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The Self-Love Myth

One of the messages that’s been drilled into us by popular culture is that “you have to love yourself before you can love someone else.” This is something people usually tell you when you’ve had your heart broken and you feel totally worthless.

And for a lot of years, every time somebody said it to me, I would feel like I must be some kind of different species than everyone else because there were times when I didn’t particularly love myself.  In fact, there were times when I outright hated myself. But there was never a time when I didn’t love some other people very deeply. 

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So, why do people say this — that you can’t love someone until you love yourself? Because I think the opposite may be true – you can’t really love yourself until you love other people. I don’t think it’s possible to be still incapable of seeing the goodness and beauty of other people and yet see goodness and beauty in yourself.  One comes with the other. And here’s why I say that.

When my life was miserable and I was isolated and struggling, it was somewhat driven by Childhood PTSD and what had happened to me as a kid. But mostly I was miserable because of problems I was having with other people in present time, as an adult. A good part of why I was having problems with people was because I wasn’t very good at caring about them – or paying attention to them, feeling empathy for them. Have you ever been in that place where you couldn’t give that? 

That extreme self-focus is normal for adults with unhealed trauma, often because we’re in pain and this naturally sucks the focus away from what’s going on around us. It affects the social dynamics, how other people are feeling, what their needs are – because our own needs are demanding everything we can possibly do just to hold ourselves together. 

And you know that self-centeredness, which comes from hurt and fear and anger – it’s a symptom of Childhood PTSD. It’s a universal symptom. It’s not our fault we got that way but each day that we’re still not able to form mutually caring relationships with other people, we love ourselves a little less. Maybe you do OK for a spell and then your PTSD flares up and drives you to lash out at someone and damage that relationship. Even as the words are coming out of your mouth you’re thinking, “Oh no! Here it comes! I’m doing it again! I’m overreacting. I’m being harsh. This person’s never going to want me in their life again!” And sometimes that’s true. It’s a terrible kind of shame if you’ve ever felt that. 

When you feel that way, you’ll sometimes find yourself among people who advise people like you to “just love yourself”. I’m sure it looks like that’s the thing missing and that if you could just manufacture that self-love, everything would be great. But how, right? Nobody ever tells you how. I’d always think that if I could “just love myself” I totally would. Really! It’s such a maladaptation of childhood trauma to NOT love yourself. 

But here’s the secret. Self-love is not the FIX that’s needed, it’s the BYPRODUCT of the fix that’s needed. Something definitely needs to change, and when you change THAT, the self-love will come. But you can’t go straight to self-love and expect everything else to be solved. It doesn’t really make any sense, does it?

When you don’t love yourself, it’s a cry for change. And change can be hard. You’re not going to do it from just reading a book or taking a class or making a promise – and doing all these things only because someone is about to leave you and you’re desperate to stop them. 

Changes that stick – especially changing the hurts that are installed in you at a deep level – these changes are rare because they take a lot of focus and consistency.  

But you CAN change and there are three conditions. First, if you’re like me, you won’t even be interested in changing or willing to do the work unless there is a problem — unless you’re in PAIN. The old way stops working. When that becomes really, really clear and when you’re exhausted with the consequences of not changing, it lights a fire under you. It’s going to make you feel sick of your life, sick of feeling empty. You are going to be sick of feeling scared all the time that you’re going to lose even more. 

The second condition for change is that it requires HUMILITY. Now, that’s a weird word. It doesn’t mean humiliation although humiliation is something we are all very familiar with if we have CPTSD. It’s a major part of a lot of people’s traumatic childhood.

Humility, on the other hand, is something you can think of like acceptance. Humility is the ability to face a problem without defensiveness and without blame. Normally, any kind of loss or failure triggers people — and not just people with CPTSD, but all of us – when we feel like we’ve done something wrong we will often be tempted to start pointing fingers. And sometimes shifting that requires coming down a level from a position. You know that phrase, “get off your high horse”? 

It’s like coming down to everybody’s level. Instead of saying, “Well you did this to me” or “What do you expect after what happened to me,“ when you are down at everybody else’s level you can soften your heart and be aware that you’ve made a mistake. Like everybody does. 

So, maybe you have a harsh behavior that sometimes hurts people. For you, it could be anger, or trying to control people, or criticizing them, or ghosting them when you feel uncomfortable. That would be a time to come down a level. 

Humility can also involve a step UP, where you stop seeing yourself as this pitiful loser who is hopelessly damaged by childhood trauma and who can’t possibly be expected to recover or change or show up for other people. Because that’s not true either. So, humility is a gentle acceptance of reality. You come down from blaming others and you come up from blaming yourself. And It’s a beautiful state, where you just drop all the BS and the blame and the self-attack, and just be with the truth of your situation. 

