One of the first people I ever loved romantically hated herself. She had attempted suicide only a few days before we met. We became friends almost instantly and confided our deepest secrets to each other. She’d frequently list off all the things she hated about herself and her life. I’d try to reassure her that there was nothing wrong with her and that she didn’t deserve any of the bad things that happened to her. Sometimes she felt a little better for a while but I don’t think she ever really believed me. I loved her before she loved herself.
But even after this experience, I still believed that a person needs to love themselves before another person can love them. I repeated it to my friends when they were lonely and depressed. I told people to work on themselves so love could find them. I repeated it to myself when I was struggling with my self-esteem. I did all of this, even though I never had any evidence that it was true.
So when I first told my current partner I loved him and he told me he loved me too, I didn’t really believe him. I wondered how someone could love me when I didn’t love myself. “He must not know me yet,” I thought to myself.
Just like that girl I loved years ago, I had a long list of reasons I was unlovable: I was disorganized and lazy. I was picky. I wasn’t beautiful. I wasn’t educated. I came from a poor background. I wasn’t interesting enough, loud enough or funny enough. I was too clingy; I was “crazy” and I was selfish. These were all things my ex told me to hate about myself, and at the time I met my current partner, I thought them to be true.
That’s what tends to happen when you’re in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, whether or not physical abuse is also present. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, psychological abuse is linked to a number of effects including low self-esteem, depression and suicidal ideation.
I’ve struggled my entire life with low self-esteem and depression, and being with someone who often called me names, sabotaged my attempts at success and belittled my victories only pushed me further away from loving myself. It’s not hard for me to understand why I thought I was nothing when my current partner told me he loved me that first time.
At first, like most people in new relationships, I tried to hide the things I didn’t love about myself. For months after we moved in together, I was self-conscious about everything from the way I spoke to the way I dressed. I tried very hard to keep up a facade of perfection. I was afraid he would one day see everything I hated about myself and realize that he misplaced his love in me.
“You need to work on loving yourself first. Don’t worry about a relationship now. You’ll just attract the wrong type of guy.”
I hate to admit it, but I said those words. I said them to a friend whose loneliness often brought her to tears. She wanted me to tell her she was lovable, but instead I told her she wasn’t but she could be if she just did a little work first. Meanwhile, I went on loathing myself with my partner’s heart in my possession, oblivious to the irony. But that obliviousness didn’t last forever. At some point I saw the proof all around me; I didn’t have to love myself first. No one does.
I’ve watched as old friends struggle with loving themselves on Facebook. Many have had long-term committed relationships, friends who offer support and even family who have never left their side. They are loved in many ways and by many people, even on the days they can’t stand to look at themselves in the mirror.
And I’ve loved many people who have been in the deepest depressions and completely hated themselves. I’ve had partners who wanted to kill themselves. I’ve hugged friends as they told me all the reasons they thought they didn’t deserve love, and I’ve told them that I love them. And I meant it.
Just like my partner means it, unconditionally, on the days I love myself, as well as the days I don’t.