Is it really true that I have to love myself before I can love others?
This is a question that I am often asked by my clients. Many come to me with this hopeless myth, often feeling like a failure at the end of a relationship, or with a current relationship on the rocks. They wonder if they shouldn’t first work on themselves before attempting a relationship again; they feel inadequate, toxic or unfit for any relationship.
Here’s how I see it. Relational growth is not a linear process from worse to better, immature to mature, dependent to independent, self-love to love of others. Change is hard, relationships are messy. We progress and we regress; over and over again. Your development of self-love and love for others are likely to be all messed up together too, not one in front of the other.
So, if you find yourself sitting on the edge of intimacy somehow, wondering if you might be better off waiting awhile longer before really getting into the mess, I say roll up your sleeves and get to work. Get to work building up the self-love, self-compassion, and self-worthiness even as you muddle through the relationship. Especially as you muddle through the relationship. It will be the gift you give to your partner and yourself.
In fact, much of what we struggle with in relationships--experiences of need, anger, and fear--reside in the non-linear right brain and the limbic regions of the brain, while your left brain is the one that is concerned with being logical and linear. The left brain invented that logical myth about first self-love, then healthy relationship.
If you think about it, you realize that the only way we learn to love in the first place is within the context of a relationships. How could it be otherwise? How could it possibly be true that we could somehow learn to love in isolation before venturing out into the world of relationships?
We learn about love from our early relationships with our caregivers, but the story doesn’t end there. Our brains continue to learn love throughout a lifetime. With enough healthy love from others, we learn what a secure relationship feels like from the inside-out, even if we didn’t get it in our first relationships. We carry the love we learn out into the world, and we try it out with our partners, our children, our friends.
I say, we learn about self-love and love in relationships the same way we learn most important lessons in life: imperfectly, through trial and error.