I’ve heard that I’m not capable of love. Now, to be accused of something so extreme, you might be wondering what kind of monster I must be. Well, I struggle with self-love. And according to a popular saying, “you can’t love someone else until you love yourself.” But is that actually true?
This often quoted saying seems to really resonate with people. All over the internet, I regularly see this phrase presented as certain wisdom, and this messaging was even included in a Lizzo song with the lyrics, “How am I supposed to love somebody else… when I don’t like myself?” And to be fair, we can see how this saying might make sense. If we struggle to even love ourselves, maybe we just aren’t all that capable of love?
Although this saying might feel valid, how well does it hold up if we examine its logic? The claim that we can only love others once we learn to love ourselves might be based on some sketchy reasoning. It seems to be relying upon a “fallacy of composition” by incorrectly believing that what’s true of the parts of something must also be true of the whole thing. In other words, it appears to be saying that if we aren’t good at one part of love (self-love), then we must be bad at the whole thing of love. But that really isn’t a fair assumption.
So, we can simply respond to this common saying about love with an arguably much better saying from The Big Lebowski’s main character, The Dude: “Well… that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
Why “You Can’t Love Someone Else If You Don’t Love Yourself” Is Harmful
The perspective that self-love is required to love another isn’t only wrong, but it can also be harmful. Let’s look at some of the ways this idea hurts us:
Believing that we are unable to love others might make us feel even worse about ourselves and the value we have to offer. So we could end up feeling even less worthy of any kind of love, including self-love.
If we believe that we need to love ourselves before loving anyone else, we might put off trying to build healthy relationships.
- As social animals, relationships are an essential need. In fact, the quality of our relationships is one of the strongest predictors of happiness, while loneliness harms our health even more than smoking.
- We can also learn how to better love ourselves through the experience of being loved. By seeing ourselves reflected in another’s loving eyes, we can see and appreciate what’s beautiful about ourselves.
Those who struggle with self-love become stigmatized when it’s assumed that we can’t give love. As a consequence, people might avoid relationships with us until we love ourselves. When our overtures to engage in relationships and offer love are rejected, this can further reinforce our self-perception that we aren’t lovable. So it ends up harder to receive any love, both from others and ourselves.
Why Self-Love Is Still Important
We’ve dispelled the myth that a lack of self-love will prevent us from loving others, but does that mean that low levels of self-love aren’t harmful? Unfortunately, no. Let’s explore some ways that a lack of self-love can be problematic:
Difficulties Receiving Love
While those of us struggling with self-love are certainly capable of giving love, we might not actually be great at receiving it. It may be difficult to embrace any love we’re offered when our inability to see our own worth prevents us from believing we’re lovable. This can hinder the quality of our relationships.
- If we feel uncomfortable accepting love, it might seem like we’re rejecting that love. This can be painful for those who love us, and they might even end up feeling like their love isn’t good enough.
- It’s easier to build closeness and intimacy when we trust that our love is mutual.
- When we don’t fully believe in the sincerity of another’s love, we might underestimate how much we matter to them. So we might push them away because we feel unaccepted and afraid they’ll reject us.
Fostering Less Love
If we aren’t able to love ourselves, we do have some diminished capacity for love. Let’s look at another much better saying (in my opinion, man) and consider thoughts from the Buddha: “If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it’s incomplete.” Switching out the word “compassion” for “love,” the saying holds up. Every conscious being deserves love, including ourselves. So regardless of how much love we share, we still aren’t being as loving as possible unless we love ourselves too.
Lack of Boundaries
When we don’t love ourselves, we might not feel like we deserve very much. So it can be hard to set healthy boundaries. And communicating clear boundaries is essential for creating mutually respectful relationships by helping others understand how to treat us in ways that make us feel loved.
Giving love to ourselves is absolutely important and so is sharing our love. It’s certainly an act of self-love to acknowledge the beautiful love we have to offer, both to ourselves and one another. Self-love may cultivate a better environment for our relationships to flourish, but there’s no need to postpone extending our love until we’ve figured out the whole loving ourselves thing.
If there is one thing I truly know, it’s my own heart. So, I’m not about to let some silly saying convince me that my love isn’t worth giving while I’m still learning to love myself. To bring in another lovely saying, Rumi points out that, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” We can simply trust the love within our hearts, and we can refuse to allow our struggles with self-love to become a barrier against believing that we are capable of so much love.
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