By Deborah W. Dobbs | Contributor
You’ve probably heard this or seen at least one of a thousand memes about it: to love others, you must first love yourself. While it sounds like sage advice, I don’t agree with it. Not one bit. I’ve witnessed a tremendous amount of love poured out from some of the most genuinely self-deprecating individuals. I’ve known people who were brutally hard on themselves but shared love generously with friends, family, and acquaintances. When a person chooses to love another, the inner critic can’t always stop him.
Before I go any further, know that whenever I talk or write about love, I’m referring to acts, not feelings associated with love or being in love. The love I write about involves patience, service, compassion, encouragement, forgiveness, and acceptance. This love might be romantic, but it also includes the love given to a friend, parent, or child.
While I don’t believe that people can’t love others unless they love themselves (first or ever), I do believe they could experience love better.
I ran this idea—the relationship between self-love and the love for others—by my team of practitioners at The Counseling Place, and of course, I explored the Internet. I learned I’m not alone in my opinion, and some themes and connections appeared again and again.
The Connection Between Happiness & Love
Happiness consists of various components, with an emphasis on overall well-being and emotional health. While happiness and love make good company, they are not equal. Love impacts, but is not a direct route to, happiness. Happiness, on the other hand, directly affects how well a person can give and receive love. One’s level of happiness also influences how a person manages the less desirable feelings (like anxiety and grief) love sometimes brings.
If individuals tend to focus on all the things they don’t like about themselves, they are limiting their happiness. By limiting their own happiness, they also reduce their ability to engage in deep, meaningful, loving relationships. They can love but not as fully.
Love & Reciprocity
Love involves giving and receiving. When people don’t care much for themselves, they might think they’re unworthy of receiving love and, therefore, resist accepting love from others. This rejection of love keeps a relationship off balance. At some point, denying another’s acts of love can damage the relationship.
Sometimes the refusal to accept gestures of love is an under-the-radar way to exert power or feel in control. That dynamic, however, weakens bonds and prevents a relationship from thriving. Once again, people can share their love with others, but if they won’t accept it in return, they miss out.
Self-Acceptance, Happiness, & Love
Self-acceptance was the most prevalent topic in the feedback I received from my team. Kyleigh Johnson, a therapist who works mostly with children, helps young people lift the burden of what’s missing and learn to see the positives they already have. She also works with clients to address perfectionism, a nemesis of self-acceptance.
Johnson pointed me to The Gifts of Imperfection, in which author Brené Brown emphasizes the difference between striving to be our best (healthy) and perfectionism (not at all healthy). Brown describes perfectionism as a way to avoid pain (the idea that if we’re perfect, bad things won’t happen). Brown says it’s a shield, “It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
Self-acceptance strengthens mental health and supports happiness. Self-acceptance means a person understands that being flawed is human and that imperfections simply differentiate one human from another. Self-acceptance involves showing oneself compassion, patience, and grace. It includes forgiving oneself for mistakes and forgetfulness.
All of these acts are also acts of love. When a person chooses self-acceptance, love can flow more freely, and we can all experience love better.
Editor’s Note: Deborah W. Dobbs is the Executive Director of The Counseling Place, a nonprofit agency providing affordable, professional and education services and counseling. Reach her at 469.283.0242 or couselingplace.org.