You are probably underestimating how good self-love can be
I am very grateful to the following people, in general, and for their helpful feedback on this post: Nick Cammarata, Kaj Sotala, Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg, Sam Clarke, Mrinank Sharma, Matej Vrzala, Vlad Firoiu, Ollie Bray, Alan Taylor, Max Heitmann, Rose Hadshar, and Michelle Hutchinson.
I was on a plane to Malta when I realised I had lost something precious. I was struggling to meditate. I knew there was some disposition that made meditation easier for me in the past, something to do with internal harmony and compassion and affection. Alas, these handles failed to impact me. On a whim, I decided to read and meditate on some of my notes. 3h later, I had recovered the precious thing. It was one of the most special experiences of my life. I felt massive relief, but I was also a little scared—I knew that this state would likely pass. I made a promise to myself to not forget what I felt like, then, and to live from that place more. This post is, in part, an attempt to honour that promise. I spent most of my holiday in Malta reading about and meditating on the precious thing, and I now feel like I’m in a place where I can share something useful.
This post is about self-love. Until recently, I didn’t know that self-love was something I could aim for; that it was something worth aiming for. My guess is that I thought of self-love as something vaguely Good, a bit boring, a bit of a chore, a bit projection-loaded (I’m lovable; I love me so you can love me too), and lumped together with self-care (e.g. taking a bath). Then I found Nick Cammarata on Twitter and was blown away by the experiences he was describing. Nick tweeted about self-love from Sep 2020 to May 2021, and then moved on to other things. His is the main body of work related to self-love that I’m aware of, and I don’t want it to be lost to time. My main intention with this post is to summarise Nick’s work and build on it with my experiences; I want to get the word out on self-love, so that you can figure out whether it’s something you want to aim for. But I’m also going to talk a little about how to cultivate it and the potential risks to doing that. One caveat to get out of the way is that I’m a beginner—I’ve been doing this stuff for under a year, for way less than 1h/day. Another is that I expect that my positive experiences with self-love are strongly linked to me being moderately depressed before I started.
What is self-love?
Self-love is related to a lot of things and I’m not sure which are central. But I can point to some experiences that I have when I’m in high self-love states. While my baseline for well-being and self-love is significantly higher than it used to be, and I can mostly access self-love states when I want to, most of the time I am not in very high self-love states, because my attention is elsewhere. Some of the following experiences point to the core of what self-love feels like, some are actions or tendencies that self-love spins up out of, and some are consequences of self-love. It is hard to untangle these categories so I don’t try to.
Take a second to imagine the love you might feel towards a newborn child or a cute animal. They probably haven’t done anything to ‘earn’ your love; they might even be acting unskillfully (admittedly, I don’t know what a skilful baby looks like). But you might love them anyway. Self-love feels quite like that for me: unconditional, newborn love.
I feel bad about myself a lot less: I’ll notice a character defect or a way I acted unskillfully, and won’t feel bad about myself—similarly to how I would feel about a close friend messing up. It doesn’t follow from this that I don’t feel bad (I think traditionally ‘negative’ emotions can be functional), don’t want to change, or act differently in the future. More on this later. A consequence of this is that it is easier to see my imperfections, and to see the world, as opposed to flinching away from them. When states of the world directly impact your perceived self-worth, it can be really scary to see the world as it is. Some examples: a kid who wants to be a writer and cannot admit that she made a spelling mistake; my aversion to studying AI safety because doing that puts me in contact with the fact that I don’t know that much and hence that I’m worthless.
Affection: I’ll drop and smash a plate, and where previously there might have been some frustration or self-judgement, the mental motion might be “Oh, silly Charlie, I still love you”. Or when I toned down a claim in this post just now I was like “Oh thank you for protecting me”. Importantly, I’m not saying empty words—I’m translating my feelings into words. The examples of affection above closely resemble how I’d feel towards a small child, but the affection can also feel more friend or partner-like. For example, I got drunk for the first time in a while last weekend, and found drunk Charlie really adorable.
