By Andrew Aaron, LICSW
A relationship is only as strong as the level at which the partners love themselves. The same level also determines our level of emotional health. Not to be mistaken for egotism or narcissism, which are rooted in emotional wounds, loving yourself means a high level of self-esteem in which well-being is valued. In seeking to develop a satisfying love relationship, loving yourself is where it all begins.
The truth in the overused phrase, “You can’t love another until you first love yourself,” is substantial. This love for oneself also means self-esteem. Each person is called an individual, meaning “not-dividable,” but self-esteem points to our inner divisions of me and myself. The process of loving yourself results in these separate parts becoming more unified and integrated. Love melts away divisions and separateness.
Ever notice that your thoughts form an inner dialogue between a mental speaker and listener? Who is speaking and who is listening? Me and myself. It is the loving or hating quality of the relationship between these two parts which determines the level of self-esteem. An inner dialogue that is negative, harsh, and critical makes up low self-esteem. A discussion characterized by patience, support, and kindness form high self-esteem, which is consistent with greater emotional health and capacity to love others. The inner voices within this dialogue often possess at times the tone, attitude, even word choice of a parent, leftover from long ago when we were a child.
Another way to assess the level of self-esteem is by examining life and relationship choices. A Positive level of self-esteem is demonstrated by a consistent pattern of decisions that create a good position or outcome. The options which routinely fulfill needs and avoid unnecessary risks while producing stability, well-being and growth are indicative of positive self-esteem.
Looking at the quality of the lives of those with whom we associate also reveals the level of self-love; those with whom we relate tend to share our level of self-esteem approximately. Improving self-esteem comes by deliberately making choices that support well-being even if doing so goes against current feelings. Becoming more acquainted with the quality of our inner dialogue is a first step toward making it a kinder, patient, and more supportive one. Using assertive strength to set limits on those who undermine our well-being, growth, success, and self-respect is an excellent practice to elevate self-esteem.
Poor self-regard may show up as a cycle of being too hard on oneself, such as a chronically harsh and disapproving inner attitude toward oneself; inwardly berating oneself for a mistake is an example. Being kinder and going easier on oneself is the fix. Others who go too easy on themselves by falling into a pattern of being lazy or irresponsible will benefit from the discipline of holding themselves more accountable. In the full range of these differences, creating positive self-esteem must be sensitive to balance—strong though not brutal, and loving but not spoiling.
Feeling good about yourself contributes significantly to the development of effective self-regulation, an essential ingredient in personal success and loving. Coping with intense emotion successfully—by avoiding shutting down or using self-destructive and impulsive expressions—creates the possibility of always putting yourself in a good position. Self-regulation becomes achievable when the internal relationship is self-compassionate, moderated by positive, supportive, and accepting mental attitudes.
Loving yourself doesn’t mean liking everything about yourself. It is not about being perfect or flawless; it is about accepting yourself fully, human as you are. Love yourself by gradually cleaning the physical and emotional space you rent for a lifetime of all negativity, hate, and darkness. Love, directed toward yourself, functions as the inner broom, mop, and cleaning rag, making an internal space of peace, stillness, and love possible. You are the instrument through which you love. If as a musical instrument you are not well tuned, the loving music you create will not be beautiful. Loving yourself is tuning the instrument so you may make life and relationships like a beautiful song.
Andrew Aaron, LICSW is a sex and relationship therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.