In a culture that values independence, self-reliance, and the Almighty Individual, we are easily seduced into believing that we can — and ought to — grow and heal on our own. One of the ways this shows up in therapy is when clients state emphatically that “You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.”
Hmmm. Is that true?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the impulse behind this beloved bit of pop psychology. Often it is uttered by people who have realized that they have been looking to others to fill a longstanding feeling of emptiness, of unworthiness. They notice that going into relationship from this sense of lacking creates an undue demand on their partners (or friends, or family members), and the relationships either don’t last or are fraught with conflict. They notice that they don’t regard themselves with kindness and they sense that moving into relationship from a place of loving self-worth might yield an altogether different kind of relationship.
By questioning this beloved aphorism, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s altogether false. I’m just not convinced that it’s the whole picture. While I believe that it can be helpful to a point, I think the bigger picture of growth and healing requires a more nuanced and paradoxical container. Because while we may love more fully and freely when we have a sense of our own inherent worth and lovability, we learn how to love ourselves in the context relationship. Our foundational sense of self (from which blooms self-love) develops through our earliest relationships; when our brains are not yet differentiated enough to even know that we are discrete entities, we are learning about our value, lovability, and worth from our families, friends, teachers, and environment. However we feel about ourselves as adults is a reflection of accumulated relationships and experiences (as well as our adult capacity for self-awareness). While personal effort and self-reflection are invaluable in the process of claiming our wholeness, so too are relationships with other people who reflect our basic goodness. Our sense of self is more of a conversation than a static quality: my relationships inform my sense of self, and my sense of self informs my relationships.
For some people, the work lay more in learning to how hold for themselves the healthy reflection of worth that is conveyed to them by life and loved ones. For others, the work may be in finding people who are able to offer this form of loving reflection. Regardless, this is not work that needs to be done alone, in isolation, when one is “ready.” Rather it can be supported in the laboratory of authentic human relationship.
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Rafia Rebeck, MEd, MA, LPCC, is trained in the Hakomi Method of Psychotherapy. She offers a warm, sincere, and safe approach for those who seek personal transformation through mindfulness. Please feel welcome to get in touch by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. If this blog postcard was meaningful for you, please feel free to share it with others who may benefit.