General relationship cliches harm us more than they’ve ever helped us.
These days, it seems anybody with over 10k followers could be considered a relationship guru. Virality has become equivalent to truth and anyone’s advice can be spread around to the masses, whether it is credible or not.
One phrase that I’ve witnessed the internet cling to is “You must love yourself before you can be loved by somebody else.” This saying and similar variations continue to circulate the web to this day.
At face value, the phrase appears reasonable because it promotes positive self-treatment. However, the general nature of the phrase itself ignores the reality that not all people are completely secure. The saying also allowed this goal of self-love to be ambiguous and undefined.
What is usually ignored when a person uses this phrase is the promotion of an idea that frames broken people as incapable of finding love. The popularity of this phrase has further stigmatized mental illness, and surprisingly made a lot of people feel hopeless about romance.
Defining the Concept
For a majority of us, loving ourselves is not as simple as this popular expression makes it seem. Many of us suffer from depression, addiction, mental illness, or are neurodiverse in some way.
A lot of us have endured some form of trauma that we’re healing from. A lot of us don’t love ourselves simply because society has been telling us how flawed we are since birth.
After many years of pretending I knew what this statement was talking about, two years ago I asked myself the big question: What the heck is self-love?
Do any of us have a clear definition of this concept, or are we just naming something that we saw on a Facebook meme and deciding we need to live up to it?
There are several different interpretations of the idea of self-love. It’s been studied and theorized by psychologists for many years. Let’s start with the most basic definitions.
Oxford Dictionary defines self-love as regard for one’s own well-being and happiness. Merriam-Webster says it is an appreciation of one’s own worth or virtue.
Self-love means taking care of your own needs and not sacrificing your well-being to please others.
-Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D. of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
Some say self-love is a state of mind, some say it’s an action. My guess is that it means something different for each individual person, which would explain why this general “love yourself first” phrase has caused confusion and harm.
When I first became familiar with this expression, I chose to believe in it without thinking too deeply about it. I didn’t realize that I was setting myself up to work toward a moving goal post.
Something we usually gloss over due to toxic positivity is the fact that self-love is not easy to achieve. On the contrary, it is a grueling process and often seems impossible to start.
But we don’t want to know that. We want the easy version of self-love. The version where we light a lavender candle and sip lemon ginger tea as we listen to our favorite Taylor Swift album, and all of our woes magically disappear into the night.
In his book The Six Pillars of Self Esteem, psychotherapist and author Nathaniel Brandon states,
There is great joy in self-esteem, and often joy in the process of building or strengthening it, but this should not obscure the fact that more is required than blowing oneself a kiss in the mirror.”
Dr. Deborah Khoshaba from Psychology Today says that there are certain actions that will help you to love yourself more. These actions include mindfulness, setting boundaries, personal forgiveness, and living intentionally.
A significant step in loving yourself is to define what it means for your life. What is it going to take to get you there?
If you’re committed to bettering yourself, you can read about it, discuss ideas with your therapist or psychiatrist, and journal about your progress. The important thing is that you take accountability and implement this definition into your daily behaviors and habits.
As I was piecing together my personal definition, I first imagined what I expected from romantic partners. From those, I began to draw standards for my relationship with myself.
Personally, I believe that reaching true self-love will require me to grow into someone I find lovable. In order to achieve this, I will need to minimize the harsh inner criticisms that block me from appreciating my best qualities. My ultimate goal is to embolden the voice of acceptance in my own mind.
Relationships Are Not Reserved For Perfect People
When we boil relationships down to a general phrase, it speaks mainly to people who are neurotypical — because they are what society deems normal. This can send harmful messages and create unnecessary stigmas around people who are neurodiverse or mentally ill.
In the past, this idea that you “ must love yourself first” led me to the false realization that I may never be worthy of love. I thought that I shouldn’t be in any relationship until I am completely secure, or I’d be a burden on my partner. Ironically, this line of thinking made my self-esteem even worse.
I didn’t even know what security felt like, so trying to define it felt unthinkable. I just pretended I didn’t have to, therefore, I failed at self-love many times. This failure brought me even deeper into self-loathing.
