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Its cliche: “You have to love yourself before others can love you.” Motivational speakers, coaches, therapists all say some iteration of this phrase when teaching about self-esteem and self-worth. I recently had a client express their frustration with this cliche, “It’s simply not true!” he said, and then he proceeded to give examples of people struggling with self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness who are still loved by their friends, parents, spouse, kids, etc… I agreed with him and then challenged him to look at the cliche slightly different:

You have to learn to love yourself before you’ll allow yourself to feel loved by others.

Our thoughts can sabotage our relationships. When you are plagued by thoughts of worthlessness you develop a habit of not trusting the intent of those around you. For example, meet Susan. She feels fat, ugly, and stupid. She always looks at other women and thinks “If only I was as smart, pretty, athletic, and rich as her, then people would want to date me and be my friend.” So when Susan meets someone who treats her with respect, she thinks “Oh he was just being nice.” When he does something nice for her, she thinks “Oh he does that for everyone.” If he comes by to say hi when she’s under the weather she thinks “Oh no! He can’t see me like this! He’ll think I’m gross. He’ll be polite, but he won’t want see me later!”

Those thoughts hint at more serious underlying beliefs that you are not worthy. For example, thinking “Oh he was just being nice” may seem harmless on the surface, but when repeated over and over it devalues your qualities. You are basically saying: “I’m not worthy enough for anyone to go out of their way to do something nice for me.” This thought, that you are not worthwhile, steals the joy and fun from your relationships. Instead of enjoying the social outing, you are worrying that you said or did something wrong. You put yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to please others. You downplay compliments and second guess your decisions.

So yes, people will still love you when you do all that. But you will feel uncomfortable in your own skin. You’ll be looking for the fault in your relationships (friendships and romantic relationships) that prove all along that you weren’t good enough. You never let your guard down because you are just waiting to be hurt or abandoned; and you never allow yourself to genuinely trust and enjoy the relationship. Essentially, until you learn to love yourself, you’ll never allow yourself to feel loved by others.

Learning to Love Yourself

There are many different situations that lead to thoughts and feelings of worthlessness: abuse, neglect, caregivers who were emotionally unavailable, an environment where you were “lost in the shuffle or chaos.” Many times, these situations create deep-seated beliefs that “I’m broken, I’ll never get better, I’m worthless, I have nothing to offer,” etc… Learning to love yourself goes beyond building up grade school self-esteem with participation trophies (which, actually backfires as kids don’t get a chance to practice resilience, but that’s a whole other story). Simply learning to recognize those thoughts is the first step. Those thoughts become so quick, so automatic; we don’t even realize we are putting ourselves down. Think about how you receive compliments. Do you downplay it? If so, is it because you’re trying to be modest and humble but secretly love the attention the compliment gives? Or do you downplay it because it makes you feel self-conscious, uncomfortable, and fake? (e.g. “They’re only saying that because they don’t really know me, if they did they wouldn’t like me”). If it’s the latter, you have underlying beliefs about not being enough: worthy enough, good enough, smart enough, etc…

Change Your Thinking

We don’t often walk around thinking about how we’re thinking. But when we learn to recognize those thoughts when they happen we can then look for patterns and start to challenge the thoughts. Just “think positive” doesn’t work, it feels fake in the moment. In order for positive thinking to stick in the long run you really need to break the thought down. Where did the thought come from? When did you start telling yourself that? Who else in your life made you feel that way? What evidence do you have that the thought is true? What evidence do you have that the thought is not true? What is the effect on your life of holding onto that thought? What would it look like to let it go? We can spend a lot of time breaking down one just one negative belief. But the only way the more “positive thinking” will start to stick is if you first spend the time breaking down and challenging the negative thoughts. This is one of the primary goals in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Start Today by Accepting Compliments

A simple way to start practicing this today is by allowing yourself to truly receive a compliment, don’t downplay it. You are worth it! When you genuinely accept a compliment, you are affirming to yourself that you are worthy and deserving of that compliment! It’s these little acts of affirmation that help you learn to love yourself, and eventually allow yourself to genuinely feel loved by others.