Reader Question - I’ve heard lots of people say that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else. Can it happen the other way around? I’m still struggling with loving myself, but have met a woman who makes it easy for me to love her. We’ve been together for a few months and it feels like I am finally beginning to love myself because of how she sees me. It’s like the more she tells me and shows me how she feels, the more I see myself differently and the more I want to show her how much she means to me. I read The Five Love Languages because you suggested it in your blog and it’s really helping me show her how special she is. Is this OK or am I just draining her? How can I make sure she feels loved and not used? ~ Phillip
You’re doing great!
I’m so glad you asked this because, even though I’ve said that it’s important to love yourself first, I’ve come to believe it’s well-intentioned bullshit.
For my husband and me, it happened more like you are describing. We had both dealt with worthiness issues and frankly feared that if we first had to clean up everything, heal from everything, fully love and accept ourselves instead of it being OK to be a work in progress, we would never have the love we desired. And yet I believe that as long as we are alive we are a work in progress, that’s an important part of being human, AND I fully believed that love was in the cards for me in this lifetime. But I wasn’t getting any younger and clearly had more work to do on myself. The two concepts seemed to be at war with each other. It was worrisome.
The basic idea behind loving yourself first is that you can’t give something you don’t have or haven’t yet learned. On the surface that sounds reasonable, but consider this: when we are learning something new, we often practice it as we go, maybe even trying it out with friends and family. Why should love be any different? From that perspective, it seems to me that wherever we start learning love is a good place to start, especially for those of us dealing with worthiness, healing, and self-love issues, which is most of us. It really can be through that giving of love and seeing it reflected back that we can begin consciously learning the fundamentals of genuine love and dispelling those myths of unworthiness. Baby steps….
As you’re discovering, when we receive love, we learn we are lovable, but what about those of us who grew up in a home that was less than loving or even destructive? In that case, it may be even more important to focus first on giving love because the idea of loving ourselves first and receiving love is just too big to wrap our head around.
Our view of love or lack of love is learned through interactions with the people in our lives, through our community. It is not learned in isolation and it cannot be unlearned in isolation. So if we hold back until we can love ourselves, we only condemn ourselves to a loveless life. However, as we love others and see that love reflected back, we can begin to see ourselves differently and treat ourselves differently as a result. So I’ve come to think that this idea that you must love yourself first can actually be harmful.
I’m not saying that learning to love yourself isn’t important or isn’t a worthy goal. I just no longer believe it’s the prerequisite. Who among us has truly mastered self-love? This love-yourself-first belief may in actuality perpetuate a mindset that you are never quite good enough, that you must always be striving to be better, to do more, to become more before anything can happen. More, more, more. Never enough, which was the battle you were already fighting. That puts your entire love life at the mercy of something that feels out of reach. Yet look around you. Look at the couples you know. Did all of them master self-love before connecting with a Beloved? I don’t think so! The real truth of love is that you ARE enough, right now, just as you are, warts and all.
Consider this: If your favorite niece ran up and gave you a big hug, would you push her away and tell her you couldn’t love her until she first loved herself?
You’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking that’s just silly. Of course, you would hug her back. Of course, you would show her how much she is loved RIGHT NOW, just as she is. The question of whether she loves herself wouldn’t even cross your mind.
But what if you as a child ran up to an adult, perhaps a parent, who didn’t love you back or even pushed you away? If your parents didn’t know how to love themselves or if they loved themselves narcissistically, they learned that from their own parents and were, therefore, poorly equipped to teach you how to love yourself. Once you’ve recognized that, you can begin accepting that they did the best they could with what they had been taught by their own parents and resolve to take a different approach for yourself. You are not condemned to repeat their patterns and mistakes. You can forge your own way.
One young woman I greatly admire bemoaned that her parents weren’t able to love her as she was. They could never see her potential and never encouraged her to be her own best. They kept trying to push her to be what they wanted and needed her to be. She suspected they felt threatened because she was different from them and needed her to be more like them for their own validation. So she went her own way, but there was heartache on both sides. Then one day she realized what a gift it was that they couldn’t see the best in her because it “forced” her to discover it for herself. It “forced” her to begin with giving wherever she could and that turned what had been crippling into empowering. And eventually, it even created a healing bridge with her parents.
We are tougher on ourselves than anyone else. We’re able to ignore or accept imperfections in a Beloved because we see them through eyes of love and gratitude, not the fault-finding and criticism we turn on ourselves. We find it easy to give love to them because in our flawed perception we have all the flaws and they have none.
But here’s the good news: You can turn that loving mindset on yourself, apply the techniques of giving love that you are using with your girlfriend, and begin learning to give love to yourself in the same way. Start actively and consciously practicing self-care. Practice the Love Languages with yourself as the recipient. And more importantly, think of it as the greatest gift you can give to your girlfriend. She already sees you through eyes of love and will be delighted when you see yourself that way as well. And the two of you will grow and rise together in love.
Self-growth, especially mutual self-growth within a loving relationship, is incredibly sexy. It leads to clearer self-awareness and mutual awareness, more openness, greater relaxation, and healthier, more realistic desires from your Beloved and from yourself. Properly done, focusing on you, your self-care, and your self-love benefits both of you.
So I’ve come to believe that sometimes the best way to learn to love ourselves is to actively love another. As they reflect that love back to us, we begin to see ourselves with fresh eyes and a cracking-open heart. As you give love to another, you see in their eyes and their responses who you really are and the impact you really have. And in that cycle of Giving and Receiving, you gain a whole new perspective.
It is in the Giving of Love that we Receive Love and Become Love.
So, dear Phillip, I don’t think you aren’t using her or draining her. You two are creating your own dance of giving and receiving love. Dance on!