I have been surprised over the last few weeks by how many of my clients believe in the saying, “You have to love yourself before you can be loved by another.” Of course I understand what it’s getting at: the idea that it’s easier to love someone who has a sense of self-worth or self-confidence, as opposed to someone who doesn’t think much of themselves.
But to assert that you have to love yourself before another person will is, in my opinion, not only incorrect, but also potentially damaging. And, frankly, like many pop psychology or folk wisdom phrases, it just doesn’t make any sense. If our first opportunity to be loved is by our caretakers when we are born, is that love possible because we already love ourselves? Of course not: that love is given to us unconditionally.
Now, the quality of love and affection we receive in those early years can influence how we are able to love down the road (ourselves and others), but it does not dictate whether we are able to be loved, nor do I believe a prerequisite ever enters the picture as long as we live. The fact of the matter is that we learn to love by being loved, ideally by our caretakers when we are younger, but if not, then by other people along the way.
If private practice has taught me anything, it is that all types of people—including those with little or no self-love—are loved. The question is usually whether they are able to accept it, and love back.
If my clients believe this saying, I typically explore their willingness to believe it. Is it an indication of a more widespread belief in pop psychology or folk wisdom? If so, what draws them to look for their truths there? Or do they believe this particular message because they already believed it, in some way? If so, where is that coming from?