For the past year or so, after I began to be more honest with myself, I’ve been deeply focused on healing and shadow work through therapy and journaling. These actions have greatly increased my self-acceptance by a long shot.
But, have I achieved self-love? No. I still have a long way to go.
Who among us are actually perfectly healed and whole human beings? Anyone? I’m sure they exist, but they are certainly not the majority.
I suffer from depression, which is a symptom of living most of my life with undiagnosed ADHD, and C-PTSD from several traumas I’ve experienced. Despite my lack of self-esteem, I am currently in a loving relationship.
My boyfriend tells me that he loves me every single day. There is no practical reason for me not to believe him. He’s never lied to me, and he proves this sentiment through consistent action and commitment.
Of course, there are times when I find it unbelievable that anybody could ever love me. Due to my underlying bias of self-hatred, I might take any small detail as evidence to reinforce this disparaging belief.
Why? Because I have emotional baggage, I’m used to severely toxic relationship patterns, and I am still healing from trauma. These are issues we discuss frequently. Open communication about this is key.
Our relationship can be challenging at times for these reasons. Does it mean we shouldn’t be together?
In Chapter 1 of The Six Pillars of Self Esteem, Branden addresses the challenges within a relationship when one or both partners suffer from low self-esteem. While acknowledging self-sabotage and toxic behaviors as possibilities, he offers internal solutions, such as self-awareness and confrontation.
He holds the insecure partner accountable while establishing the complexities of each individual situation. But not once does he tell readers that reciprocated love is unattainable for those who are still healing.
There is no greater barrier to romantic happiness than the fear that I am undeserving of love and that my destiny is to be hurt.
-Nathaniel Branden, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
In an ideal world, we would all love ourselves first before we enter relationships. People who love themselves know their worth and go after exactly what they want. They can visualize the relationship they desire, and therefore accept nothing less.
Loving yourself, and pairing up with someone who does, will undeniably make for an easier relationship. But an ideal world is not the real world. To expect everyone to be at a certain level of self-esteem before they deserve love is just plain dismissive and ignorant.
Self-love is a personal responsibility, even when you have a partner.
During these conversations with my boyfriend, I take ownership of my problems. Because it is my responsibility to heal and to work on loving myself. I can, and do, communicate the ways that he can help me to feel loved. But no matter how affectionate he is, he can not love me into loving myself. That’s on me!
I can’t use my partner as an emotional crutch. I also need to take accountability for how my inner conflicts could affect him. They are ultimately mine to deal with. He isn’t my caretaker or parent. He is my teammate.
However, if I start to feel like I am too much of a burden in the dynamic of the relationship, or if he genuinely feels that too much of my stuff is weighing on him, we would have to discuss an alternate solution. Whether that means more compromise or a possible separation, the conversation must be had.
Many people avoid these conversations which can only cause more emotional strain. Evolved people are able to recognize when a relationship is not healthy for them to remain in.
Relationships can require a lot of effort. There are rough patches and imperfections within every single one. But partners are meant to learn and grow with each other, so why shouldn’t they also be able to heal with each other?
“If we did not learn self-love in our youth, there is still hope. The light of love is always in us, no matter how cold the flame. It is always present, waiting for the spark to ignite, waiting for the heart to awaken and call us back to the first memory of being the life force inside a dark place waiting to be born — waiting to see the light.”
– bell hooks, All About Love
There is a hint of truth to the phrase “Love yourself first” but it is an ideal that somehow exploded into this widespread belief that it is the ultimate truth. This toxic positivity has led people who are struggling to believe they may never deserve love.
Relationships and people, in general, are far too complex for a one-liner to help us make decisions about them. Every relationship with any individual is going to be completely different and will teach you new things.
An important thing you can do before dating is to nail down a specific understanding of self-love and personal standards for your potential relationships. These steps are crucial for building a strong sense of self and healthy boundaries.
But even if you don’t do these things before you start dating, it does not mean it’s impossible for you to have a successful relationship. It may be more of a challenge. But who’s to say what is and isn’t a success for you?
You are not a burden. You do not have to wait until you are healed and whole to be worthy of love. If you want to improve any of your relationships, take responsibility for yourself and commit to growth.