“If you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else” is something that other people basically never stop saying. Only people with high self-esteem (positive self-regard) can truly engage in healthy, long-lasting relationships, people claim. The rest of the world is out of luck. Doomed to failed relationships and/or a life alone.
And like anything that gets said over and over again, after a while people believe it to be true.
But it’s not. That particular idea is a myth. Empirical research doesn’t support it. At all. And actually points at the way that having too high self-esteem can make life and relationships more difficult. A lot of people have written on why. I’ve written an essay about it in the past myself that goes over some of the broad reasoning why.
But you don’t have to take my word for it (thanks, LeVar).
By now, however, the excuse of inadequate data is beginning to wear thin. The fascination with self-esteem that began to spread during the 1970s infected researchers too, and in the past couple of decades, a number of methodologically rigorous, large-scale investigations on the possible effects of self-esteem have been conducted. We do not think all the final answers are in, but many of them are taking shape. There is no longer any justification for simply relying on anecdotes, impressions, and untested assumptions about the value of self-esteem.
The dubious lineage of the self-esteem movement aside (and it’s an idea so deeply ingrained in our culture that I anticipate many readers may not be able to put it aside, and that’s okay), there’s another important point that’s missed when we tells others that no one will love them if they can’t first love themselves:
The unbelievable power of support systems.
Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friends
Human beings are deeply social animals. We are meant to exist within groups, within a community. Regardless of what those groups look like. Whether they’re nuclear families, chosen families, loose networks of friends and neighbors, or private clubs.
A sense of belonging is crucial to peak mental and emotional wellness. To human thriving. Emotional and social isolation is a chief risk factor for deteriorating health. Now, some people can go longer without social contact (may in fact be quite hermit-like), but typically they have some kind of sense of belonging.
I’ve personally spent parts of my life very social and others looking like a complete hermit. At times, I’ve been a social connector. Not only the person throwing all the parties but a person who introduced folks to one another, acted like a matchmaker, and was the first-line confidant of scads of friends.
At other times, I’ve literally gone months without seeing anyone other than whoever I’m living with (particularly when I’ve worked at home and moved to a new area). What’s stuck out to me about those times is that I’ve been perfectly happy during them as well, despite the stark contrast with times when I was a great deal more social. And if I really think about that it’s because I still felt a sense of belonging. I was part of a tight unit with people I lived with. And I still had the memories of all the social activity of other other points in my life — and typically virtual contact to people, offering me a way to socialize.
In fact, I see that a lot even among people who are rather hermit-y all the time: They will have online social networks and groups that they’re part of. Even if they mostly lurk and read rather than posting threads or comments, in talking with them about it, it becomes clear that they feel like part of the group. It’s part of their social identity, however small a part, however implicit.
They belong there.
It’s Really Important to Belong
There’s a reason that most inpatient mental health programs will evaluate a patient’s support systems prior to discharge: They make a huge difference re: whether someone who has struggled with mental illness will be able to cope with the outside world. Whether they will need frequent re-admissions. Whether they will be compliant with treatment. Or recover with little or no treatment.
Just like it’s difficult to stay physically healthy when you’re homeless, it’s difficult to stay mentally and emotionally healthy when you’re socially homeless, when you don’t feel like you belong anywhere. (And yes, incredibly difficult to stay mentally and emotionally healthy when you’re literally homeless as well.)
And that’s something that empty platitudes like “you can’t love anybody until you love yourself” fail to acknowledge.
Just Having a Support System Isn’t Enough, However
However, having other people love you isn’t a guaranteed ticket to self-love or anything. And not everyone who has a good support system ends up thriving. Nor do they end up having good relationships with other people (or themselves).
There do seem to be some crucial factors here that are important. I’ve noted that some people get more benefit out of support systems than others.
You Need to Find a Healthy Support System
For starters, not all support systems are created equal. While many people believe that people with low self-esteem don’t properly qualify or choose their partners carefully, a clear pattern of this hasn’t been found in research. And in fact, there are even studies (like this one) that have shown that individuals with high self-esteem not only have a range of low to high expectations for their partners, they also might be more flexible in their romantic standards for partners.
