Can you love others if you can’t love yourself?

Can you love others if you can’t love yourself? May 15, 2013

Trigger Warning for discussions of depression and suicide

Today on Twitter, someone that I follow tweeted a familiar phrase. You’ve probably heard it before too.

“How can you love others if you can’t love yourself?”

Image by Allie Brosh (click for link)

I hear this line frequently. Often it’s from smart people, from people that I admire. From people who really, really think that they’ve got a good idea going here. But here’s the thing . . .

It’s bullshit.

Not only is it bullshit, but it’s harmful. I’m guessing the people who say this line don’t mean for it to be. Like I said, many of the people who I’ve heard repeat this line are people I usually appreciate. I’m guessing they have good intentions, but I’m going to push back anyway

First of all, the idea that you cannot love others if you don’t love yourself isn’t true. I mean, sure, it can help, but I believe that love is often something we learn through community and through relationship. As we receive love, we learn that we are lovable. As we love others, we learn to love ourselves. This learning is happening from all sorts of angles and the idea that learning to love most always be a strict progression of self-love to love of others is just not the case.

When I joined a feminist group, and began to love the women that I met in that group, I was able to face some of the misogyny that I’d internalized throughout my life and love myself. When I dated an ex-boyfriend who had severe acne, and fell in love with him, I was able to look in the mirror at my own blotchy face in the mirror and embrace it with love.

Sure, I can name many examples where loving myself helped me love others as well. But the idea that learning to love is something that can only happen in one direction?

Yup, bullshit.

When I think about the contexts in which I usually hear “How can you love others unless you love yourself,” what was once just bullshit actually becomes seriously harmful bullshit.

I heard it when I was struggling with depression–an illness that prevented me from being able to love myself. I already felt like a robot incapable of most human emotions, and here people were telling me that I could not even love. Hearing this phrase made me feel like a monster. It made me feel like my inability to love myself was born out of some strange form of selfishness. It made me feel like I didn’t deserve the friends I had or the partner I was with. I remember feeling severe shame and guilt for even being involved in a romantic relationship when I wasn’t “healthy” enough to be in one.

This phrase told me that my illness made me an inherently unloving person.

This idea that I was incapable of loving added to the thoughts that were already crushing me, telling me that my friends and family would be better off without me there. This idea that I was incapable of loving haunted me until I tried to rid the world of my horrible, unloving presence in a suicide attempt nearly two years ago.

This How can you love others if you can’t love yourself?” phrase was just one of many lies that led to my suicide attempt, but it was a pervasive one. It was a lie that told me even the few positive emotions and actions that I was able to scrounge up were illegitimate. It was a lie that warped my brain into thinking the only act of love I could ever hope to show the world would be the act of getting out of the way.

It was a lie, though. I know that. I loved, and I learned to love better, and I continue to love and learn to love, even though I still struggle with (less severe) depression.

Depression may sometimes make it difficult to love with all of the fullness and energy that a perfectly healthy person can spare. Some days I barely have the energy to shower, which makes it hard for me to show acts of love that require me to get out of bed. But I don’t have to be healed from depression before I’m allowed to love. I can love others even on days when I hate myself. Sometimes, that’s what keeps me going.

There’s no rule against loving. Let’s put away these hurtful, pithy phrases that tell us otherwise.


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  • Thank you for that post! In my last period of depression, I found love a very powerful emotion that helped me get through a lot of days. What I find worth considering though is “Can you let others love you, when you don’t love yourself?” When I was depressed, I found it very hard to let others love me and tell me it was okay to feel how I felt, because I couldn’t love myself at that moment.
    “There’s no rule against loving.” You are absolutely right and you should continue to love even if it’s just a little. And don’t forget to let others love you, even if you hate yourself!

  • Jennifer Stahl

    Thank You, Thank You, THANK YOU!!!!!

    I totally agree.

  • Ambaa


  • *Really* well said. Thank you. What I’ve experienced is definitely not a lack of the ability and capacity to love others, while experiencing the extreme opposite for myself; what I tend to experience is the inability to feel the love coming from others, because the depression is working so strenuously to deny any thought that I might be worth loving.

  • Bryce Livingston

    Thank you, oh my god! I’ve tried to explain this to a gazillion people, but those statements – and the dismissive reactions when I object to it – make me so upset that I can barely find the words. Now I have a link to send people. Everyone on the internet needs to read this post, and everyone on the planet needs to stop shaming those with mental illness and denying our capacity for love. I also attempted suicide because I felt worthless. The one last thing that I found enjoyable and meaningful, loving others, apparently was not something I wasn’t “capable of” because I hadn’t “learned” to love myself. What a pile of anti-human crap.

  • Elizabeth Beck

    Oh man, this is such a good point! I needed to hear this perspective for sure. I’ve always said it’s important to love yourself, but I suppose the way that I frame it is through more of a journey of deepening my relationships with others by deepening the one with myself. Like, if I can forgive and love myself despite knowing how much I mess up, when I have bad intentions, etc., then it becomes much easier not only to forgive others but really trust that they forgive me, too. I also struggle with depression and I empathize with this so much. I am huggin’ ya through the computer! <3

  • Ti Pit Landry

    Love starts with you. Yeah i agree with your post that you can learn loving yourself and loving others with someone who’s loving you but when comes the time that the person is leaving you you will be the same person as before him/her. That means that your lover was just a pillow that you used to like yourself to give you a great image. That also means that he did 2 jobs in one first hes loving his self second hes loving yourself while you don’t and that plays a lot on his energy time after time he will be so exhausted that he will leave and because you never work on yourself you will hating yourself and feel unlovable because of your rejection and your low self esteem. In the end You Can’t Love Someone If You Don’t Love Yourself it’s impossible you skip a step Unless you work on yourself while you’re with him.

  • Madeleine

    I could’t agree more! Love is something we learn thru others. As we give love, we receive. Simple as that. As we love others we learn to love ourself. I am sure there are many people who cant love others because they dont love themselves. But thats up to them. I agree that you can love others even if you dont love yourself. Its not about that you cannot, its all about willing. If you cannot love anyone, you will feel like a horrible person. But if you’re willing to love others and let others love you, you will feel so good about it. You have to let people love you! You have to let people care! Even if you cannot always give your love, if you receive it you will feel lovable. And then you will learn how to love yourself and to give back. Thats how it works! If you love and care about others, you will starting to feel good about yourself.

  • Nanette Eblen

    When someone says “you can’t love others if you don’t love yourself”, they don’t mean that you are incapable of feeling love for others, they are using love as a verb. Real love is not just a feeling. Real love means being able to put energy into your actions to care for someone else. People who don’t love themselves are in great pain. That pain blocks their ability to take action to love someone else. These people, who don’t love themselves, aren’t selfish. They are hurting and need healing. Loving and compassion bring that healing. A song I learned once says it all: I love myself so much, that I can love you so much, that you can love you so much, that you can start loving me.

  • Hello Sarah, Thanks for this inciteful post. I agree with your underststanding of the relationship between self-love and loving others. I’ve quoted parts of your post in mine – Mothering Yourself at