Compassionate awareness: I’ll define “compassion” as seeing suffering and being moved by it, where “being moved” might connote warmth and caring and non-judgement and desire to help. I’m often including my experience (emotions, thoughts, sensations) in my moment-to-moment awareness, greeting and feeling what’s happening to me. Sometimes I’ll notice that I’m conflicted or struggling or suffering, and will dive deeper. I find it useful to view myself as having many parts, who have different feelings and goals and functions. So I’ll often be talking to my parts and figuring out what they want and why, how they’re feeling, what they think of each other—and holding compassionate space for all of that to happen in. I find the parts model pretty useful for compassion and affection, in part because it’s easier for me to feel/send love when there’s some distance between the lover and the loved.
Nick Cammarata says that a heuristic for self-love is that you feel like you’re walking around with someone you have a crush on (here is a thread from him about this, and here is one where he discusses the controversy that thread caused). It feels like that for me: romantic. But read “romantic” more as beautiful and exciting than including desire or projection, if those are part of your dating experience. There’s curiosity—wanting to know more about my experience—and awe and affection, and joy, at being able to share these moments with myself.
Relatedly, I feel like I’m “with myself”, as opposed to “by myself”. This is how Nick describes feeling too: “My body feels different. Being in my body used to feel a bit like being in a neutrally-charged hollow shell interacting with the world, now it feels a bit like a stable and warm castle with a cozy quality. I feel like I am “with myself” inside of it. Others are outside, and I can open the castle and feel close to them, but staying inside with myself is the default.”
Loving action: For example, attending to my experiences; paying attention to what I want and acting to make that happen; prioritising resolving internal conflict; not ignoring or shutting parts of me down; noticing a flicker of not-ok-ness while watching TV and pausing the TV to figure out what’s wrong and whether it’s ok to continue watching.
I feel substantially safer, like I have a blanket wrapped around me. I don’t fully understand this, but I think it’s because I’m clinging less to external conditions being satisfied in order to feel worthwhile. I feel like I’m more capable of taking whatever the world throws at me. I still care about the external things, like whether a partner loves me, but I don’t cling to them in the same way.
Worthiness/self-esteem: I used to have a strongly bad filter on my self-perception. Now I can more easily remember (to some extent) my inherent goodness and preciousness and beauty. I can also more clearly see all of the amazing things about me.
Spending time with myself used to be unbearable—I would sink into awareness-collapsing distractions. In these states, spending time with myself is really fun, often more fun than spending time with friends. Time alone is nourishing and special.
Happiness: In my experience, it is a lot easier to do anything when I have surplus happiness, and it is extremely difficult to do anything when depressed. Self-love makes me very happy so I’m able to do the things that matter to me. This is a tweet thread where Nick writes that raising happiness baselines is possible and incredibly important.
Energy: Part of this is fighting myself less, which includes less suffering-based motivation and internal conflict. Freeing up those resources has been astonishingly powerful for me. Part is not needing to invest emotional resources into trying and needing to feel loved, because I have a wellspring within.
More love for others and the world.
But won’t I turn into jello?
It’s easy to imagine that, if you feel unconditionally worthwhile, if you have access to a deep source of self-compassion and affection and joy, then you will care less about changing or pursuing your goals. This was my worry, so I want to tackle it head-on.
I think turning into jello is a very understandable worry. A lot of people go their whole lives making their self-worth conditional in order to act better: they take damage—dislike or judge themselves—whenever they act imperfectly or realise they are imperfect or don’t achieve the things they want to. In a world as unfair and uncontrollable as this one, I think taking so much damage is often not that functional. Moreover, I claim that you can care deeply while feeling worthwhile and suffused with compassion and affection and joy. All that said, messing with the strategy that helps you act better is a big deal (see Risks).
