The oft repeated ‘wisdom’ that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else enrages me. It’s wrong, it simplifies something really complicated, and adds pressure to people who were already not feeling good. Lack of self love goes with lack of self esteem and confidence. It’s a likely consequence of abuse – and especially of growing up in an abusive context. The people most effected have likely spent chunks of their lives, if not their whole lives, being told they are worthless, not good enough, not able to do the things. And then some twat swans in with their meme and stabs you with it.
I’ve spent most of my life dealing with self-hatred. It has not been pretty. Alongside that, I loved wholeheartedly, intensely for the long term as a child, as a teen and as an adult. I do not find it difficult to love other people, places, creatures, books. I am not happy about being told that this isn’t real or happening – the implication of that whole suggestion that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone invalidates my experiences.
In the last few years I’ve managed to deal with the self-hatred and get to a place of mostly being ok with myself, mostly being able to accept myself and my limitations. This is not the same as self love. The idea of self love still leaves me feeling queasy and in danger. But, self-okayness means I’m not constantly beating myself up, and that’s liveable with and good enough. I have not noticed any changes at all around my capacity to love anyone else.
The person who cannot love themselves may find it hard to accept and trust love from other people. That has a huge impact on relationships. It is not easy (and I speak from experience here) to love someone who thinks they are awful. They may reject or resist you because they don’t know how to make room for what you feel. They may desperately need to be loved, but may not be able to let it in. They may love you in turn, but their inability to accept love and their own self loathing may lead them to sabotage the best things that come their way.
The person who cannot love themselves may have some really distorted relationships. They may feel most at ease when lavishing their love, energy, resources etc on someone who treats them with disdain. They may feel safest when not loved in return. It’s easy to stay in harmful relationships that will further damage your poor self esteem if you have such low expectations.
It takes a lot longer and a lot more effort to learn how to do relationships well, if you aren’t in a good relationship with yourself. It requires some really good people in your life who aren’t expecting you to just make them feel comfortable. People who pressure you towards self love will say they want to help, but it’s a basic refusal to accept you for who you are and where you are. That doesn’t build confidence or self esteem. If you have to fake things to be tolerated, the self-loathing will grow, hidden away, and get worse.
If you deal with someone who cannot love themselves, telling them to love themselves won’t save them. Having come at this from all angles, the answer is to love them anyway. Don’t ask them to change, accept them. Love them as best you can, and don’t take it personally when they don’t respond in more normal ways. If you can do that, and if they will let you, then you may eventually get them to a point where they can believe that you care for them, love them, value them. When they get there, they may be able to reassess themselves in light of your care.
Lack of self-love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It will have been shaped by experience, or by perception of experience. It doesn’t change quickly, or on demand, or without something to change the story of the person who feels themselves unloveable.
You do not have to love yourself in order to love other people. But, if you can get to a place of being ok with yourself, comfortable enough in your own skin, not punishing yourself, that’s good enough. It makes everything else easier. Acceptance is key to healing this stuff, and people who don’t accept you are not actually helping you.