I don’t see much value from the notion of “in order to love another you must first love yourself”. It’s a cute catch phrase and I get it’s intention is to promote work on self-esteem and worth (which is entirely valid and I don’t intend to dispute its importance), but I actually see this as potentially harmful and dismissive to the experiences of those who struggle with self-love. Are they doomed to never be able to love well because they don’t love themselves? That would effectively “disqualify” many of us as loving partners.
Everything we know about how self-love develops stems from attachment theory. We cannot see ourselves as loveable unless we first experience receiving love. We cannot fully develop self-love in isolation. We can, however, develop other remarkably important attributes like resiliency and discipline and independence, but self-love occurs when we have love given and shown to us, as demonstrated evidence of our own worth and value. When someone sees us lovingly that’s when we begin to see ourselves that way.
When children don’t receive love, (learned this in my psych programme) they have no reference point where love for themselves is important, attainable, or sometimes even safe, so it isn’t something they particularly value. What they do know is that others, even those they love, cannot be relied upon for comfort or care. This develops into the limiting belief of “I’m not worthy”. Notice that it isn’t about the worth of others, or whether others are loveable; only about themselves. Other trust issues can develop as well. They develop insecure attachment and the corresponding coping strategies. They come to rely on themselves and often do not easily receive or -in extreme cases- even possibly struggle to recognize love shown to them. If they are able to receive love, they see it as fallible, easily lost, not real or temporary.
When love is shown to them they are distrustful and dismissive of its value or necessity. They prepare for disappointment. This is what a lot of people identify as “not being capable of love” because of the behaviour exhibited. They may withdraw or act out when love is shown… but not to harm…to test. The responses to those tests determine if they can trust the love.
When someone consistently shows them love, they become less challenged over time, more curious, and sometimes they might push against boundaries to see if the love is real. When the love remains constant, then, and only then, will someone who has never ever known what self-love is, finally experience it, through the lens of another. We ALL experience most things ‘in relation” to one another. That’s why relationships are such a vital component to developing and nurturing ourselves. We grow as we give and receive love, and in doing so, learn how to love ourselves.
In my experiences as a teacher, a coach and in my personal life, I have seen those who struggle with self-love be present and loving to others while still struggling to accept their own worthiness. I have seen time and time again how the consistency of love then allows them to see themselves differently.
This isn’t to say that everyone responds this way, but for me, the proposal that we just aren’t capable of loving anyone else until we love ourselves is simply not true. Are we better at giving love as our self-love improves? Sometimes. Sometimes not. It depends largely on the level of compassion and communication skills that we already have in place. A person who is fully immersed in self-love can also become self-serving and lack compassion for others. Human beings are so varied and complex. We are extremely adaptable, and what we do with the tools we have largely depends on our mindset, beliefs and values.
The healthiest most loving relationship I have ever experienced, the one that has taught ME how to love myself even more than ever, is with my incredible husband who struggles… Every. Single. Day… with self-love. He has however, remarkably consistently, shown up in ways that demonstrate his love for me. It’s only been in recent months that he is slowly coming to feel connected to his own self-love. Literally after five decades of struggle it took his own willingness to receive, paired with someone loving him consistently enough which provided the opportunity to receive, for him to feel worthy of loving himself.
My husband Greg and I did a podcast to examine this topic a couple of weeks ago “The Truth About Self-Love”. Check it out!