Personally, I didn’t love myself until I truly felt others were curious about and accepting of the real me. As a young person who had a raging eating disorder, simply liking myself felt like an impossible feat. I had so many experiences that made me want to crawl out of myself, much less love it. This made me afraid of putting my hurting heart out into the big, bad world. I fretted: “Would I only attract people who would harm or reject me?” “Do I have to be healthier (or do the work of healing alone) to be loved?” As I’d later learn, this apprehension can actually shield us from taking the necessary risks to open ourselves up to love.
While learning to love yourself can certainly have a positive effect on your relationships (more on this below), it is not a prerequisite for being loved or loving others.
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Why do people say you need to love yourself before loving others?
Loving yourself means that you know you are valuable and worthy of care without external validation. This doesn’t mean that you feel good about yourself all the time, but that you are aware that even if you make mistakes, experience rejection, or don’t have the perfect body, you are still deserving of good things and relationships.
Examples of self-love include: going on a date and being less concerned if they liked you and more concerned with how you felt when you were with them; ensuring you are in good standing with yourself rather than focusing on being in good standing with others; and failing an exam and working out a plan for improvement without putting yourself down in the process.
If you don’t love yourself, you may struggle with feelings of worthlessness or even self-hatred. These emotional states can make it hard for you to believe you are deserving of nourishing, reciprocal partnership and may prompt you to be attracted to people who don’t value you—and instead reinforce the negative beliefs you hold about yourself.
You may come to believe that your authentic self isn’t good enough and then be drawn toward people who, indeed, treat you as lesser.
This may be especially true if, in your upbringing, you regularly experienced the rejection or disapproval of others, or if you have an identity that is typically marginalized. You may come to believe that your authentic self isn’t good enough and then be drawn toward people who, indeed, treat you as lesser. As humans, we are often pulled toward what is familiar, rather than what or who is best for us.
Why it can be *harmful* to think you must love yourself before loving others
Self-love is undoubtedly beneficial for nurturing healthy connections—but it doesn’t necessarily have to be achieved before experiencing the love of another. Believing you need to love yourself and be sufficiently healed before dating or loving others may keep you back from the relationships that can actually support your healing, as the healing journey is often slow and long.
Waiting to open yourself up until you’ve healed “enough” might just be evidence that you’re anxious about or fearful of being in a relationship, not that you shouldn’t be in one. Additionally, trying to heal on your own may not even be the appropriate suture for the wound.
What we know is that healing happens in connection and pain thrives in isolation. Therapy, for example, works because of the relationship between the therapist and the client. If I gave my clients a book that taught the lessons we experience in therapy together, the impact would be less profound and sustainable. We even have research showing that when someone we love holds our hand, we rate the pain we are experiencing as lesser1 than we would in the absence of their touch. Which is all to say, you can learn to love yourself—and heal the wounded parts—in the presence of a loving partner, who can help you along that journey.
How the love of someone else can help you achieve self-love
Prospective lovers can offer you the kind of perspective that allows you to see yourself differently; they might not have the same negative or rejecting reaction that you do toward the qualities of yours that you perceive as negative.
The very act of opening yourself up to love from or for another is a move toward self-love. Hiding your hurt parts prevents them from being seen, let alone healed; whereas, exposing these parts presents an opportunity for them to receive the relational care they’ve always wanted.
For example, you might dislike your tendency to anger, but a healthy prospective partner might validate it as passion for the things you value or believe. You may feel negatively toward your breasts, but a partner might love the hell out of them!
Getting to see ourselves through the eyes and hearts of a loving other can be more soothing than any self-led effort.
Getting to see ourselves through the eyes and hearts of a loving other can be more soothing than any self-led effort. Because we often dislike the parts of ourselves that others have disliked or rejected, experiencing appreciation and understanding of these wounded parts from a partner can allow us to develop a less critical relationship to them.
To this end, instead of asking yourself, “Am I ready to be loved?” consider asking: “Am I ready to be honest with myself and others as we heal and grow together?” Below, you’ll find steps to take in your journey toward self-love while in a loving relationship.
How to work toward self-love while in a relationship
Practice vulnerability with a partner you trust
It takes a lot of courage to reveal a part of yourself that you don’t like. You might believe that if you expose your “worst” features, you will be abandoned. Know that this is just the brain’s survival mechanism in action, as its primary function is to protect us from harm.
And yet, our emotional heart has a separate function: to keep us feeling alive. Oftentimes, if it doesn’t feel risky to be in a relationship, it’s because we aren’t sharing our truest selves. Sharing a hurt heart should feel like a leap and require tenacity.
Focus energy on developing self-compassion
While you do not need to love all the parts of yourself that are wounded or broken before receiving love from (or giving love to) others, it is necessary to bear witness to them and develop a relationship with them, so that you know how to share them.
This journey begins with being compassionate toward the reasons why you don’t love yourself. Instead of being critical toward yourself, get curious about where your negative self-concept may have originated. This means observing the parts of yourself that you don’t like, getting to know them, and accepting that they are there rather than judging them.
And that’s not just for your benefit. Research shows that self-compassion can help us show up positively in a relationship2 (as it’s correlated with being more caring and supportive and less aggressive and controlling). Additionally, individuals with self-compassion and their partners report higher levels of overall well-being3—meaning, you can support the health of your relationship by working on self-compassion, even if self-love feels out of reach.
Self-compassion requires three efforts4: self-kindness, or a warm and soothing approach to your distress as opposed to a critical one; a belief that all people experience hardship and struggle at some point in their lives; and a non-judgmental approach to negative emotions, or accepting that they are there but not overly identifying with them (for example, by saying, “I feel angry,” versus, “I am an angry person”).
Practice owning your stuff (rather than trying to be “healed”)
Owning your relational triggers doesn’t mean magically resolving them. In a relationship, it is helpful to take responsibility for your wounds and the way you may act because of them, rather than hiding them or blaming your partner. This might look like building awareness that you’re criticizing your partner for abandoning you not because of their actions but because of your deep-seated abandonment wound.
It can be worthwhile to ask yourself: What are the parts of me that I don’t like? Where did these parts develop? How do I react to these parts? How do these parts show up in my relationships? What does taking responsibility for these parts look like for me? How can I shift the narrative I hold about these parts from: “What is wrong with me?” to: “What happened to me that made me believe I am bad/not enough/unlovable?” Considering the answers to these questions can help you address the parts of yourself that you’re still healing or that you dislike, even as you give and receive love in a relationship.
While I certainly hope that my young daughters can learn to love themselves, I also know that for some of us—including myself—the love of another can be a driving force for self-love. Ultimately, it may be the love and attention of a partner toward your perceived “negative” qualities that helps you to accept them yourself and perhaps, one day, even love them.
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
- Goldstein, Pavel et al. “The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain.” Scientific reports vol. 7,1 3252. 12 Jun. 2017, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-03627-7
- Neff, Kristin D., and S. Natasha Beretvas. “The Role of Self-Compassion in Romantic Relationships.” Self and Identity, vol. 12, 1. (2013): 78–98. doi.org10.1080/15298868.2011.639548.
- Lathren, Christine R et al. “Self-Compassion and Current Close Interpersonal Relationships: A Scoping Literature Review.” Mindfulness vol. 12,5 (2021): 1078-1093. doi:10.1007/s12671-020-01566-5
- Neff, Kristin. “Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself.” Self and Identity vol. 2, 2 (2003): 85–101. doi.org10.1080/15298860309032.