Just like I cannot bear hearing “in these unprecedented times” during this pandemic, when it comes to relationships, the cautionary boilerplate “you have to love yourself before you can love someone else” is growing calluses in my ears.
I call bullshit.
As a preface, it's important to note that I have loved myself for 21 years, and I will continue to love myself in the coming years. Though there have been moments of insecurity, I have persisted in my self-love. Relationships come and go, but I have always been my own rock. At the end of the day, I’ve accepted and welcomed myself wholeheartedly for the person I am, and I recognize the person I am working to become. Even if I’m a work in progress, that doesn’t stop me from loving myself or extending my love to others.
From love songs to romantic comedies, love is popularized as possessive and smothering, characterized as a mutual obsession, but whirlwind romances go faster than they come—they knock us off our feet, and they leave us trying to get back up.
While watching Sex and the City, we tend to root for Carrie and Mr. Big’s on-again, off-again relationship—but even though the pair ultimately ended up together, we saw little to no character development for the pair. Over the span of twelve years, we watched Carrie and Big constantly put themselves first while putting the other person down.
The other characters didn’t represent the love I resonated with either. Perhaps Samantha’s most notable line throughout the series, “I love you too, but I love me more,” was seen as a declaration of self-love—or even a blueprint for healthy relationships. Yes, it’s a great line to say to a cheating man who can barely say he loves you, but it shouldn’t be what we hold our relationships to.
I spent my fair share of time feeling like I was hard to love, not only by myself but by others. I spent my late teenage years thinking I didn’t deserve love and subsequently compromised for love that made me feel even less deserving. Coming from a strict family, I longed for actions and words of affirmation, I feared being “wrong,” and I wanted to appease everyone at my own expense. In a relationship I was in a few years ago, I accepted my partner’s mistakes as the result of my own faults and settled for the relationship because he told me I could never find someone better than him. I never spoke up about who I was or what I wanted, because I didn’t think I could.
In my early 20s, I have met and fallen in love with people who encouraged and motivated me into becoming someone that I could proudly love. Before that, I had come to terms with who I was and figured that was the way I would always be. I limited myself, and it took a toll on my personal life and professional life. For the longest time, I settled for who I was, and never pushed myself. I settled for one-sided friendships, unpaid internships, and half-assed relationships.
When I met my last partner, I was at a crossroads, literally and figuratively. We met outside of school when I was deciding if I should take the tram or metro home, and I was in the middle of an identity crisis with box-dye-red hair. Despite deeply damaging my hair, changing my appearance did not solve my problems. I still wondered—was I just a talentless hack that had frauded her way in a writing career, and nonetheless, a writing career that I couldn’t even juggle?
My partner was painfully honest, something that definitely took some getting used to—but his refusal to sugarcoat things or spoon-feed me what I wanted to hear made our relationship all the better. I wanted someone to tell me I was being a pussy, that I wasn’t being pushy enough. He was the right person for it. In truth, it brought me out of settling for stagnant self-acceptance and opened me up to love.
At times I felt like I loved him more than I loved myself. Just because I was struggling with loving myself didn’t mean I needed to turn away love when it came knocking at my door. The mutuality in relationships can be beneficial for those who are in need of reaffirmation and a new perspective, so long as the relationship is built on honesty and openness. While he helped me stop feeling inadequate, I helped him unravel his own repressed family issues.
Though the relationship didn’t last long, we are better because of each other. If we hadn’t met each other, we wouldn’t have worked through any of the issues we’d buried and marked as resolved. I loved me, but I loved him more. And I think that’s okay.
In 2015, Dr. Leon F. Seltzer challenged this very proclamation of self-love in Psychology Today. He believes that self-acceptance comes hand in hand and is almost “indistinguishable” from self-love. This is not to say that self-acceptance means giving up any space for self-growth, but it does mean recognizing our efforts toward our own betterment.
While self-love may not be quintessential to a relationship, it can better it, allowing the connection to deepen and take up space in the places that were previously reserved for individual betterment.
Like Dr. Seltzer said, maybe the “love yourself first” dictum spreads like wildfire because it’s easier said than done. Self-love is beneficial to a relationship, but when people treat it as essential, they imply that those who are struggling are not deserving of love.
While I strive to strip the dictum of its ruling on what’s quintessential to a relationship, we need to collectively stop perpetuating the importance of loving yourself before you can love someone else. Ironically, in the age of self-love, we are unjustly choosing to put those who struggle with self-love on blast, fueling the fear of being unlovable.
I think genuine self-acceptance reigns above putting up a satisfactory front of self-love. When you’ve achieved self-acceptance, you stop seeking acceptance from everyone you meet—which means you open yourself to love and be loved. We can spend our whole lives convincing others that we are ready and worthy of love, but here’s the thing—at the end of the day, we are the only ones that can actually decide whether or not we’re capable of love.