Self-Love vs. Selfish Love: What’s the Difference?

First published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel under the pen name Elizabeth Rose in January 2020

“That Woman”

While visiting my cousin Maria during the holidays, she mentioned her mom, my aunt Rebecca, was coming over and, Would I mind staying to greet her?

For a quick background, Rebecca is very overbearing. When she speaks, the air is sucked from the room leaving no opportunity to answer a question she inquired just seconds ago.

You hogtie your emotions through her passive-aggressive comments; you tire from withholding eye-rolls and generally losing it.

Unfortunately, we share the same blood which means I’ll see her from time to time at the odd family reunion. (And as families go, there’s more to the story but I’ll spare you the baggage because I like you too much.)

To sum it up, I keep a distance.

So much so, I’ve even blocked her on my phone.

The weird thing? She actually likes me. A lot. And I’m still trying to figure out why. Especially since her subtle jabs seem to have been rehearsed just for me.

What’s worse? Since my cousin birthed a daughter two years ago, my aunt visits quite regularly, which is expected for a first-time grandmother.

So when I hear we may intersect, my immediate reaction is to hide or busy myself with errands that take me far away from where she might be.

But this time I was staying at my cousin’s house with nowhere to run. 

Speak of the Devil…

Before Rebecca arrived, Maria came to the guest room where I was working on a piece. I clapped down my laptop and began conceiving ways to avoid my aunt.

Maybe I’d catch up with them later or have mom and dad pick me up?

I noticed Maria became fidgety as I continued with plans for escape. Regardless, I pressed on. I kept thinking in order to honor myself, I needed to be where Rebecca wasn’t at all costs. As I concocted fake errands to run, my cousin became more anxious and stressed out. I told myself, it wasn’t my problem. Maria needed to chill. She shouldn’t worry about making everyone happy and instead, should respect my feelings.

Maria left the guest room and about five minutes later and came back to sway me to stay. She mentioned her husband was hoping I would tough it out for their daughter’s sake. It would only take a few minutes, she assured. When I realized my plans were becoming more complicated than needed, I rolled my eyes and huffed, “Fine.”

Eating my words. Or am I?

Turns out, Rebecca came to babysit for a few hours so my cousin and I could grab lunch. The meet-and-greet with my aunt wasn’t that bad actually, which is sometimes the case with family encounters I dread. I make a big deal for days leading up, but when we’re face-to-face, it’s usually fine.

We left the house after the few minutes promised and when the front door closed behind us, I immediately felt like an ass.

I sunk down in the passenger seat the whole way to the restaurant, ashamed for reacting the way I did, causing stress to my family that was so generous to have me in their home.

I wondered when my fight for “self-love” had quickly soured into plain ol’ selfishness. While protecting myself from someone I can’t stand, I zapped joy from someone I love: my cousin. 

According to a mid-2012 MacBook dictionary…

Self-love = regard for one’s own well-being and happiness (chiefly considered as a desirable rather than narcissistic characteristic)

Selfish = (of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

When it came to my aunt, I thought to avoid her was a healthy means of “self-love”. But as I resisted and spewed why-do-I-have-to’s at my cousin, I tossed Maria’s feelings aside, causing her pain in the process.

It made me wonder about the fine line between self-love and selfishness: How do we honor ourselves in those sticky situations and familial obligations while still considering the ones we love?

What would you do in this situation? Has something like this ever happened to you? Please share in the comments below – would love to hear from you!

I Heart is a relationship column in the Santa Barbara Sentinel. Catch up on more I Heart columns below!

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