I don’t have any good arguments about how often we’d expect people to turn to jello, besides looking at the people who have walked the path. However, I’m confident that more self-love does not necessitate less caring, because I and many others have experienced that more self-love leads to more caring. Nick Cammarata says that he has never seen people turn into jello, and that, “In fact, it usually pushes [people] far in the other direction”. This accords with the behaviourism literature (at least as summarized in “Don’t Shoot the Dog”), which claims that both animals and humans are best trained by only giving them rewards and no punishments. This probably generalizes to internal rewards and punishments, which are largely learned and internalized based on how people have treated us in the past.
I’m reminded of Nate Soares’ writings on Replacing Guilt. He writes that it’s you that cares about your goals, that wants to become stronger or save the world. Those things that you actually care about won’t go away with more self-love; what changes is your strategy for pursuing them. You no longer pursue things in order to feel worthwhile, but simply because you want to. Indeed, it is not self-loving to shut down those parts of you that care about things. An essential component of self-love, as I see it, is being there with and feeling fully whatever is happening for me, especially when I want things to be different.
Your goals and strategies might change, even if your values remain the same. For example, I was aiming to pursue a PhD in machine learning, partly because I thought it would make me worthwhile. When I felt worthwhile I stopped that; I was able to think more freely about which strategy looked best according to my values.
Changing your brain might have negative effects in the short term, even if things are good in the end. For example, as I walked down the self-love path I felt my external obligations start to drop away. While things are clearly better now, I’m still figuring out how to be internally motivated and also get shit done, and for a while I got less shit done than when I was able to coerce myself.
It’s easy to misunderstand what you’re aiming for.
It’s also easy to miss your target. For example, for a while, I used to throw what I thought was compassion at negative emotions and they would go away. And on the surface that seems kinda reasonable. But, for me, industry-grade compassion requires seeing the emotions fully—holding them and understanding them and letting them be felt as strongly as they want to be felt.
The techniques you use to develop self-love might have side effects of their own. For example, if you’re doing a lot of meditation I would be surprised if you didn’t have some negative experiences at some point. (That said, lovingkindness meditation seems like one of the safer types, and I’m broadly pro-meditation.)
How to self-love
I’m really confused about this, sorry. The path is muddy, at least to me. That’s why I focused on describing self-love. I realise that this might be frustrating, especially if I managed to get you excited about self-love. That said, I decided to write something here rather than nothing. Please take this section with a bunch of salt.
Nick thinks that the two most promising avenues are solo MDMA trips and metta (lovingkindness) meditation.
MDMA: I am not recommending that people take MDMA, because that would be illegal, and because I have no idea what your situation is. If you intend to take MDMA, please do some research on safety (e.g. read at least this and this) to get a sense of the costs, and because you can substantially reduce risks and side effects if you do decide to take it. Here is my impression of the benefits: MDMA makes you feel a lot of love—very likely a lot more than you’ve ever experienced, possibly orders of magnitude more—including self-love. I’ve seen and heard of many people experiencing extremely large and lasting improvements to self-love when they take MDMA alone, close their eyes, and focus on investigating their experiences—including how they relate to themselves. This accords with preliminary research on the efficacy of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. My guess for why this happens is that MDMA is extremely good at memory reconsolidation a la Unlocking the Emotional Brain, presumably because it makes painful experiences/memories safe to look at and the love makes them easy to rewrite. Another benefit is that it gives you some information about what it’s like to have self-love—for example, you might for the first time experience complete self-acceptance while also caring deeply about doing things and changing, and that’s cool if that was a crux for you wanting more self-love. It also substantially clarifies what to aim for when sober, which is important:
Nick: “I can’t overstate how impossible it would have been for me to get to a state of self-love without MDMA, even after hundreds of hours of metta (which I did before the MDMA). Not sure it’ll be the case for everyone, but I suspect it makes things way easier”.
