The Biggest Lie We Keep Telling About What Makes You Ready For A Relationship
My partner asked me to attend a conference with him in Mexico, held by an organization that he is a member of. I love Mexico, probably more than any place in the world, but attending huge gatherings fills me with dread. The venue was not appealing, and there was nothing on the list of presentations that drew me in. Besides, I had a lot of things I wanted to do with that time, including celebrating a fun birthday with a good friend. He often accompanies me to places that wouldn’t be his first choice. I knew it would mean a lot to him if I went—but I do a lot for him, so was this time really necessary?
So if I truly love myself, what would my answer be? Wouldn’t the principle of self-love dictate that I should do what would make me happy?
The trap of chasing self-love.
The concept of self-love has been circulating the self-help world for years. I read it everywhere:
“You can’t be in a relationship with someone else until you love yourself.”
“You can’t love anyone else until you love yourself.”
“You can only love someone as much as you love yourself.”
I don’t believe it.
All the statements above are clichés that helps us hide from the risks and challenges of learning to love, because we would be waiting forever.
Love is a concept, a feeling. And like feelings of all kinds, the feeling of love is seasonal, cyclical, and goes up and down. It’s not a goal that you’ll ever arrive at and be able to check off your list. It’s something that takes much of a lifetime to actually understand.
Loving anyone, including ourselves, is also based on behavior. It is a skill set that grows from the actions we take. It’s something we can become better at as we practice, but it will never arrive at a steady place of existence, and that’s okay because it's a part of the human condition we are share.
Self-love is as complicated as loving someone else is. More realistic goals are ones of self-acceptance—appreciating your strengths, accepting your challenges, and feeling good enough. As with all kinds of love, it is more about action than feeling; in other words, it has more to do with the steady everyday things we do to show love than the topsy-turvy spin of emotions.
Loving others grows our self-love.
One component of self-love is self-respect; this feeling is steadier and more attainable than self-love. How we care for others is one way to increase it, because when we’re able to make an impact on humans, animals, and the environment in a positive way, our self-respect blossoms.
Countless studies illustrate the relationship between helping others and our view of ourselves: we know that those who help strangers and neighbors more often tend to have higher self-esteem1, and the benefits don’t stop there. Dr. Suzanne Richards, at the University of Exeter Medical School, reviewed 40 studies from the past 20 years and discovered that volunteering is even associated with direct benefits like lower vulnerability to depression, increased well-being, and a 22 percent reduction in the risk of dying early.
In thinking about the trip with my partner, I was seriously tempted to spend the time with my friend instead. What was more true was that I knew it would mean a lot to him if I went with him, and it felt like the right thing to do—in a self-sacrificing way, in the way that honors what I know about the importance of generosity both for the receiver and the giver. He is incredibly giving to me, even when it’s inconvenient, and I knew I would respect myself more if I showed up for him in the same way.
Self-love is not a preoccupation with the self. It is finding a balance in your body, mind, and spirit, so you can be present in the world (including in your relationships) as the best version of yourself possible.
If there is one ingredient in loving ourselves that we can be sure of, it is the love we give to others.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.