This is a powerful antidote to shame – just facing the problem humbly. We hurt people. We make mistakes. And we are strong, resilient, kind-hearted people who can make good on that, we can heal and bring more of our gifts to bear in contributing positively to the people around us. That part feels good. Humility goes a long way toward making it possible for us to make that change and to change the things we didn’t love about ourselves.

But here comes the third and hardest condition for change, and it’s EFFORT. If we’re going to change, we’re going to have to work at it. There’s just no way around it. A desire to change, the courage to face honestly where we are now, and the willingness to work consistently, daily, deeply (sometimes), and beyond our comfort zone — these are the things that work. 

These are the conditions: Pain, humility and effort. We hurt, we stop making excuses, then we do our best. It’s not rocket science, but it is logical. Now, these are not things that are just going to change automatically because you decided to change. Change is hard. So, these criteria, these conditions for change will set you up for a radical transformation over time.  I know this because I’ve both changed and I’ve failed to change many, many times. And when I’ve successfully changed this is how I did it. 

Today I’m miles and miles beyond where I was at the beginning of my healing. I have a long way to go, just like everyone. But I’m way past the highest point I thought was even possible for me in my life.  And each time I was able to make a breakthrough and change and grow in my capacity to love people and listen to them and be caring toward them, I’d think “Hey, I’m pretty good at this! You know what? I can do this. I’m making a difference!” 

And when this is happening – I’m feeling it because I’m doing it – everything changes. And I discover that I love myself. And when I love myself, I’m a lot more at ease with other people. So, it’s a positively reinforcing cycle. I couldn’t love myself when I was focused only on MY feelings and MY hurts and trying to just stop being self-hating and just love myself.  I had to take steps up – look outward

And I will say, when this started to really happen, this is when my spirituality went from a vague idea into a well of strength within me. I needed strength not just to imagine change, but to hang in there with the changes I was making and not give up. Cause there are always times when you are trying as hard as you can, and it just seems like it’s going nowhere. And you think… “what is the point of all of this?” And then out of nowhere, something good happens – you get lucky, you get a burst of healing, and then you have more capacity to pay attention to your relationships, to hear people, to be good to them, and then the good cycle continues. And you find you love yourself.

If you’re not loving yourself yet, and you can’t see this yet, I’m going to tell you: You have precious intrinsic worth and you are worthy to be loved – even when – and this is true for every person alive – even when you can’t love yourself. 

Don’t get too wrapped up in the struggle.  Don’t go hating yourself over mistakes and things you can’t help. Keep your eyes on who you aim to be, the best part of you, and keep working to liberate that part of you, out from under the layers of all you’ve been through. A lot of CPTSD behaviors developed to protect you – checking out, being defensive, isolating. That’s what the layers are for. They are how you protected yourself when those were the only tools you had. Now you’re gradually adding new tools, and you can release those layers and come back to who you really are. And who you really are is very, very loveable.

Maybe some people can love themselves at will, but I can’t. When I cleaned up my life, I became more considerate of other people and that helped a lot, to feel better about myself, to approve of myself. 

There were certain people I loved hugely, even when I hated myself, but it wasn’t the kind of love that did them a lot of good. It was complicated love. I wasn’t very present. I’m better at loving other people now, and that helps me BE loved more. That makes it possible to love myself more, and that’s how this good cycle continues. You can start exactly where you are right now.

We’re all learning to love, some faster than others. And just in case you fear that being loving and caring will just make you vulnerable to being taken advantage of, or even abused, that’s more what happens when you don’t have boundaries. You can love and have boundaries. As both aspects of yourself get stronger, the love and the boundaries, it creates something like a force field around you. You don’t get messed with so much.  You don’t get mistreated so much. You’ll have a natural radar for hurtful people and if they are unkind, you’ll see their mistreatment for what it is very quickly. You’ll get a better sense of who to trust, who is solid. You’ll grow these qualities yourself, and this will make you more open-hearted because you can afford to be. And it’ll make you even easier to love right back. Your positive actions make you feel more REAL, more a part of the world, more a part of the forces of good. That’s what you really want, and what’ll make you feel good about yourself. 

So, you can’t love yourself yet? No problem. Try just taking positive actions for yourself. Do what you can to help others feel safe and loved too. I’m not saying be codependent or put up with abuse or just forget yourself and give all your energy to other people. I’m saying start taking positive actions. You know what to do. You know already. This is the part of you that you couldn’t feel before. This goodwill within you is very powerful, and the most loveable thing of all.

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