"You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else," said every women's magazine I smuggled home from my Nana's house when I could still count my age on two hands. At 8 years old, I had no idea what this meant. I didn't understand how someone could possibly not love themselves. After all, I was queen! But then puberty hit. Self-awareness morphed into self-loathing and eventually masochistic diets. I was never enough, especially when it came to relationships. When politely someone reminded me that I had to love myself before loving someone else, I rolled my eyes and called them on their utter bullcrap.
The phrase sounded like some woo-woo excuse for single, marginally successful people like me to pile even more blame on their deeply broken selves. A phrase to excuse the thing that everyone else could see but them — their impolite manners, their bad breath, their impulsive habits, whatever. I was confident that my failed relationships weren't because I didn't love myself, but because I was just suited for rejection. That story I told myself got more specific: I was not skinny enough, not pretty enough, and not rich enough, and that why nobody loved me romantically. End of story.
Then, a little over a year ago, a friend and I were talking about her relationship and my singledom at a bar on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. It was loud, but we were holed up in a corner in a deep talk. In the moment, she asked if I really wanted to find someone to be in a serious relationship. (I have a history of rejecting people, and then still blaming myself for being too rejectable.) I told my friend, "Yes, I actually finally do want a relationship, but I can't find one. I'm beginning to think I'm unlovable."
Without getting sentimental, she simply asked me, "How can someone love you if that's how you value yourself and talk to yourself?" It would have been easy to dismiss her question, which sounded a whole lot like the phrase I earlier termed "bullcrap," especially late on a Saturday night at a sceney bar, but something stuck with me.
I thought about all the men I've been attracted to in my life, and while I love a healthy dose of self-deprecation, none of them were outwardly mean to themselves or called themselves undeserving of love. I was downright cruel to myself, and suddenly everything my therapist and those women's magazines had been telling me for years made tangible sense.
I would love to tell you that I told myself, "OK, time to love yourself, now go!" and that suddenly, I loved myself like I love Rihanna, but that was not the case. Instead, it was a slow burn. Loving myself meant letting go of contact with exes who weren't bad people, but who didn't value me properly. When the person I'd spent two years obsessing over texted me even though he had a girlfriend, I no longer texted him back. Letting a person who didn't "pick" me still flirt with me was a direct way to undercut my value. So that had to go, too.
Then, I did something super specific that I wouldn't necessarily recommend to everyone — but it worked for me. I started a podcast with my business partner called "51 First Dates," in which I had to start going on a date a week. At the beginning, each time I faced rejection post-first date, I would spiral. "It's me!" I'd say. But slowly, by talking about the dates, having amazing support from a best friend and cohost, and feeling the solidarity from our growing group of supportive listeners, I realized that I need to take the advice I was giving all of them — romantic rejection isn't a reflection of your worth.
I can now honestly say that my entire perspective on dating has changed. If I don't get a text after a first date, I think, "His loss," not, "I'm a loser." I still beat myself up, but I don't do it constantly. And for the first time in a very long time, I've been able to feel like my 8-year-old queen self and even let caring and kind partners who value me into my life.
I do want to acknowledge that while I suffer from anxiety and that in many ways, that anxiety contributed to my detrimental thought patterns, there are people with chronic mental health issues for whom "loving themselves" feels impossible. "If you are clinically depressed this concept is particularly challenging," says clinical psychologist and host of The Web Radio Show, Dr. Josh Klapow. "It's hard to love yourself when you don't love how you feel." And personally, I can say that going to therapy played a huge role in my shift in perspective.
If you are reading this and going, "OK, cool, lucky you, but how am I going to love myself without doing a podcast, you weirdo?" I totally hear you. If I were reading this, I would be thinking the same thing. For me, getting into the habit of loving myself — at least a little bit — had a lot to do with remembering to why it's important to be good to myself. It's not about getting the boyfriend or girlfriend, it's about me. "Loving yourself means caring for, honoring and taking care of you," explains Dr. Klapow. "You sacrifice you, and you cannot be fully present for someone else."
"All of this comes down to the statement we hear when we fly, 'Should the cabin lose oxygen, masks will drop. Place your mask on first before assistant anyone else," adds Dr. Klapow. "There are three components to every relationship. You, your partner and the relationship itself. Every component must be nurtured and cared for. It is you and your partner’s responsibility to care for yourselves and the relationship and each other. However, the most powerful impact on you is you."
You can't control the majority of things in this world, but you can control how you treat others, and equally importantly, how you treat yourself. Maybe start by trying to do one nice thing for yourself today, whether that means taking some time to get to yoga, or taking yourself out for a soft-serve ice cream cone. Baby steps.
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