Monica had been adopted when she was days old.  She knows nothing about her biological family, but came to therapy because of years of abuse and neglect in her adoptive family.  She describes her mother as cold, critical, and dismissive.  Her father was physically and verbally abusive.  In retrospect, she believes he had a drinking problem, but as a child, she assumed the abuse and neglect she endured were related to something wrong with her; that if she behaved better, got better grades, anticipated her parents’ needs more quickly, she would be rewarded.  At 42, Monica is a professor at a local university, owns her own home, and has published numerous articles.  Still, she believes she is unworthy of giving or receiving love.  And to make matters more complicated, she believes that she needs to love herself before anyone else can love her and before she can love anyone else.

Must We Love Ourselves First?

Over the years, I’ve had many clients tell me the same thing.  Sometimes other therapists have reinforced that the goal of therapy is to love yourself and that through loving yourself others will love you.  Books and articles have been written on the topic of loving yourself.  If you were to use a web browser and type in the phrase “loving yourself first,” pages and pages of resources will be at your fingertips.  There exists a plethora of self-help books on the topic of loving yourself first.  Respected celebrities will tell stories of how they came to love themselves and through doing so, found the love of their lives.

I’m not saying it isn’t important to love ourselves.  I just don't believe it is the sole prerequisite for being loved or for loving another.  If Monica continued to operate under that assumption that she needed to love herself first, she might forever feel that she needs to be better, do more, become more accomplished.  Her relational future would hinge only on whether she could get to a place where she loves herself.  And if she attempted relationships and they failed, she might be more inclined to assume it was because she didn’t love herself enough.

I can’t fault any of us who hold that belief about loving ourselves first.  It almost feels like an 11th commandment:  “Thou shalt love thyself before anyone can love thee and before thee can love another.”  Many of us operate under that assumption and maybe give others the same advice.  Still, there is a major problem with this logic and it relates to how we were loved when we were younger.  Even when we were infants and toddlers.

How We Learn to Love Ourselves

Now, when someone says to me “I know I need to love myself first, before anyone can love me or before I can love anyone else,” I will usually ask if we can stop for a moment and spend some time talking about that assertion.  I’ll ask:  “If a two year old toddled over to you and started to put his arms around you, would you push him away and tell him you can’t love him until he loves himself?”  Consistently, the reply is “Of course not!  He’s two!  I would hug him.”  I’ll usually stop for a moment so that we can take this in.

In many instances, when the conversation continues, I am told:  “Well I’m not two and this is completely different.”  I take that as an invitation to consider loving ourselves from a different angle.  I’ll respond:  “Absolutely---you are not two years old, but how do you think that two year old is going to learn to love himself?” If a child learns to love him or herself through being loved, what happens when a child doesn’t receive that same love?  When parents are not loving or, worse yet, are abusive?  I think most of us would agree that we’d grow up having trouble loving ourselves.  But if we take this one step further, isn’t it possible that even as adults, if we feel loved, we can learn to love ourselves and love another?

It’s Still Important to Work on Ourselves

In no way am I dismissing the importance of working on ourselves, bettering ourselves, accepting ourselves, and even loving ourselves.  This is much of the work we do in therapy.  What I am inviting us to consider is that as we open ourselves to the possibility of relationships while we are doing work on ourselves, if we experience the love of another, like that two year old, we’ll increase the likelihood that we will love ourselves.

In many ways, this occurs in our relationship with our therapists.  If a therapist is able to offer unconditional positive regard, acceptance, and affirmation, we'll begin to feel better about ourselves.  The relationship is healing.  We attach.  We connect.  We validate.  We support.  We offer an experience of feeling loved.  I believe most therapists would agree.  I am also suggesting the possibility that we can achieve some of that love outside the therapeutic relationship and that can also be healing.  We don’t need to wait until we’ve “graduated” from therapy to experience the love of another and, through that love, feel better about ourselves.

Loving Ourselves Through Being Loved

Monica and I have had many conversations about this.  At first, she continued to assert that she had to feel better about herself before she could love another or be loved.  And I absolutely supported her in wanting to feel better about herself and accept herself.  In addition, however, I invited her to consider how she could let others know her in some of the ways I did.  We gradually moved to a place where a synergy arose.  Working on herself while attempting to love and let others love her felt more natural.  And doing this while in therapy, we also had the opportunity to look at these relationships closely.  We could identify those that supported the negative messages she received growing up and we could identify those that challenged her to think differently and more compassionately about herself.

I’m reminded of a group I facilitated for children who were in a group residential facility.  They had been placed there due to abuse and/or neglect.  All of them had experienced such severe abuse that they were removed from their homes.  Every Thursday for several years, I took eight of these children, along with one of my colleagues, to a local animal shelter.  The young people helped clean crates, wash food bowls, and spray down the floor.

What was astonishing, however, was what happened after all the cleaning.  Dogs were jumping and licking and knocking kids over.  There was laughter and giggling.  I remember one little 11 year old boy in particular, Cody, who picked at his skin, rarely spoke, and never made eye contact.  One day he was sitting in the grass with six puppies.  They were all over him, under him, tickling him, and one had even fallen asleep in his lap.  They were loving him and he felt it.  To this day, I believe that on that Thursday afternoon, as we left that animal shelter, Cody felt love from those puppies.  And I believe he liked himself just a little bit more as a result.

You don’t have to love yourself first.  It helps to have that foundation from which to build future relationships, but we can also learn to love ourselves through experiencing the love of another.  And we can love another even when we do not completely love ourselves.

...let me love you, a heart of numbness, gets brought to life, I'll take you there…let me love you and I will love you until you learn to love yourself…

—Ne-Yo