You Don’t Have to Love Yourself

a hand holding a mirror
Image by David Goehring / CC BY

The neighbor’s kid was yelling “I am a SU-PER-STAR!” repeatedly at max volume. Oh, honey, I thought. That path just leads to ruin…

Because it’s not true what they told us. Not true at all. Despite the best intentions of the self-help gurus, the pop psychologists, and many, many parents, being told we were special for just being us, that we are perfect just the way we are, feeling good about ourselves for no reason at all? It didn’t work out well for us. It set us up for unrealistic expectations without even a whisper of a plan.

Better predictors of success and overall emotional well-being have consistently been found in self-efficacy (the extent of a person’s ability to set tasks and achieve goals) and self-compassion (the ability of a person to forgive themselves when they make mistakes).

There was a correlation between success and high self-esteem, to be sure, but they got the causality backwards. It wasn’t that people who started out feeling good about themselves became successful. It was the opposite. People who had become successful came to feel good about themselves. 

And the worst corollary of the self-esteem movement might just be “If you don’t love yourself, how can you love anybody else?”

I had heard it a million times. “You have to do things for yourself. Love yourself first.” Independence was championed at all costs and healthy interdependence clipped to “dependence.” And I heard it so often and from people I respected, I presumed it had to be true.

But it’s not. It’s really not.

As Twenge and Campbell write in the The Narcissism Epidemic:

Many people believe that self-admiration is good for relationships as long as it doesn’t balloon into narcissism–in other words, you have to love yourself to be able to love someone else. This is a pervasive belief in our culture…This sounds good, but there’s little evidence that it’s true. People low in self-love or self-esteem are somewhat clingy, seek reassurance of their partner’s love, and can get hung up on their insecurities, but they choose partners just as well as everyone else and genuinely care about their partners.

In fact, they argue, the biggest error one can make with self-love is in the opposite direction, having too much of it.

Narcissists may seem like a tasty treat when you first meet them, but they are not. Narcissism is absolutely corrosive to social relationships. People who have been deeply involved with narcissists can tell you this. These relationships destroy trust in others. You learn not to trust anyone after being mistreated by someone so charming and likable. You also lose trust in yourself. If you couldn’t see this coming, what does that tell you about your judgment? And then, to dip the wound in salt, relationships with narcissists are remembered and ruminated about for a long time. People ponder what went wrong; they ruminate about the warning signs they should have seen; and they waste a lot of time trying to figure out what made the narcissist into a narcissist.

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So if you’re one of those people who are low in self-love, don’t worry. It doesn’t make your love any less valuable, real, or healthy. It doesn’t make you incapable of love, and it sure as hell doesn’t make you unlovable.

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For more information on the limitations of and misconceptions about self-esteem, please see this peer-reviewed literature review by Baumeister, et. al.

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1 Comment

  1. Omg!
    I had this exact same argument with my last few therapists.
    My contention was that self esteem comes from somewhere, and that it’s not actually something we can give ourselves.
    We come babies, and, while we aren’t actually a clean slate, our self esteem and self worth pretty much are. The people who are able to “love themselves” started out with others loving them and showing them their worth first.
    I’ve known lots of people (myself included), who have low levels of of self love, who are extremely empathetic, compassionate, and loving.

    I’m glad to have a resource to prove that the evidence supports my contention!

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