Must You Love Yourself Before You Can Love Another?

Red stone heart among other small stonesI am sure you have heard the comment you must love yourself before you can love another. Did it resonate with you? I was always a bit skeptical of its pithy way of tossing off one phrase to address a complex notion such as self-love—and its restrictive view of love in general.

How do we learn to love ourselves in the first place? Typically, we pick up whatever messages our caretakers gave us and take them in. Those inner templates usually form the basis of our relationship with ourselves unless we find that painful or limiting and work through different ways of relating to ourselves through therapy, spiritual work, or, sometimes, a very nurturing adult relationship. One might think the last of those would be a surefire way of getting that unconditional love we wanted as a child. Unfortunately, it is the least likely path to forging a loving, compassionate relationship with oneself because it often leads to depending on that person for a love fix. On the other hand, inner work has the potential to be deep and lasting.

If your parents were loving, encouraging, affectionate, and had the ability to correct your behaviors without putting you down for them, you are one very lucky person. Most children grow up in less sanguine circumstances where adults who feel pressured and stressed can act oblivious, or don’t mete out affection, positive feedback, or unconditional acceptance. Usually, their parents were the same way with them (or harsher). While growing up, you unconsciously absorbed those messages and continued repeating them. Though you can’t re-do your childhood, you can create a more loving relationship with yourself, a crucial ingredient to living a more contented life. After all, that is the most important relationship you will ever have, as you are with yourself every minute of every day.

How can you reindoctrinate yourself to feel compassion where once there was criticism? To sow kindness where once there was self-condemnation? To generate unconditional self-acceptance where once there was negative self-judgment? I have gathered a few tools to help you on that journey. I know it can seem like a Herculean task. With patience and loads of practice, you will change that internal litany. Watch your joy increase as you develop this new habit of almost automatic, reflective compassion toward yourself.

Before we delve into those aids for your journey, how about a little quiz?

Imagine I give you a beautiful wicker basket. Then, I start putting different pieces of fruit in it. First, a succulent, ripe peach. Next, a brown, mushy banana. Then, a luscious bunch of grapes. Finally, a soft, old cantaloupe.

What kind of a basket do you have?

Just take a minute and really think about the question.

What kind of a basket do you have?

You have a beautiful wicker basket.

You are the basket. The fruits are all your behaviors. You are beautiful.

You can make banana bread, throw out the cantaloupe, and put whatever you want in your basket.

Just like the basket, whose beauty does not depend upon what fruits it holds, you have value simply because you exist.

Here’s some really good news: If you don’t believe it, you can decide right this minute to choose to.

I have read that Louise Hay, the founder of Hay House Publishing, has a favorite affirmation she likes to say every morning in front of her bathroom mirror: “I love you. I really, really, love you.” If you practice that for 30 days straight, you will notice a difference in your relationship with you.

Another useful technique is to ferret out self-criticism and replace it with compassion. If that’s difficult, imagine your friend is saying those things about herself. How would you respond to her?

Often, simply paying attention to your inner dialogue can alert you to self-downing patterns. Meditation is wonderful for noticing repetitive negative thoughts. An example might be a tendency to jump to a harsh, self-critical conclusion when anything goes awry. Once you are aware, you can nip those habitual thoughts in the bud and replace them with gentler ones.

You can also write a list of every time you can remember feeling appreciated. It may have been something you did for a friend, family member, coworker, or stranger. Perhaps you just felt your smile appreciated when someone smiled back. Maybe it was the appreciation you felt from yourself when you knew you did something kind or generous for another. Add to your list as things come up and reread it when you want a reminder of how you make a difference in the world.

Getting back to the original question: Must you love yourself before you can love another? At the end of the day, I think there are millions of people who don’t necessarily love themselves but have bestowed plenty of love and care on others. That said, you are bound to enjoy life more if you lavish kindness, compassion, and love on yourself.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bernadette

    Bernadette

    August 21st, 2013 at 4:08 AM

    I think that the ability is there to love someone else, but I think that there is an even greater ability to love if you feel good about yourself too.

  • Kat

    Kat

    August 21st, 2013 at 7:46 AM

    Wow, you have the best articles. This one hit home for me, a subject I work on daily. I am much better than I used to be, I have evolved. The cruel and harsh things my father said to me as a child rush at me on my bad days. But, I know he loved us, all 13 of us, he just was bad at expressing feelings. I think it was considered “unmanly.” If a friend of mine talked about herself like I sometimes do, I would cry, and be hurt that she would feel that way about herself. I am very,very sensitive to peoples feelings and I pay attention to there words and actions. I have other good books to share from the Hazelden Treatment Center; “The Language of Letting Go,” “Inner Harvest”, “Believing in Yourself,” and “Nightlights.” They are all books with daily thoughts. I read them all for 14 years and they truly helped me evolve, not hate, believe, accept and love myself a little more.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    December 8th, 2013 at 5:31 AM

    Dear Kat,
    Thank you for taking the time to write.
    Like most worthwhile things in life, learning to love and accept oneself is a process.
    In addition to the helpful books you mention, I would also suggest Tara Brach’s: “Radical Self-Acceptance.”

  • Ellen

    Ellen

    September 2nd, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    Thank you so much for talking about this. My cleints bring it up more often than not. I am not sure where this saying came from however it does seem to hold people back from allowing themselves to be loved by others when they feel they do not love them selves “enough”

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