Must We First Love Ourselves before Loving Someone Else?

By | 25/01/2016

I am always surprised when I hear people repeat, with utter conviction, well-known sentences that are regarded as truth, even though not much thought is given to them. These are beliefs, inherited points of view. We have a duty to rethink everything, as new knowledge can create more sophisticated ways of looking at subjects that interest us deeply. This is one of those sentences: “If I can’t love myself, I can’t love anybody else.” It is said and thought in the context of having a good and stable romantic relationship. It is very specific, unlike the biblical command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The biblical “neighbor” is anyone we encounter, and not a special person with whom we want to have a romantic relationship, hopefully stable and eternal. Besides, I agree with religion, when it comes to how we should treat others: we must all believe that everyone else has the same rights as we do.

My reflections on love do not allow the idea of loving oneself, because love is interpersonal. Love is the feeling we have for the person whose presence gives us a delightful sense of peace and comfort. The first manifestation of this feeling happens between mother and child, maybe still in-utero, and certainly from birth. The vulnerable child, threatened by all kinds of distress, feels happy and comforted by their mother’s physical presence, and loves her. The mother finds holding her baby hugely pleasurable, and feels a deep love precisely because the baby also comforts her.

The first interpersonal feeling is love. Of course the child, when they are frustrated by their mother’s absence, might get upset and cry because they feel abandoned, so maybe the second feeling is anger, which is also interpersonal, as it requires an external aggressor. As the months go by children differentiate themselves from their mother, they start researching the world surrounding them, and themselves. They touch certain parts of their body and experiment a very pleasant feeling of arousal. It is sexual arousal, which is indeed personal and self-erotic.

If we were to consider love and sex as part of the same process, which is not from my school of thought, it might be possible to believe the child (and later the adult) feels some affection for themself. But when we separate these two phenomena (it is a fact that love happens before sex), we can understand sex as a personal phenomenon, but not love. There is, therefore, self-eroticism, but there is no such thing as love for oneself: love demands an object and the first object is our mother.

Of course, this is all theory, but moving on to practical issues, we can see that most people do not have a good opinion of themselves. That means they do not have good self-esteem, which is usually seen as an absence of love for themselves.

Esteem is a word that can be connected with love, but it also means worth. I believe the second meaning of the word is more pertinent; low self-esteem means I am not satisfied with themselves. They are, at once, critic and criticized, and in this case, the judgment of their worth is negative.

If this means an inability to love, we can say love does not exist! But that is not how it goes. People who have a bad opinion of themselves are usually attracted by their opposites. What really happens is that those who don’t like how they are are charmed by people unlike themselves.

People who follow my work know I think this kind of connection is precarious, and nowadays, tends not to last. We can say that people with low self-esteem (which is better than “people who don’t love themselves”) tend to love their opposites. The quality of this kind of relationship is dubious, so in this sense, we can say that those who have good self-esteem (an expression that is much more apt that “people who love themselves”) tend to have more gratifying romantic relationships, in which there is a better fit. From this angle, if we only considered this second kind of relationship, the one between people of similar temperament and character, to be love, we could say it crucially depends on good self-esteem. Since it self-esteem is rare, romantic relationships, in this scenario, would be be rare too.

However, it does not seem reasonable to think this way, because relationships between opposites also provide comfort and intimacy—despite their problems, jealousy and fights. Thus, all we can say is that to be very happy in love, we have to first figure ourselves out. It might be essential to improve our independence, to fix whatever we don’t like about us, and to reach a state of acceptance of ourselves so we can be truly ready to be in a fulfilling relationship.