A couples coaching client recently said to me, with almost religious conviction, “I have to love myself before I can love someone else.” I had to stop a minute; I've heard this one before. At first glance, sure, that sounds like a worthy position, a nice symmetry. A woke, self-empowering, me-affirming statement.
But wait just a minute here. After all the years I’ve been doing this work, I still don’t fully get what self-love means, what the point is, or how to know I'm there. To me, it’s an impossible, even imponderable, prerequisite to set for loving. I mean, what is self love, really? I honestly don’t know. But for this conversation, let’s just say, it’s feeling awake to the moment, comfortable in our skins, integrated and at peace with our selves, our choices, and the course of our lives. For most of us, some days, sure! Other days, not so much.
Self love is not a status we achieve and get to keep, like a trophy. We gonna have our good days; we gonna have our bad ones. So we can’t key our ability to be in relationship off of the status of our daily self-love report card. A much more workable and fulfilling strategy lies in the exact opposite frame: that there is no self-love prerequisite to being in relationship, to loving a partner. Just bring your whole warts-and-all self to the relationship, and simply love your partner the best you can. Every single day. That creates the path. Some days it’s easier than others.
It is through the profound crucible of intimate relationship, the survival dance, the daily self-and-other confrontation, the endless excavation of all of our buried pain, selfish pettiness, and wounded ugliness that we begin to love our truly messy selves. Not the branded and shiny packaged version of ourselves we want people to believe. The path to self love opens when a flawed, hurting, occasionally self-loathing person shows up and imperfectly loves a flawed, hurting, occasionally self-loathing partner.
And then, when we can show up without all the bullshit “I’ve got it all together all the time” pretext, we ultimately discover our generosity, our kindness and humility, and the poetry in our souls. We find out just how courageous, fascinating, and lovable we are.
To be clear: Take care of you. Be kind and gentle to yourself, ditch the negative self talk. Eat vegetables and take care of your body. Attend to your inner wounds, traumas, and growth. Show up and contribute. Absolutely. And definitely get out of damaging, unhealthy relationships, of course.
But don’t create an unworkable precondition for loving a partner. Just love. When we show up and bring our whole selves, for the messy day-in-day-out experience of being in relationship, we find the path to loving ourselves. Do your work within the context of relating. Loving another creates the opportunity for self-love. Not the other way around.
In other words, forget about loving yourself. Love others instead.