This is in stark contrast with my mother’s advice that “if you respect yourself enough, you’ll never settle.” But she told me and my sisters that after Madonna sang “Don’t go for second best, baby” on the radio. So I was under the distinct impression that it was true. (That moment sticks out rather sharply in my mind since those words so sharply conflicted with her actions towards me, which generally speaking tore down my sense of self-respect.)
Anyway, research in general has found that people with low self-esteem are about as good at picking romantic partners as anyone else. This comes as a surprise to many people.
Being Grateful for the Support
Another big thing that seems to make all the difference is gratitude. If you don’t feel, express, and show gratitude for kind treatment you receive from others, they’re far less likely to offer support. And while saying you’re grateful is a good start, I’ve typically found that the best thing you can do to show that you appreciate their help is to not squander it. To become the best version of yourself possible. And one day, when you’re doing a lot better, you can pay back that support — or even pay it forward to other people who need it.
When I finally found a good support system about a decade ago (after much trial and error), I had extremely low self-esteem. It makes sense, looking back. I’d had a really time fitting in anywhere and truly belonging. I’d suffered a number of traumas and setbacks that made it tough to feel good about myself.
Another person might have been able to shrug it off as bad luck perhaps. But I internalized it as a sign that there was something deeply wrong and unworthy about me, probably because of conditioning from my mother when I was growing up. All these years later, I can look back and see that she acted the way she did because she was deeply insecure, and the way that she could feel safe was to put other people down. Call them names. Pick them apart. Play games with them they could never possibly win.
But when I was a child, I felt like it was my fault. That if I had been a better kid or someone who was easier to be proud of that she would have treated me better.
Finding My People Helped Me Stop Hating Myself
Anyway, when I finally found my people, a funny thing happened. I started, gradually, to feel better about myself.
Here’s a post from my Facebook at that time:
Due to falling back, the commute home yesterday took place for the first time in darkness. I’ve always done my best thinking in the dark, and last night was no exception. As I was cruising along 77 North with that flamethrower-looking thingie blazing and Terminal Tower all lit up in purple on my left, I was so hit with a veritable wall of gratitude for all the good things recent years have brought to my life that I wept. I am precisely the person I want to be. I know I’ve made mistakes, and I haven’t always done everything right, but I can live with who I am now, and I’m surrounded by people I love. The sense of relief I feel because of this is incredible.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took me about four years of being in a healthy support system to write things like these (which are all Facebook posts from the same week in 2014):
This has been one of the best weeks of my life, for a number of reasons, many of which are unspeakable, also for a number of reasons (legality, common courtesy, ineffability, some matters being pending, etc). However, I can say at least that I’ve realized a great deal of things I’ve been beating myself up about for years were not actually my fault and am starting to internalize and believe that on a whole new level. And if I work really hard both inside and outside of myself, one of these days I might actually like myself. I’m at the very least starting to think I should. Big things! Emotionally, professionally, and otherwise. So many big things falling into place!
It might be difficult to understand for people who haven’t been inside my head or to a similar place inside their own, but I am finally to the point where I don’t feel like there’s anything terribly wrong with me. Personally momentous beyond description.
Ok. Woah. Not hating myself is kind of awesome. Even better, this state of mind is less fragile than I’d initially feared.
Where I Am Now
So where am I now? I still have an awesome support system, the same one. We’ve all supported each other over the years, and for the most part, it’s been really harmonious and happy. I’ve made many new friends since then. Some of them are still my friends. Others it didn’t work out long-term (on one side or the other or both). And that’s okay, too.
I no longer take any particular interpersonal incompatibility as a sign that I’m deeply flawed as a human being. I know no one is for everyone, not even me.
I managed to start my own business. Publish 3 books (with a fourth at the editor’s at the moment, hopefully on the way soon). Have a popular online blog.
So my self-esteem must be sky high, right?
No, not really. I’d say it’s moderate or even moderate-low. I don’t love myself, but I am compassionate towards myself.
I think there’s a ceiling on self-esteem for me. An upper limit. I think there always will be. Never gonna be one of those people who think they’re all that.
But the good thing is that it doesn’t matter. You can live a perfectly great life without ever having high self-esteem.
I know, I know. That’s a form of heresy to say that. It’s completely at odds with what they drilled into my head growing up (and if you were born within 10 years before or after me, it was drilled into yours, too).
But it’s the truth.
Sure, they tell you to love yourself first, but I gotta say… support systems are a huge advantage.