Lovingkindness meditation (metta): Metta is a slower way to increase your capacity for love, albeit substantially. You could think of metta as doing reps to strengthen the love muscle (but more beautiful than that). Alongside love, metta also builds awareness, indistractability, sensory clarity, and equanimity—all of which are pretty useful for self-love. Below, I discuss some introspection techniques that might be useful. One reason to expect metta to be better than those techniques is that, when you’re good at it, metta has feedback loops that can get you into very high self-love states. Resources: The canonical metta book is this one, but I think it’s mostly good for giving you models and not for practice. Kaj Sotala says that lots of people find TWIM really effective. Here’s a guided meditation and here’s one with a different style. You can do concentration meditation with love as the object of concentration instead of the breath, and can get coaching for that here.
Other things that might help
I wrote this section for someone like me a year ago—someone who strongly wants self-love and is desperate to read anything they can about how to get it. Consequently, this section is long and lower-quality; feel free to skip it!
Deepen your understanding of self-love: If you have an hour or two, searching for ‘@nickcammarata self-love’ might be the best use of your self-love time. You could also try to spend lots of time with/read/take workshops with/take retreats with people who are really good at self-love. I don’t know of specific people but you might find some within Nick’s Twitter circles and (lovingkindness/metta) meditation communities (Tara Brach, Sharon Salzburg).
Be with yourself: Being with yourself (your experiences) is the training ground for self-love. It is hard to become your best friend if you do not know yourself. Being with yourself requires some baseline self-love, though—it might not be good or advisable at first. One idea is to walk around without external input when possible. You can also be with yourself whenever you notice suffering, or even moment-to-moment (e.g. while working)--though this requires some skill to be able to do with little cost (see this course). I refresh my awareness about my experiences very frequently, and sometimes the awareness is roughly continuous.
Figure out what you believe: The ability to self-love seems strongly mediated by ones (implicit) beliefs about whether it’s safe and good to do so. So I would focus on figuring out what you believe. Indeed, many of the introspection techniques I list below work to facilitate this process, and could be done with this process in mind. You can ask yourself, with gentle curiosity, why you don’t want self-love or why you think it’s good to make your self-worth conditional. This is important because there are probably reasons, and your current set-up might be doing something very useful (such as guilt-based motivation). And until you understand those functions it will be hard and maybe bad to shift things up.
Introspection/therapy techniques: Explaining each technique well is beyond the scope of this post, but I have linked to a short blog post and a more comprehensive resource where possible.
Coherence therapy (book) and memory reconsolidation for self-affection. I think these posts are worth reading even if you don’t intend to practice the techniques, because they have useful models of how therapy progress works.
Focusing (book) is a bread-and-butter self-inquiry technique. Getting good at focusing will probably aid many self-love strategies. You can also use focusing to enquire directly about self-love. Jack from CFAR facilitates high-quality and very reasonably-priced focusing sessions.
I haven’t tried this but my therapist (who I trust) recommends compassion-focused therapy. “The primary focus of CFT is identifying sources of resistance to (self-)compassion and then building and strengthening the compassionate self (the Healthy Adult mode in Schema Therapy; the Wise Mind in Dialectical Behavior Therapy).”
Kaj Sotala says he got significant value from guided Ideal Parent Figure practice (guided meditation, course, book—see chapter 8). The idea is that a lot of our emotional conditioning around self-worth comes from childhood, where we learn what kinds of behaviours get us love and acceptance from our caregivers. IPF exploits the fact that the emotional brain doesn’t fully distinguish between the real and the imagined, so you can reprogram your mind by imagining yourself as a young child with ideal parents who always express unconditional love and delight towards you.
Other meditation: either concentration (this is mostly what I did) or noting (what I weakly recommend now). These techniques build skills (concentration, sensory clarity, equanimity, and awareness) that I expect to indirectly affect all of your other self-love endeavors (including MDMA). You can get coaching for concentration (and metta) meditation here.
Expanded awareness: A big part of self-love is holding your experience in awareness. This course will help you do that.
Radical Acceptance (I remember really enjoying this). It worked strongly on the belief level for me. Some people might be a bit allergic to the Buddhist stuff.
Replacing Guilt (is truly awesome). Also works really strongly on the belief level. Written for people like you.
Mindful Compassion (my therapist recommends this and I trust her but I haven’t read it).