In recent years, I’ve seen an idea pop up in articles or blog posts about self-love, and it goes something like this: “If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others” or “You need to learn how to love yourself before you can love others.”
But is this true? I think it’s simplistic.
Even if you struggle to love yourself, you may still be able to love another person. Even if you struggle to perceive your own worth and good qualities, you may still see what’s good in other people. You may be biased against yourself, and blinded to what’s in you. But your perception of other people may be more generous and loving.
Telling people that they can’t love others unless they first love themselves seems hopelessly pessimistic and discouraging. It can make people seriously doubt if they can ever experience the joy and closeness of a healthy relationship, unless they first meet the goal of loving themselves. (Also, loving yourself isn’t “all or nothing.” There are days when you may not be able to stand yourself, and other days when you’re more accepting of who you are and kinder to yourself.)
That said, self-loathing may encourage a loathing of other people. Meaning that a lack of compassion for yourself may also combine with a lack of empathy or compassion for others. This is one of the potential dangers of self-loathing, especially an entrenched and persistent self-loathing.
Another danger of self-loathing is destructiveness. You may be driven to hurt yourself and to damage your relationships with people. You wind up behaving in unloving ways and hurting them.
So yes, self-loathing can be destructive and needs to be addressed. But I still don’t accept the idea that you need to reach a state of self-love in order to love others.
Maybe it’s also useful to distinguish between love as a feeling and love as a set of behaviors. Ideally, the two go together, but actions are generally more important. For instance, I’m not impressed by people who claim to love their spouse or children but then mistreat them. Do you really love the people you mistreat? Love shouldn’t just be something that’s felt “deep down”; it needs to manifest as action.
I do encourage people to behave in loving ways to themselves, even if they’re not feeling much love for themselves. Likewise, treating others with love and respect, even when you’re in a low mood, is something to aim for. Behaviors can also have the effect of strengthening certain feelings and attitudes, including the love you feel towards yourself and others.