G. F.: Dr. Unkelbach, I am very pleased to be able to interview you for our magazine. I have read both your books: Today I Love Myself and Friendship. I liked them very much, and would like to ask you a few questions regarding them. After all, you also touch on topics that arise in your daily work.
In Today I Love Myself, the first sentence on the inside cover says: “Self-love is the foundation on which we move in all areas of life”. How tenable is this statement when someone faces existential life crises, for example when a beloved partner dies or when a child dies or when significant life plans are destroyed?
Self-love in this context means: No matter what comes next, I stand by myself
Dr. U.: In my opinion, the question of whether we can love ourselves has a very high significance. For me, self-love also means self-care, that is, that I take care of myself, that I want to do good for myself. With the example of losing a partner, I get into an existential crisis. There will be situations in which I no longer know where up or down is. Self-love in this context means: No matter what comes next, I stand by myself and I try to make the best of my life again with what I have or what is left, as soon as I have sorted myself out a bit and as soon as I have got some direction in my life again.
I am firmly convinced that especially in difficult crises, self-love is a great help in getting over the crises.
G. F.: I understood your book to mean that self-love is by no means automatic. So that means, when you say that self-love is a foundation for our life, that we have to build this foundation of our life ourselves. Isn’t it strange that nature doesn’t provide us with this? With animals, the foundation appears to be there from the start. Why is that not the case with humans?
Dr. U.: My book was written from the perspective of my daily work with mentally ill people. There the topic of self-love is a huge issue that many of my patients have a lot of trouble with. I actually believe that if everything goes well – especially the upbringing of children in the family environment – that self-love is then automatically supplied. This is because you receive positive attention from an early age, you are given security, you feel safe and secure, and you experience support at every step of your development and realise: “I am here, and therefore I am loved. I can do something and am therefore loved.”
Then the self-image develops unconsciously: “Yes, I am a lovable person”. A natural basis is then paved for self-love. But in many biographies a lot goes wrong, and self-love is hindered from developing freely.
G. F.: Can one decide to love? Can one decide to love oneself? Can one decide to love someone else?
Dr. U.: I actually believe that one can decide to do so. The term love can mean many different things. I use two guiding principles here. One is to do good to oneself and to do good to one’s neighbour. I see that as love. Of course, this raises the question: What is good? What is good for me? What is good for the other? The answers to this question are certainly very different. People often think they are doing good, but what they do is not always so good for the other person. So it is not as simple as it sounds.
The second guiding principle concerns the emotional level, it is the question of feeling good about oneself. In self-love it is: Do I feel good about myself? With neighbourly love it is the question: Do I feel comfortable in the presence of another? And: Does the other person feel good in my presence?
When all this comes together, I speak of love. I believe that one can work on becoming capable of love. Of course, these are complex processes in which empathy also plays a role, as well as attention and goodwill and the possibility of forgiveness and other things. They are all things that I can decide to do and that I can influence.
G. F.: When I think of how I fell in love, it was not on the basis of doing good, nor was it only through a feeling of well-being. It went into another dimension. I was not faced with the decision of whether to love this woman or not, but I was seized by love. That is a big difference. This being seized often happens against the mind.
There is a difference between falling in love and loving
Dr. U.: That’s right. There is a big difference between falling in love and loving. Hormones certainly play a big role in falling in love. I have also experienced that the mind is then overridden. Falling in love also has a lot to do with fantasies. You project a lot onto the other person, things that you want from the bottom of your heart. But all people who have long-term relationships with each other know that falling in love wears off at some point, although I am convinced that it also happens again from time to time in long-term relationships.
For the permanence of the relationship, love is then the decisive factor. You have to consciously decide again and again for this person and for wanting to be with him or her. Even the crises associated with the relationship require the decision: “We want to see that we find each other better again, that we take care of each other, that we are there for each other and support each other.”
In a good relationship there is the alternation between times when you have to work on love and times when it just comes to you and you are just happy and feel blessed.
G. F.: People in all cultures have had the experience of a soul merging – both with themselves and with others. This was based on the discovery that there is still a deeper self through which this becomes possible. One also speaks of the “true self” of the human being. From this perspective, the subject of self-love takes on yet another meaning.
Is there a true self as a source of love?
One could say: this true self is love. Self-love is then nothing other than that this inner (true) self shows itself as a source of love. I am here and my true self awakens in me. It bursts forth in me – out of the transcendent, as it were – as love. The Sufis, the mystics in Islam – sing of this situation in their love mysticism. There is the immortal in me – a supra-personal love – and I am seized by it and can become one with it. This has nothing to do with ego; on the contrary, it presupposes the surrender of the ego. Another consciousness takes its place.
Dr. U.: Let me try to translate this into my categories. In psychology there is the concept of congruence, of coherence, where you have the feeling that everything fits together. We always talk a lot about needs. The topic of values is also an important one, and also the topic of inner attitude. What attitude do I have towards the various topics? What you just described would be, from a psychological point of view, a state that one wants to develop, where one can say: “Now everything is good the way it is.”
G. F.: In your opinion, is there another source of being other than that which comes through natural evolution? People used to say, “Everything comes from the spiritual, everything comes from God.” For about a century and a half however, people in Western culture are saying, “Everything comes only from the material.”
But the longer we live with this materialistic view, the more we enter into crisis-like states and move into the realms of meaninglessness. Where should a meaning come from if everything only emerges from the interplay of the particles of matter? Where should we find a reason for visions that go beyond all that we are currently experiencing?
The great connections of meaning elude scientific investigation
Dr. U.: I am also not a friend of scientific faith. On the one hand, I am a person who makes many of his decisions on a scientific basis. On the other hand, I think that, even if many see it differently, you can’t explain the world completely from scientific findings. There are an incredible number of things that cannot be understood or comprehended scientifically. It starts with the human psyche, about which we know a lot, but we still don’t know a lot more. The great connections of meaning elude scientific investigation. Nevertheless, people keep trying to reduce these things to the material. I think this puts us on a slippery slope.
G. F.: As a psychotherapist you have to deal with the psyche – one hardly speaks of the soul today. The psyche is a concept of science, but the soul is not yet accepted by the world. It goes beyond psychology. And the question is: how far does the soul reach? Does it reach beyond death? What actually is soul?
Dr. U.: I cannot answer that question for you. I can only talk about what we work with. These are desires, needs, experiences, etc. These are certainly parts of the soul. However, this does not answer the question about the soul comprehensively. And on the question of whether the soul survives death, I can only say: I think it does, but I don’t know. And I don’t think it’s bad that I don’t know. I will see.
G.F.: Thank you very much, Dr Unkelbach, for this interview.