Self-Love: Easier Said Than Done

How much time, energy and resources do you spend trying to get other people to like you, love you, notice, appreciate, understand, admire, respect, or agree with you? How often do you trade authenticity for connection? Do you find yourself compulsively checking your phone for responses, likes, views, or comments?

Your first reaction may be denial — I don’t care what other people think of me!

Or perhaps defensiveness — Don’t try to pathologize me for wanting human connection!

And maybe you’re like me, hoping to write an article that people will like, realizing — dang, maybe I DO spend a lot of time trying to gain positive regard from the people around me!

The fact of the matter is that love and belonging are irreducible human needs. But oh, what a tangled web we weave when we don’t know how to satisfy those needs in healthy and appropriate ways.

Today, I’d like to showcase a pervasive, counterproductive half-truth and paint it in a larger context to make it more useful.

“You can’t love anyone else until you love yourself first.”

Yes, you cannot transmit something you do not have. So the above statement is technically valid. However, I think it spreads the false assumption that self-love is the very beginning of this journey to loving others, and that shit is patently false.

Developmental psychologist and trauma therapist Dr. Bruce Perry writes, “The truth is you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.”

When children don’t feel loved — a fundamental human need for healthy development and maturation — they adapt rapidly to get this need met. As soon as a few years old, we may assume behaviors of hypervigilance, codependency, over-functioning, under-functioning, perfectionism, emotional suppression, despondency, or anything that might garner some love and attention.

In any case, it will be some version of self-abandonment because children can do nothing but reflect back the abandonment that was shown them. The result is a template for human connection with self-neglect at its center.

Such people instinctively know the truth of Dr. Perry’s assertion and will compulsively seek positive regard from others to override their prior experiences of parental misattunement, neglect, abuse, or abandonment. But when the toxic shame that underlies every abandonment wound drives our desire to be loved, we find ourselves in a brutal dilemma — feeling like an unlovable piece of shit and desperately wanting to be loved at the same time.

This cognitive dissonance fuels an unyielding plethora of emotional entanglements and relational dumpster fires only surpassed in intensity by the fervor with which we cling to the belief that self-abandonment will lead us to love.

Love and belonging are prerequisites to self-love.

I spent years addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, and relationships because I fucking hated myself. These coping mechanisms kept me from putting guns in my mouth for a while, but they eventually stopped working. When I entered the rooms of recovery they told me, “Let us love you until you learn how to love yourself.”

I’m moved to tears reflecting on the profound depths of wisdom contained within this seemingly hokey twelve-step expression. That ragtag bunch of weirdos literally saved my life by bringing me into the fold and showing me unconditional love and acceptance. I felt it in my bones. These strangers became the surrogate family I always wanted and filled the gaps left by traumatized family members who were constitutionally incapable of meeting my developmental needs.

Once, I attended a workshop where I sat in front of a room and everyone just showered me with statements of love, appreciation, admiration, compliments, and affirmations for at least five minutes. I ugly-cried so hard I started to wonder if they would run out of nice things to say. But they didn’t. They just kept loving me until the mounting evidence of my indisputable worthiness and lovability became too overwhelming to contest. It’s like shame and self-loathing suddenly became obsolete in the presence of such powerful expressions of love and belonging.

And over time, sure as shit, I learned how to love myself! I replaced self-loathing with self-compassion, self-criticism with self-acceptance, and self-abandonment with self-advocacy. No doubt, this required a tremendous amount of work on my part. But all the work in the world wouldn’t have mattered without the support of a healing tribe.

You can’t shame, judge, or hate yourself into a better relationship with the person in the mirror.

Love and belonging can lead you to self-love, but they cannot replace it.

Identity formation is a social process. We discover who we are in the reflections of those around us. This is why children who are treated like shit grow up thinking they actually are shit. When we don’t feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure, our emotional development is arrested. We cannot mature past a certain point until those basic human needs are satisfied (Abraham Maslow wrote about this almost a hundred years ago).

And because safety is not simply the absence of threat but the presence of connection, the false bonds achieved through self-abandonment can never produce the quality of safety necessary to keep our lizard brains from doing compulsive, survival shit all day.

We need mature, nurturing relationships in order to feel safe enough to share our authentic selves with the world. And in doing so, we can heal the abandonment wounds of our past and develop a genuine love for ourselves.

Unfortunately, many people think that getting someone to love you is the finish line. As it turns out, it’s the fucking starting point. A secure base of empathetic human connection is the foundation you need to begin your healing journey.

Furthermore, this type of unconditional love can’t come from some new hottie you just started dating. But isn’t that where people tend to look for love? And isn’t it ironic that we are the least likely to present our authentic selves while dating?

Nay, the social animal truly needs a village before it can become a villager. But how many people are living in relative isolation while surrounded by thousands of people, “connected” via internet to millions, and hitching their dreams of emotional salvation to the scratch-off lottery ticket of transient romance?

Self-love is as good as it gets.

Having GrubHub deliver fast food to your house is kinda nice. But it pales in comparison to the security of knowing that you’re a good-ass cook and your food is usually more delicious, nutritious, affordable, and satisfying. This is the difference between external and internal validation. The difference between insecure and secure attachment.

Trying to circumvent the need for self-love by trading authenticity for connection is a Faustian bargain that you will come to regret over and over again. If you are constantly plagued by an adversarial relationship with yourself, only subdued by moments of losing yourself in another, there is a way out of this mess.

In short, you must surround yourself with healthy, mature, nurturing connections (which involves setting boundaries with unhealthy people, places, and things), cultivate a fierce allegiance to yourself (which includes eliminating toxic shame and inner-critic attacks), embrace radical authenticity, then commit fully to the personal responsibility of loving the SHIT out of yourself no matter what.

Then you will no longer need to demand love from others… because you will command it instead.


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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

3 thoughts on “Self-Love: Easier Said Than Done

  1. Realizing you have choices and making them. Understanding what a boundary is, making and keeping them. Taking back your power. Knowing your worthy and enough. Walking away without taking the toxicity in. Boundaries and choices. Oh and huge, emotional regulation!! I’m working on all of these things. It has been a very slow process but I am making progress.

    1. Yes! Progress, not perfection. A mantra I’ve made good use of is “Resentment or boundary?” Whenever I’m in a confrontational situation that feels icky, I usually gotta choose between those two options. It kinda simplifies everything for me. When the choice is clearly “Self-care or self-abandonment,” the choice is obvious. All I gotta do is have faith that I won’t disintegrate by choosing to take care of myself, haha. Wishing you tremendous success on your healing journey, my friend 🙂

  2. I wonder why 12 step recovery groups tell you to do something nice for someone you resent because you can’t do something nice for someone and resent them at the same time? It does relieve me of the burden of resentment usually…. unless I’m consistently not setting boundaries with someone who consistently violates mine. Sometimes life is patently better without those people in it.

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