By Jordan Ferranto, LPC, ATR
Our present culture is saturated with highly consumable self-help. Instagram is full of “mental health advocates” who post inspirational quotes about mental health and healing, providing any willing Instagram user with a place to start. Wonderful as it is that caring for yourself and your mental health has become more mainstream and socially acceptable in many spheres, there are some consequences resulting from the oversimplification of healing processes. How many times have you heard, “You have to love yourself first before you can love anyone else.” There are many ways in which these words may ring true. But it’s also incredibly oversimplified. The phrasing, taken out of context as it often is, excludes much of the nuance involved in loving both yourself and others. It does not adequately capture the full spectrum of experience relating to love. The phrasing also sets up a specific sequence of events: first, love yourself, then love others. This sequencing creates the impossible task of deciding when I’ve finished doing something that is ever changing, evolving and wavering depending on the various complexities of my particular existence.
It’s true, operating under the belief behind this phrase can lead us down a path to realization, sure, but it can also create a trap. What happens when I come to the place in this process where I start to wonder, “but how do I actually learn to love myself?” We end up tossing around a plethora of ideas that leave us aching for a clearer answer and aching even more to be loved by another, which we swiftly codify as incorrect, after all, we’re supposed to do our own loving right?
But what if I’ve never known love? What if my family of origin was not loving? What if the people who were supposed to love me, harmed me? What if I’ve never had close friends or partners? How then, do I generate a feeling for myself that I’ve never felt from others? Laurie Kahn writes, “Some people say it is most important that we love ourselves, but love is not a solo performance; it requires the resonance of another. If you have not known love, loving yourself is impossible.”– Baffled By Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved ones. Yet another impossible task.
Self-love is an internalized form of love. In an ideal world, we learn about love from our primary caretakers. We are not born with an inherent ability to love ourselves; we learn first to accept love from others. Ideally, we soak up the love we receive from caretakers like a sponge to create an internal and infinite resource of unconditional love that we can draw from later. Once we get to the stage of development where we become differentiated from our caretakers, our internalized love can develop into self-love, which helps us navigate various life experiences and relationships with stability.
The trap here is that we take this differentiation process too far. Many of us western-centric folks think that our life’s goal is to be independent from others. Success means to not need anyone. Thus comes the thought, I should be able to love myself without depending on anyone else. There is some truth to this. We want to be emotionally mature adults who do not rely only on feedback from others to feel good about ourselves. But in focusing solely on independence we lose the value and necessity of relationships and we shut down our ability to accept the gifts that come with them.
Having relationships that are meaningful and rewarding is helpful in establishing the certainty within ourselves that we are worth knowing and loving. It is difficult to accept love from others or from ourselves if we feel we are unworthy of it. Jean Baker Miller writes, “We cannot develop a sense of worth unless the people important to us convey that they recognize and acknowledge our experience…to feel more connected with others in the course of experiencing one’s feelings – rather than less connected – also builds a sense of worth” – The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy & in Life. It could be that a big part of developing self-anything is involving people that we trust.
What if we rewrite this phrase? Can it sound something like: “Learn to accept love in all its forms from others. Use it to create an internal reservoir of love from which you can replenish yourself and others.” Let us also learn to question the absolutes we encounter in our daily consumption of self-help commodities and challenge ourselves to create our own truths.
Curious how to deeply explore love for yourself and others? Contact Jordan today to learn more.