‘Learn to love yourself first’ is a piece of wisdom that gets thrown around a lot in the form of inspirational quotes on Instagram, but how many of us have actually sat and thought about what the statement means and assessed its importance? According to the experts, it’s crucial that we do, as the relationship we have with ourselves is a predictor of how healthy our relationship with a significant other will be. In short, if you don’t know how to love yourself, you may end up in a destructive and dysfunctional partnership.
Loving yourself may seem like a New Age type of philosophy, but if you look beyond the preachy nature of the statement, what you’ll find is that the concept is rooted in psychology. Madeeha Afridi, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, explains how the field of psychology is built on the notion of ‘knowing thyself’ and the earliest psychologists emphasised how humans needed to feel unconditional love, and to have a sense of belonging in their family, community and the world. Therefore, if you don’t get to know yourself – and self-love is a part of this – you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to dating and relationships.
“People often begin dating at a stage in their lives when they have not taken the time to get to know themselves, their personal history and relationship dynamics,” Afridi explains. “More often than not, on a conscious or subconscious level, they look for a partner to fulfil the needs that have not been met in prior relationships, which does not lay healthy foundations for a new relationship to be built on.”
There are various explanations for why a lack of self-love can lead to unhealthy personal relationships. In the book Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss into the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You, author Susan J Elliott says that a person chooses a partner with a similar degree of ‘brokenness’ as themselves and, therefore, one person cannot be much healthier than the other – “healthy people do not dance with unhealthy people,” as she puts it in the book. “When we don’t love ourselves, we have unresolved issues and early messages that state what is wrong with us. That is our comfort zone and unless we expand it, we can’t do anything differently, so we gravitate towards others who will put us down or fail to lift us up.”
Blame your upbringing
Our upbringing and past hold most of the answers as to whether we have a healthy or unhealthy relationship with ourselves. For example, if our parents never taught us how to take responsibility for our feelings, chances are we don’t have a clue that we’re even supposed to be doing that.
“When we’re not taught what it is like to take this responsibility, we depend on others to fulfil our needs – physical, emotional and others,” explains Afridi. “The only difference is that we are no longer toddlers, where it is normal for us to be dependent – we are adults who do not feel empowered to do so.”
So if you’re not even aware that you’re meant to love and take care of yourself in the same way that you love the important people in your life, then you may not be giving yourself the attention you deserve and need in order to thrive. This means that when you meet a partner, you may subconsciously be expecting them to ‘fix’ you, which adds pressure to the relationship from day one. Add to this the fact you may attract a partner who has a similar level of emotional health as yourself, and what you’re likely to end up with is a difficult and damaging relationship.
Dr Margaret Paul, author of Inner Bonding: Becoming a Loving Adult to your Inner Child, says that if we try to make a partner responsible for our happiness, we may then move on to controlling behaviour in order to have some control over getting love. “Controlling behaviour grinds down love, unless both partners are open to learning about their self-abandonment and resulting controlling behaviour,” she explains.
Dr Paul devised a six-step process called Inner Bonding as a way of teaching people how to stay present so that they can take responsibility for their feelings. She says that the end result of this is that you learn how to properly share love. “Inner Bonding is a process for learning to love yourself and take responsibility for your feelings. When you learn how to love yourself you stop trying to control others, and you define your own worth so you no longer need to get love and approval from others. Instead, you become able to share love,” she explains.
How do you know whether you love yourself enough? Elliott believes that you can identify this by learning to listen to your self-talk: when you lose something, for example, do you call yourself a “pathetic idiot?”
“Listen to the messages you give yourself and figure out whether you’d chastise a friend who was saying these same words about another friend. If you’re not a friend to yourself, you cannot be a lover to anyone else,” she says.
Dr Paul expands on this and suggests that you can identify if you have a healthy relationship with yourself by thinking about the reasons why you’re looking for a relationship. Someone who is emotionally unhealthy wants a relationship in order to get love, so that their partner will make them feel happy, safe and worthy. A loving, healthy adult, on the other hand, wants a relationship in order to share love. “We are only able to share love when we know how to take responsibility for our own feelings of happiness, safety and worthiness, and when we fill ourselves with love,” she says.
If you need further incentive to take a close look at the relationship you have with yourself, it may be worth remembering that taking this journey of self-discovery could alter the very way you act and feel. Afridi explains how women who love themselves know their own self-worth, respect themselves and have a healthy sense of belonging. They also exhibit gratitude. “Women who understand that the most important relationship they have is the one they have with themselves live with a sense of gratitude. They accept that life has challenges, but they have taken the time to invest in themselves and have learnt tools to make it through those challenges,” she explains.
Learning to love yourself isn’t easy; it can bring up self-judgement as well as self-sabotaging beliefs. Afridi says that it’s an act of courage and it takes a lot of determination; however, doing this groundwork will not only enable you to become a stronger person, but will also help you to attract a partner who’s equally as stable and emotionally healthy.
“What you get as a result of learning to love yourself is an individual with a stronger sense of personhood and who can bring a whole sense of self to a relationship. This person doesn’t look for the other person to complete them but, rather, brings a complete person to the partnership,” she concludes.
Want to learn how to love yourself?
Dr Annie Crookes, psychologist and head of psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, offers advice on some first steps that you can take…
1 Reframe negative thoughts
We tend to have negative thoughts about ourselves, or dysfunctional beliefs that may stem from past experiences. Try to catch these negative ruminations and rationalise with your inner demons – what about all the times it worked out fine? What about the times people have told you how wonderful and special you are?
2 Learn positive self-talk and gratitude
Get into the habit of writing down things you are thankful for in your life. It may feel silly at first, but research suggests it helps build inner strength. Start with little things if it helps, or start with things that will directly have an impact on your day or week.
3 Make positive lists
Make lists of things you like about yourself or the things you’ve done. It might be hard as sometimes we don’t like to talk about ourselves like this – we’re told not to boast, or we think someone else will disagree – but the lists are just for you. Keep them safe and read them regularly.
4 Stay healthy
Physical activity combats low mood and improves self-esteem. Make an effort to work some exercise into your daily routine, even if it’s gentle or only for a short time, and try to join group exercise activities as they help you to meet people. Being part of a group also helps build self-esteem.
5 Fake it till you make it!
This really is a psychological recommendation. To an extent, your brain takes signals from your body and behaviour; if you’re smiling, your brain figures you must be OK. If you’re standing tall, your brain goes into strong, leader mode. Act how you want to be feeling and the real feelings should follow.
6 Practise mindfulness meditation
Meditation teaches your mind to stay calm, and to let thoughts come and go without latching on to them. When you have a difficult past that’s left you with negative thinking patterns, learning to let these thoughts go – and observing them without acting on them or finding meaning in them – is important.
7 Set goals
Short-term distractions (shopping, eating junk food, etc) are not the solution. Long-term goals that force you to focus your mind on something positive and help you achieve something, however, are going to help. They build self-esteem and stop you from ruminating and letting your demons run wild.
8 Seek professional help
If you have experienced extreme circumstances, such as trauma, grief or abuse, and you struggle with relationships, then you should seek professional help. Don’t try to handle it alone; professionals will assist you to work out how your past is affecting you now, and will provide tools to help you move past the experiences.