Why I No Longer Believe That We Have To Love Ourselves First
Three and a half years ago I wrote an article for an online publication about why we need self-love before we can love others or receive their love. I truly used to believe this to be true, but as I’ve continued down my own healing path I can see how much I was spiritually bypassing at the time. I used to be really good at the positivity bypass, which helped me push down the truth and pain of how I actually felt about myself. As I’ve continued to learn and enter the realm of relationships, attachment theory, and the reality of oppression in our world, I no longer believe we need to love ourselves first, or that we even can on our own. What I believe, and have personally experienced, is that when we have safe relationships and communities in our life that reflect back to us our greatness and value, we start to believe in our goodness too.
The personal development and spiritual development worlds often tout self-love and needing to love ourselves first before we can love someone else or before we can receive their love. This is an unhealthy message, because it promotes independence, which I see as the usual black and white thinking. The opposite of independence would be co-dependency and in my experience it’s the grey zone in the middle where the magic lies when it comes to just about anything. This grey zone in relationship is called interdependence. An interdependent relationship is a safe partnership in which both partners can rely on each other, but also maintain their autonomous identity. You see, we are wired for attachment and connection with other humans. Our early life experiences with our primary caregivers teach us how to view ourselves. We are not born with low self-esteem or low confidence, that’s created through experiences. There’s a whole area of study called Attachment Theory, which I’ll share some resources below to learn more about. Before I continue, I also want to note that our attachment styles are not solely created from our interactions with our primary caregiver’s ability to attune to our needs, but that medical procedures and birth trauma/complications can also have an impact.
“For years mental health professionals taught people that they could be psychologically healthy without social support, that “unless you love yourself no one else will love you.”…The truth is, you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.”~Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.- “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog”
When our caregivers were attuned to our needs and able to be emotionally available, we develop a secure attachment style in which we are comfortable with intimacy and autonomy. Our caregivers don’t need to meet our needs 100% of the time for this to happen, so it’s not about perfection. The important piece is that when there’s a rupture in the relationship, there’s also repair. On the flip side, we can develop a number of different insecure attachment styles depending on the relationship with our caregivers. When the experience leads to low avoidance and high anxiety, we can develop a preoccupied attachment style, also know as an anxious attachment style. This attachment style is preoccupied with relationships and any uncertainty tends to create a lot of anxiety. This person tends to look to relationships with others to meet all their needs. The work of the person who has developed the preoccupied attachment style is learning to self-regulate. This person also obviously benefits from the co-regulation that can be done with a willing and supportive partner.
When there’s high anxiety and high avoidance a fearful avoidant attachment style develops, in which the person is fearful of intimacy and socially avoidant. A person with this attachment style has the work of learning when there’s a need to self-regulate and when they actually need to lean into co-regulation with another. The avoidant part wants to do everything on their own. The last style of attachment is the dismissive avoidant, in which they are dismissing of intimacy and strongly independent. This person’s work is learning to stay when activated and co-regulating with the other person. Oftentimes we actually start doing this work with a coach or therapist and as we learn we can take this into other relationships in our lives.
I’ve worked with a variety of both therapists and coaches and have experienced a distinct difference in my own healing and growth depending on whether or not the practitioner was attuned, empathetic and able to reflect my resilience, gifts and core essence back to me versus being misattuned, lacking compassion and creating shame around judgements through words and unspoken language. Even when I reflect on learning to accept my body, I didn’t do that on my own. It was the body positivity world that reflected to me that my body was okay as it was. Let me ask you a question. Do you believe that you could love yourself, if you had no community, friends or family connections? If you were abandoned by your family, rejected by friends and disowned by the world, would you still love yourself?
“We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship. “Harville Hendrix
I know my answer. It’s actually almost shaming when we tell people they need to learn to love themselves first before others can love them. We would never tell an infant this. An infant learns to love themselves by first being loved by another. An infant can also learn to hate themselves by being rejected, abandoned, and not loved by another. The personal and spiritual development world can often make it seem like we can heal all on our own. That we are islands and no one else can impact us. To that I say, more spiritual bypassing. Here’s the thing, I absolutely love and value inner child work. Yes, we can learn to give the child within us everything that she/he/they needed when past wounds are activated… AND that’s not enough. We also need other people. Why do you think solitary confinement is used as torture?
Like I mentioned earlier, independence is being promoted with this love yourself first stuff and part of the problem is that it encourages those with more of an avoidant attachment style to continue to avoid intimacy with others. Personally, I have more of an avoidant attachment style and have always been very independent. I tend to swing between the dismissive and fearful avoidant and it was always easier for me to go do my inner child work alone or sit in meditation with my feelings when triggered. This was great, but didn’t actually support my relationship, as I was not allowing for deeper vulnerability, intimacy and connection. I had no clue what my needs were in relationship, as I learned as best I could how to either meet them myself and more so to just ignore them.
I am absolutely not against doing our inner healing work and I also don’t believe we should seek to have all of our needs met by others. In fact, often a person with more of an anxious attachment style will gravitate towards these behaviours. This person can underfunction in relationships and struggle with co-dependency and may actually go from relationship to relationship, avoiding their own inner healing work. This person would benefit from doing some of that inner healing work, but again they can’t do that alone, at least not forever. Think about the progress you make alone when reading books and listening to podcasts versus actually working with a coach and therapist and integrating shifts in your life, which often involves relationships of some form. I know for myself there’s always more integration and healing when the work is done in relationship to others, and that may just be the relationship with a coach or therapist.
Self-love is also not a static thing. It’s not a noun but a verb. It’s a practice. If the statement that we need to love ourselves first before someone else can love us or we can love them back were true, then how we feel about ourselves each day would dictate if others should also love us and if we should love them. That would be absolutely ridiculous. Look, I get that we want to stop seeking constant external validation by everyone and their dog. That we want to stop the people pleasing behaviours, which by the way is rooted in the fawn response of our nervous system and is a trauma response meant to keep us safe. I get that we want to grow up and individuate from our family systems, break enmeshment and have agency over our lives. Yes, yes, yes and yes! And, we can’t bypass our own nervous system development.
The other thing I want to touch on is how “me” or “I” focused the personal and spiritual development worlds can be. There’s privilege in being able to have access to this work and the reality of oppression is often bypassed. Community is an important part of healing and those with more privilege will find it easier to become part of a community than those with less privilege. When it comes to self-love and relationships I don’t believe it’s an either/or but a both/and. One doesn’t come before the other and as adults we get to do our own self-development and healing work, which will inevitably lead to relationship.
I’ve provided some resources below (which I’ll continue to add to) to learn more about this, because I’m not here to convince anyone of anything. Do the research yourself and feel into the truth of your own experience with this.
You have to love yourself before you can love someone else— is bullshit by The Angry Therapist
How to build a relationship based on interdependence by Jodi Clarke, MA, LPC/MHSP
Understanding The Connection Between Eating, Attachment And Trauma by Paula Scatoloni, LCSW, CEDS, SEP
How to feel safe in your relationship podcast with Jayson Gaddis and Bonnie Badenock
Loving yourself first in order to find love? Nope by Amy Young
Why The Self-Help Industry Is Not Changing The World by Andrea Renae Johnson
6 Ways Spiritual Thinking Can Reinforce Oppression and Racism by Virginia Rosenburg
Getting The Love You Want by Harville Hendrix Ph.D.
Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo