What’s wrong with, “If I can’t love myself, how can I expect others love me”?

What’s wrong with, “If I can’t love myself, how can I expect others love me”?

Porter Macey Ph.D., LMFT. Clinic Director

July 12, 2020

“If I can’t love myself, how can I expect others to love me”? As a therapist who focuses on relationships, I have heard this phrase a lot. Even as a young child I recall people using this sentence as advice. It seems like for the most part, people generally view this phrase as good advice, capable of spurring positive growth in ourselves and others. What’s funny is, “if I can’t love myself, how can I expect others to love me” has never sat well with me. It always felt as though there was something about that phrase just a little off. I recently spent some time examining my thoughts regarding this phrase and was able to gain some insight into what was bothering me when so many others seemed to think it was great advice. 

As humans we are always moving toward something. Some goal or challenge, trying to advance and learn. I believe it is in our nature as humans to seek progress. That being said, one of the problems that came to mind when thinking about this phrase was the direction it points us. Instead of being motivated by the idea of growing towards a more fulfilling and content life, the language used is designed to motivate us to change so that others find us more desirable. When we begin making changes based on what we think someone else will like we become less happy and more often than not the change we just made is not sustainable. It often creates resentment  in the person making the change and except for some exceptions it will always be a short term gain, long term loss. 

This is complicated though, because I do think humans are genuinely attracted to confidence. It feels good to be around people who love who they are. So regardless of how healthy or unhealthy the advice to love yourself so others will love you actually is, it might actually be true. And to be clear, I don’t think it is unhealthy to want people to love you. Strong and significant connections are a natural human desire and the people who love us are what make this life so meaningful. I do however think that changing yourself to change the feelings and thoughts that others have about you is not a good way to connect. I have worked with many couples and individuals who fell into the trap of trying to figure out what their partner wants so they can give that to them. I call it a trap because this behavior can be alluring, especially to those who have struggled with low self worth or grew up witnessing relationships that followed this pattern. The negative impact of doing this is a lack of authentic communication, you never really know if your partner likes you for you (another barrier to healthy self worth), not to mention resentment paired with confusion. Resentment that our partner never puts in the effort that we do and confusion regarding how our partner actually feels about the relationship. We will be better off individually and relationally by focusing on what we have control over. I encourage and help the people I work with to restate the phrase in question. Some examples of positive reframes are, “if I don’t love myself how will I be able to communicate authentically” or “if I don’t love myself, how will I be able to get my needs met without hurting others” and for the parents, “if I don’t love myself, how will I teach my kids that they are amazing regardless of body size and societal expectations”? Doing this might make you feel like you are abandoning the important relationship but in reality the phrase changes listed above are doing more to improve your relationship than the original.

Another problem I have with this phrase is the insinuation, unless you love yourself you are in fact unlovable. This message can be so harmful and damaging that it is often the catalyst for people who have battled depression and hopelessness for so long that they decide erroneously the world would be a better place without them. Suicide, especially among our adolescents, is a pandemic and anything we can do to combat this issue needs to be done, but depression is a tricky monster. It is one of the only afflictions that I can think of where the things you want to do the least are the things that will be most useful. Anyone who has woken up feeling depressed can attest to how near impossible it is to pop out of bed and go for a run or reach out to someone close to you that you trust. They certainly don’t want to focus on all the good in their life and fill their mind with positive thoughts. All these things have been shown to help improve mood but pain from depression is not like pain from a broken arm. When we break our arm all we want to do is fix the arm and we put everything on hold until we feel like we have done what we can to take care of the problem. If we take depression and add in the idea that we are unlovable because we cannot at this time love ourselves then we have a recipe for suicide, self-harm, harmful drug use, and self destructive behaviors. No one is unlovable and being loved is not contingent on how much we love our self. Don’t get me wrong, I want everyone to be able to love themselves but as a therapist, father, and spouse to an incredible person I am proof that loving someone does not require that person to first love themselves. Thinking that we need to love ourselves before we can get love from others is an effective way to unfairly blame ourselves for any breakups or relationship failures we experience. This unfair blame often presents itself in self-destructive behaviors that can lead to more thoughts about how we ruin everything and questions like, “what is wrong with me that makes it so I cannot be happy”?      

So the next time you hear someone say, “If I don’t love myself, how can I expect others to love me”? Try responding with a simple “Well I love you” and see what happens. Let’s start the shift, little things are important and collectively they become much bigger. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Last but not least, always remember, you are lovable.

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