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.
The Self-Love Myth
So, why do people say this — that you can’t love someone until you love yourself? 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 unable to see the goodness and beauty of other people, yet see goodness and beauty in yourself.
When my life was miserable and I was isolated and struggling, a big part of my problem was the trauma that happened when I was 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?
This 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 our awareness of what people are feeling, what their needs are – because our own needs are demanding everything we can possibly do just to hold ourselves together.
Keep in mind that self-centeredness, which often comes from hurt, fear and anger, is also a universal symptom of Childhood PTSD. 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.
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? Nobody ever tells you how. I’d always think that if I could “just love myself” I most certainly would. It’s such a maladaptation of childhood trauma to NOT love yourself.
Self-Love Is Not the Fix: It’s the By-Product of the Fix
Loving yourself doesn’t, all by itself, heal your trauma. But as you heal your trauma, you will grow to love yourself. 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 – or 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.
Change Is Possible: Here’s What’s Needed
You can change and there are three conditions. First (if you’re like me) you may not be motivated to change, or willing to do the work, unless there is a problem — unless you’re in pain. The old way stops working. When that becomes truly clear, and when you’re exhausted with the consequences of not changing, it lights a fire under you. It can make you feel sick of your life, sick of feeling empty, sick of feeling scared all the time that you’re going to lose even more.
The second condition for change is humility. That’s a weird word, I know. It doesn’t mean humiliation, although humiliation is something very familiar to most of us with CPTSD. It’s a major part of a lot of people’s traumatic childhood. Humility, by contrast, is something like peaceful 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,” you can soften your heart and be aware that you’ve made a mistake, just 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. Humility is a gentle acceptance of reality. You come down from blaming others and you come up from blaming yourself. 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 heal and bring more of our gifts to bear in contributing positively to the people around us. Humility helps you change the things you didn’t love about yourself.
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.
You Don’t Have to Know Everything: Just Begin
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 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. 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 lovable thing of all.
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