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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