Loving Others When You Can’t Love Yourself

“You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.”

I can’t be the only one who hears/sees this everywhere, right?  And every time I see it, I hate it even more.

I don’t love myself.  I never have, and I’m fairly doubtful that I ever will.  Deep down, I believe I’m a bad person, ugly, broken, fucked-up, unlovable, worthless.  I believe that because that’s what I was taught, explicitly and implicitly.  My parents abused me.  Other kids bullied me, and the teachers never lifted a hand to stop it.  I was physically and sexually assaulted in a psychiatric hospital.  I’m disabled, and I live in poverty because my government doesn’t think I’m worth spending money on since I can’t work.  From every direction, I’ve been told that I’m worthless, that I deserve to be hated and mistreated.  So it’s natural that I would internalize those beliefs.  How could I not?  I’ve always been a quick learner, so I learned very well that I deserve to be hated instead of loved.

But that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of loving anyone else.  It doesn’t make my love meaningless or invalid or broken.  My love is just as good as anyone else’s.

I love my sisters more than anything else in the world, and I would do anything for them.  As a child, I did everything I could to keep them safe from our parents, but I didn’t understand then that it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t keep our parents from abusing them.  As we grew up, our relationships became somewhat distant because we couldn’t talk about the traumas we shared; we couldn’t face them on our own, let alone together.  As adults, we still don’t talk about what happened, but we’ve gotten much closer.

When I went down to Alabama for my sister’s wedding in August, the three of us got matching tattoos: a triquetra, an ancient Celtic symbol representing a trinity.  (It was adopted by Christians but predates the Christianization of western Europe.)  Around the three sides of the triquetra are our three names.  I live more than a thousand miles away from them, but it doesn’t matter because love can span the distance.  (God, that sounds like a bad love poem.  Begging your pardon.)

There are other people I love too, friends who are my family of choice.  I’m spending Thanksgiving with a dear friend and her family.  When I was in the trauma unit in Baltimore, another dear friend called and came to visit.  Other friends called me, kept me sane, sent me letters and packages.  I collect hippos, and almost all of them are gifts from friends.  I knit things for them–rainbow socks with flaps for my friend in Michigan, a sweater for a friend’s baby in New York, a Christmas stocking for a friend in New Jersey who’s about to have her first grandchild.  Each piece means hours of work, but it makes me feel closer to people because I can hold them in mind with each stitch.

Conventional wisdom would discard all that.  It would say that, because I still hate myself, I can’t really love any of these people.  I suppose I only think I do, but it’s really about being selfish or meeting my own needs or something…I’ve never actually heard a clear explanation.

Well, I call bullshit.

A lot of people don’t love themselves, particularly those of us who have been abused or neglected.  But to say we can’t love anyone–that makes us less than human.  That’s crap.  My love is as real and significant and meaningful as anyone else’s.



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10 responses to “Loving Others When You Can’t Love Yourself

  1. Loving others is so important. When they return that love perhaps you can begin to see through their eyes your value.

    Damn I wish you had a compassionate, intelligent therapist.

  2. You love yourself enough to stand up for yourself and say “YES! I have this good quality! I love others!” And we love you. ❤

  3. mandy

    I’ve heard that saying a lot, too. I just figured I’d never be able to love anyone because I knew I could never love myself. But recently I’ve got a new take on it. For me, it’s nothing to do with loving other people–its more: I can’t absorb anyone elses love if I can’t love myself. I’ve (by some miracle!) allowed a couple people to love me (they always did but I wouldn’t take it in) and it makes me feel different about myself. Try to absorb others love for you. They do, you know!

    • I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept that people love/care about me, even if I can’t understand why. But most of the time I don’t think I can really absorb it. 99% of the time, I still feel completely alone, and that makes me feel like an asshole because it’s like I’m totally disregarding people’s kindness and caring.

      • mandy

        I absolutely understand what you are saying because I was/am the exact same way. But here’s the thing I understand now (at least for me): I would say if you still feel 99% of the time alone, then you are blocking their love 99% of the time. You know how when someone smiles at you, you want to smile back–at least a little? I don’t think you can truly absorb love without feeling like you are worth it. Absorbing it (only recently) for the first time happened when I wasn’t looking. I just felt love. Maybe the key word is “felt.” Something I’ve walled off my entire life. It sounds like you have at least your friend you’ll spend the holidays with and your sisters that you KNOW love you. Let them love you. Talk with them candidly–ask them what they love about you. Then believe them. And love them back.(And if all this sounds like crap, its okay. It used to sound like crap to me too. ♥)

  4. It was great to hear your thoughts about this line. I have heard that line many times. I have thought it myself. I know how deep self hatred can go from abuse. I have loved for years even though I hated myself as well. In fact, I have found I have a great capacity for love, empathy and compassion. Thanks for helping me to see that.

  5. jesuswithoutbaggage

    I agree with you that your love for others is as good as anyone’s love, even if you don’t love your self very much. I know that abuse can cause tremendous damage on our ability to love ourselves.

    I started following you blog today by RSS. Do you happen to use twitter?

    • I use Twitter, but only for work. I actually find it slightly annoying. But I also need to keep this blog separate from my real identity and social media using my real name because there’s still a lot of stigma in my line of work.

  6. I agree with this. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved other people far more than myself. I think I still do. x

  7. I agree with you Hope. Its all bullshit. Of course we can love. We probably love more sincerely, passionately, meaningfuly than those who have not suffered trauma or abuse. Its inbuilt into us. XX

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