NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE ELSE SAYS
When I was younger, I used to envision elaborate scenes of families doing everyday things like sitting around a table, sharing meals, and sharing stories. They were happy, loving, functional families. Normal, and a far cry from what my family was.
I am the product of an affair, quite literally, and a divorced family where both of my parents went on to remarry (my father going back to his first wife). I wouldn’t call either of their relationships examples of what to emulate—both marriages riddled with lies, immense resentment, and screaming matches that would make John McEnroe blush. I didn’t know my parents together, or at least consciously. They separated before my earliest memory. While I have no means of quantifying their love for each other, I don’t have any memories of them in the same room together after their divorce either. Not at any of my tennis matches, plays, or parent-teacher conferences. Love, for as long as I can remember, was complicated. It was messy, controlling, loud, and more than anything, dysfunctional.
It’s why generalizations about love and romantic relationships have always troubled me. Incredibly black and white, they leave no room for the undeniable gray area that are relationships. One that makes my skin crawl, is the need to love yourself before someone else can.
“We cannot expect someone else to love us if we do not love ourselves.” A universally accepted truth, right?
But don’t most of us learn how to love through others? Whatever kind of love you witnessed in childhood is either going to be the love you chase or the love you run from as an adult. Ultimately, the way we learn to love and receive love is from the family and romantic relationships we witness. And that influences our ability, and how we choose, to self-love.
Whatever kind of love you witnessed in childhood is either going to be the love you chase or the love you run from as an adult.
So, how do you love yourself, when you’ve never had role models around you that loved themselves?
Like most people, the start of my romantic journey kicked off in elementary school when a boy I had a crush on called me ugly. “If he’s being mean to you, it means he likes you,” adults reassured me. Fast forward to high school, an already awkward phase, where romance seemed more confusing than ever. I desperately craved being accepted, validated, and loved, and looked for it in older boys. I was painfully insecure and often found myself looking for refuge with “bad boys”. If they mistreat you, it means they love you, right? What was clearly missing within me at this time was a big dose of self-love and self-respect. But I didn’t love myself during adolescence—and honestly what teenager growing up in the 90s did?
When I was 15 years old, I fell in love with a boy five years older than me and we started a pretty serious relationship. I’ve often contemplated if I really did love him, or if my “falling for him” was a result of coming from a divorced household and having a strained relationship with my mother—forcing me to crave love so much that any type of love would suffice. Up until that point, the only love I had known was love that hurt and encouraged me to stay small. The manipulating, controlling, and at times abusive experiences over the seven years we were together confirmed all of the things childhood had already taught me: No matter what I did, I was never good enough.
I didn’t love myself when I met my husband, but he loved me anyways.
One of my proudest achievements in my 20s, and there aren’t many, was leaving that relationship. I don’t know how I had the courage to leave, because at that time, I sure as hell didn’t love myself, and the damage of the relationship convinced me that no one else ever could. I lacked self-confidence, self-compassion, and self-worth. And if I’m being honest, I hated myself. But hating myself, alone, without his daily reminder of what I was lacking, felt like a better, healthier option for me. While I was happier without him, the aftermath of being with him for seven years blew any remaining self-worth I had to dust. I felt powerless. I was simultaneously and desperately praying to fill the empty void inside of me with love that didn’t hurt, while having a ruthless conviction that what I was praying for didn’t even exist.
Two years later, hours after I had sworn off men, I found love, and it was instant. It was palpable to everyone around us. His love was effortless, gentle, calm, and respectful. It was the first time love didn’t hurt. It was the first time love felt good. His love felt so foreign, so far from what I had known, that I spent the beginning of our relationship doubting it—waiting for him to reveal his true, and inevitable painful, colors. Waiting for him to show me all of the ways I wasn’t enough. Waiting for his actions to show my own universally accepted truth: Love hurts.
But that never happened. Instead, his love for me and all the ways in which he showed me he did, allowed me for the very first time to indulge the idea that perhaps, maybe, I was enough to love. That I was worthy of love. He would tell me I was beautiful, without needing to control who gets to be a witness to my beauty. He would encourage me to dream big, without fearing my potential. He would remind me of all the reasons he fell in love with me, without having to put me down simultaneously.
His love allowed me to slowly like myself, too. And over time, his love provided me with the security and foundation I needed to address the reasons why I didn’t love myself in the first place. He became my safety net, one that would catch me after every emotional unraveling of the things I kept suppressed for most of my life. His unconditional love and emotional support was the bedrock that allowed me to learn how to love myself.
I didn’t love myself when I met my husband, but he loved me anyways.
Shouldn’t we first address the elephant in the room that most of us don’t have proper examples of what self-love looks like?
Not finding love, not receiving love, has nothing to do with worth. It’s complete bullshit to think that your own lack of self-love influences others ability to. Plus, it’s incredibly shame-inducing. It furthers the idea that we need to show up in a relationship perfect, without any flaws or shortcomings. Most importantly, it doesn’t accurately portray the journey of self-love as a lifelong endeavor. There is no finish line or graduation certificate.
Before we start scrutinizing who is worthy or not of love, based on their own level of self-love, shouldn’t we first address the elephant in the room that most of us don’t have proper examples of what self-love looks like? Or at the very least, can we acknowledge that love is a communal experience, learned and taught by the people around us, which deeply impacts our ability to govern and nurture self-love?
Self-love is a journey, a work in progress, and for me it didn’t start of my own doing. Allowing myself to receive love, the kind that felt safe, was the catalyst I needed to navigate this terrifying never-ending exploration. And while I agree that the solution to my previous dating history would have been a healthy overserving of self-love, I don’t believe that my deficiency of it meant no one could ever love me before I learned to. The means in which you learn to love yourself, whether a solo pursuit or aided by a partner or friend, shouldn’t matter. No matter how you learned to love, or where you are on your self-love journey, let me reassure you, that you, YOU, deserve to be loved.