A friend once told me an interesting metaphor. We had just eaten dinner a week after classes ended in the spring. As we walked back toward campus, we started chatting about the end of reading period and finals, and what had unfolded during that time. Finals week had been an particularly tumultuous time for me, and I told him that I was having trouble helping a friend because I wasn’t doing well myself. He then related something like this to me:
A person is like a cup. When we love ourselves, we fill this cup with water. When we attend to the needs of others before our own, it’s like poking a hole into the cup. The water drains slowly over time, and eventually the cup becomes empty. Loving yourself before loving others is like letting the water overflow from your cup into other people’s cups.
It was a simple yet powerful metaphor that stayed with me long afterward. Nevertheless, I’ve experienced a lot of trouble coming to terms with it, especially since I moved back to campus for my junior year. Our conversation left a question that has bothered me over the summer, and continues to do so at present: What does it mean to love oneself?
I had long associated the idea of loving oneself with the myth of Narcissus. I remember reading lots of Greek myths as a kid, but this particular one offers a poignant perspective. In the myth, Narcissus was doomed to become enraptured with his own reflection in a pool. Despairing at his inability to embrace his reflection, he ultimately drowned in it. In other versions, he wasted away from hunger and left behind a narcissus flower. It’s not a very cheerful story, but it does aptly sum up the implications of being in love with oneself. The self-absorption that Narcissus experienced consumed him, and he was unable to notice the thoughts and feelings of anyone else around him.
And there was, indeed, another person around him. In some versions of the myth, there is another character, a nymph named Echo, who falls in love with him. Cursed to only repeat words spoken to her, she could only watch mournfully and fade away to an echo as Narcissus admired himself in the pool. In a way, Echo’s story and character mirrors that of Narcissus. She, too, is consumed, not because she is in love with herself, but because she only loves another person.
The myth of Echo and Narcissus provides two examples of what loving oneself should not be. There is a significant difference between loving oneself and being in love with oneself, a difference which extends beyond a change of wording and semantics. The latter, when taken to an extreme, involves completely alienating oneself from everyone else, whereas the former can allow us to respond flexibly to those who surround us. Sometimes, it is necessary to take a step back from heavy or draining conversations to re-center ourselves and recover. At other moments, we may feel compelled to act for another person, especially when they are experiencing a difficult time themselves. Sometimes we are forced to do both, which is an especially challenging task of juggling.
With that said, there is also a stark distinction between being caring toward other people and putting them above yourself, as demonstrated by the character of Echo. Since I moved back onto campus, I’ve had to practice taking care of myself and focusing more on what I need. Frankly, that isn’t something I’m accustomed to doing. I’ve grown very used to being caring toward other people because that is part of the compassion, empathy, and kindness that I value. I would sometimes forget, though, to care for and be kind to myself in the process. This habit left me exhausted, frustrated, and drained, especially over the past two weeks with the additional stress of moving back to campus and a full courseload.
I bring it up the myth of Echo and Narcissus because for a very long time, my answer to the question I asked at the beginning would have in some way evoked this story. Ever since the conversation with my friend and the start of this semester, though, the view I used to hold has begun to change. Loving oneself does not mean fixating on oneself at the expense of another, nor does it mean sacrificing one’s well-being for the sake of someone else. This semester, I intend to redefine what it does mean for me, and how I can apply that definition in my interactions with friends, strangers, and other people whom I care about. While I don’t know what exactly that process will look like, I do know that it will require self-respect, both physical and mental. It will require being kind and forgiving with myself and acknowledging that no person can be only one aspect of themselves all the time. Finally, it will require me to be patient with myself, and accept that change within oneself often comes gradually. I expect to stumble frequently along the way, but all of us fall and will eventually pick ourselves up again. For the time being, that knowledge is enough to help me move forward through the semester. It is enough to fill myself until my cup overflows.