your childhood will enable you to emerge with a love and appreciation for yourself, that will allow you to set healthy boundaries in relationships. “SLDD is just a symptom, you have to find a therapist that can solve the problem at its source, which is the reason why you haven’t learned to love yourself. If someone is going to learn about self love, they have to realize why they don’t have it—and that has to do with early on in their childhood,” said Rosenberg. The process isn’t an easy one, but “as you move from a -5, to a -4, to a -3, to a -2, you’re going to be attracted to healthier people, so it’s self-enforcing: the healthier you get, the more you love yourself, the more you naturally will set boundaries, and want to make sure you’re safe.”
And the wound can’t be healed while you’re in a relationship. “Self Love Deficit Disorder is a kind of addiction, you can’t stay and solve it. That’s like drinking and solving alcoholism,” said Rosenberg. “If you have a problem with dysfunctional relationships and you’re habitually drawn to narcissists, as my therapist once told me, ‘you have a broken picker’; its all instinctive. You have to solve that part of you that unconsciously attracts you to someone that’s harmful for you.”
Like any addiction, the vital first step is recognizing there is a problem. Altering the conversation around codependency, shifting it away from a shame-based disorder and instead placing the focus on a lack of self love, brings a new awareness to a problem that keeps people in unhealthy relationships.
With that goal at the forefront, Rosenberg deemed February 7 Self Love Day. “Everyone focuses on Valentine’s Day, which is about being in love and being in a relationship, but you need to love yourself to get there,” said Rosenberg. “The idea is why can’t we celebrate someone having a relationship with themselves? If you want to find your perfect romantic partner, you have to start with self love, because the only way you’re going to heal from codependency and SLDD is to understand that you need to have a relationship with yourself and take care of yourself first.”
To delve deeper into Self Love Deficit Disorder, join Rosenberg’s webinar, Banishing Fear: Finding the Courage to Heal from Codependency/Self-Love Deficit Disorder, on February 13, which he is co-hosting with certified life coach Lisa A. Romano.