How does self-love impact our love of others?

"You cannot truly love others until you learn to love yourself". It's a well known saying, familiar to many of us through family, friends, and even modern media.

Now, can I get an amen in here?
It has always seemed to me an accepted, unchallenged idea. I know that it's something I never really questioned until I started to explore the world of romantic love. It made me a little angry, actually. I was perfectly capable of love, damn it, and there were times where I felt miserable in my own skin. I loved my boyfriend, I loved my family, I loved my friends and none of that hinged on how I felt about myself. It was like when people would say you don't know what love is when you're a teenager. How demeaning! How dare someone that isn't in my head tell me how I do or don't feel.
I would say that I still feel that way in part. It's a simplistic idea that doesn't consider people who learn to love themselves through the love of others, nor does it take into account the unconditional love that people feel for their family or close friends. There are many people who struggle with self-love, but know that they are loved by others and that knowledge is what keeps them struggling with it rather than giving up all together.

While all of this is true, I'd like to explore the truth that I see in the phrase itself, because these days I see a lot in it, but only once I picked apart what it actually means. I've broken it down into three major points that I've picked up from the subtext of that simple phrase.

1. Self-love is self-improvement
To work on one's ability to love oneself is to work on improving oneself in all aspects physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It is an act of understanding oneself better, knowing your boundaries, your desires, things that are worth changing and things that are worth compromising over. In the moments where I have made active steps towards improving myself, I've learned something new about the people around me. It might be that I see something in myself that I love which I can now love in others, or unpacked internal conflicts that have made me act abrasively towards those I love who don't deserve it. In loving myself better, I learn new and better ways to love the people that care for me, because my mind is clearer and my heart is lighter, revealing a greater capacity for love in them both.

2. We accept the love we think we deserve
If you feel like crap, and someone treats you as such, that evil, sadistic little voice in your head will have an easier job of convincing you that this is exactly how you deserve to be treated. Self-love is like an armour, and with every move you make towards it, you ad another plate to that armour. It shields you from disrespect, mistreatment, and manipulation. It gives you clearer vision to spot perpetrators of abuse versus people who may criticise you in an attempt to help you grow. It allows you to truly measure the way someone is treating you versus how you deserve to be treated: not so highly that you lose touch with reality, but no worse than you treat yourself. It also allows you to be more selective, to only give love to those who deserve it from you, and you get to decide what that means.

I feel comfortable saying that the love I feel for others now, now that I put more stock in my own importance, is a deeper, warmer, more fulfilling love. There are high points, low points, moments of sadness and anger and frustration, but with a knowledge that I'll be all right in the end. It is, undoubtedly, a better love because it enhances the feelings about myself I already have, rather than filling up an empty space.

3. In the moments where love can hurt badly, your own self-worth becomes a buffer

Part of what makes the love I feel for those around me better now is that I've been able to take the time to understand the relationships between us. It's easier for me to acknowledge when I've been an asshole, for example, when I'm not shaken to the bone at the idea of being seen by others as a bad person. Any issue or mistake that proves the little voice in our heads right can be devastating, but if there is even one thing that you can love about yourself it cushions the blow. When self-loves doesn't move into the territory of arrogance, it can actually give you space to acknowledge your flaws in a more positive way. You start to notice places where you could be a better friend/child/partner to the people around you and have the energy to make changes rather than being stuck in the negative space unable to do anything.
Image via CreateHER
What I feel it boils down to is that there are different ways of experiencing love, and a lack of self-love makes it more difficult for you to give and receive it. Even the smallest steps towards it can create stronger, more affirming relationships. It's just a different kind of love, and I'd say it's one worth striving for.

My final point is that I'd ask you to notice that I always speak about working towards self-love rather than achieving it. I can say honestly that I'm not 100% there yet, and that most people are not either. However, that doesn't block you or I from the blessings that self-love can bring. Any movement towards it is beneficial, and I believe that is another piece of nuance that the original phrase is missing.

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