You’ve heard the saying. “Before anyone else will love you, you have to love yourself first,” or some derivation of it. It’s common wisdom, spread around all over. As anyone who knows me understands I am very suspicious of common sense. I often say, “Common sense isn’t and doesn’t.” As in, it isn’t common and doesn’t make sense. But this one is an exception to the rule.
Yes, in fact you do have to love yourself before anyone else will love you. Let’s dig into the details to see why I say that and what I mean by it.
First of all, what is love? For my purposes I consider “love” to mean a pattern of behavior wherein the person(s) feeling “love,” consistently treats the object of their affections positively, especially when it is hard to do so. Love isn’t an emotional state, although such a state may be its motivator. It isn’t some mystical alignment of celestial bodies in which you find your soulmate. It isn’t the intoxicating wash of chemicals we call New Relationship Energy, nor that driving cocktail of hormones that make us want to fuck someone else. Those are fun things, don’t get me wrong, but they are not love as I use the term.
Have I got any fans of Six Feet Under in the house? I very much enjoyed the first season or two, and I hated it after that. For those of you who haven’t see it, let me set the scene:
The show took place in a family ran funeral home. To start, most of the early episodes were about the survivors of the deceased more than the main recurring characters. One show opened up with an old black man waking in the morning with his wife. He groaned and got out of bed while she slept beside him. Telling her it was time to get up, he walked to the curtains and opened them, letting the sun shine in. When that didn’t wake her, he grabbed the blankets off her, slapped her naked butt, and said, “Get up, old woman!” The temperature of her skin told him she was dead and he collapsed onto the bed, consumed by sorrow.
Skip forward, and she is in the funeral home in question. He, however, won’t leave her. This is a problem because the funeral home is in the actual home of the main cast and they want the old guy out. The oldest son tries to talk to the widower and says, “I know you loved her very much…” And the old man interrupts to say,
“Shut up. What do you know about love? Let me tell you about love. Love is when you are 15 years old and you look up and see a pretty face. Next thing you know you’re 70, you just shit yourself in the theatre, and she’s the only one who will take care of you. That’s love.”
Why, yes, yes it is. Love exists when we get up at 4:00 AM to take care of a sick partner or child. Love happens when we take the time and effort to meet the needs of our partners and when doing so makes us a healthier and happier version of ourselves. Love is a behavior, not a feeling.
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When you adjust your schedule to make your partner happy, when you surprise them with that gift or gesture that they adore but didn’t know was coming. When you care enough to make sure they get home on time, even when you are having a blast, you are loving them.
Now, know anyone who doesn’t love themselves? Who doesn’t treat themselves positively, consistently? Who hasn’t take the time and effort to get to know themselves well enough to even understand what they need and want? I do. I’ve got a family full of them. And not a one of them have ever found someone to love them.
Oh, sure, they find lots of folk to abuse them. To feed into their cycles of self loathing, shame, or just a lack of self esteem. They find plenty of fellow addicts, willing partners in crime, drinking buddies, and sources of endless drama. But someone else who will treat them well when it’s hard to do so? Not so much. Not in my family.
People treat you like you treat yourself
Taking the time to know and love yourself is required if you want to find someone who will do the same.
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If you aren’t willing to love yourself and establish limits of what is and what isn’t acceptable treatment form a lover, you might find lovers who will treat you poorly. They will mirror that same lack of love you are giving yourself and give it right back to you. As the saying goes, “Good fences make for good neighbors.” Love yourself enough to make some good fences.
For example, as the son of a junkie, I don’t date addicts. Folks in recovery? Possibly. But actively using junkies are right off my list. I love myself too much to put myself through that wringer, no matter how magical the sex is.
I know that intimates yelling at me sets me into a PTSD tail spin. Therefore I love myself enough not to get intimate with anyone who requires yelling and screaming as part of their conflict resolution process.
I understand that if I am sick, tired, or even just overly grumpy, I need to put my own needs first and take care of myself before I try to meet the needs of another. And I love myself enough to call a lover and say, “I know we were supposed to be together tonight, but I just don’t feel good enough to make it. Reschedule?”
Especially when it is hard
Furthermore, it isn’t as if all of these actions are easy for me to do. It’s very hard for me to tell an intimate no in any way; cancelling plans, for example, is very hard for me. It’s hard for me to say, “Actually, my stomach is upset right now, and your favorite restaurant will only make it worse, so let’s go some place else instead.” But I love myself enough to do so, even when it’s hard.
So yes, you do need to love yourself before anyone else will. You do need to treat yourself well, with your own long term best interests in mind. Lacking that, you may find yourself surrounded by people who don’t have the skills and tools to love themselves, let alone you. And I can assure you, as a breathing human being, you are worthy of love, self and otherwise.