Can You Love Someone Else When You Don't Love Yourself?

love yourself Jun 05, 2019

The short answer: NO.

More specifically, your capacity to love another is directly proportional to your capacity to love yourself.

If you don't love yourself, you can certainly idealize someone, long for someone, or even seduce someone, but this is not the same as actually loving someone else.

But, can you actually define self-love?

Would you like to know what self-love is, why it determines your capacity to love another, and more importantly, how you can use this knowledge to increase your self-love and your capacity for fantastic, loving relationships?


Fun fact: when you don’t love yourself, you are more at risk for engaging in a variety of narcissistic behaviors.


You likely thought narcissistic behaviors were proportional to self confidence, that’s actually not the case.

Let’s start with an understanding of the term “narcissism.” This term is commonly misunderstood with most people thinking of Narcissistic Personality disorder. Narcissism as it’s classically defined is a pathological condition primarily associated with an inflated, grandiose sense of self and the distinct inability to love another (because others are seen simply as a means of soothing or gratifying the self, rather than actual, separate people to care about). Narcissism is primarily a failure of the ability to love, based on profound insecurity.


What you might not understand is that the grandiose self of the true “narcissist” is a cover for an enormous sense of insecurity.


Narcissists, who need to constantly beef up their self-esteem with accolades, adoration, and soothing from other people do so because they have no true self-esteem to begin with! Narcissists, despite their overt grandiosity, are ultimately profoundly insecure, though they use their disorder very effectively to avoid feeling this. Narcissistic Personality is the extreme example of someone who doesn't love themselves and therefore cannot love another.

This dichotomy is important to grasp because immediately you can understand the relationship between self-esteem or self-love, and the ability to love another. They are directly proportional to one another, but you must understand what self-love actually is to apply this to good outcome.

When you don’t love yourself, you are at high risk for engaging in the spectrum of narcissistic, unloving behaviors, even if you are nowhere close to having a Narcissistic Personality.

Loving another by definition means that you see them as a separate person from you, with their own, independent thoughts, feelings, needs and perceptions. When you truly love another, you can tolerate the differences between you and them-- because you are not looking for them to agree with you, to feel the same as you, or do anything really to validate your own fragile sense of self. You cannot do this if you are using the other person to bolster or protect your own self-esteem or self image.

This has very practical implications, because it means that when you have real self-love, you can tolerate hurt feelings, disagreements, and differing needs or choices. Couples that fight fairly do so because they are not unduly hurt by their partner being or feeling differently than they do.

Couples that get into toxic cycles because they consistently interpret their partner’s down moods, difficult feelings, disappointment, or differing needs as an insult to their own sense of self. You don’t have to have a Narcissistic Personality to be guilty of this to some degree!

If you come to a relationship with a weak sense of self, you might take one of two forms. The first one, we’ve mentioned: the inflated or grandiose presentation is the person who appears to be indifferent to others, toots their own horn, boasts about, and looks superficially “confident” but doesn’t see or appreciate others for who they are.

The second form is what we call a “covert narcissist”. This person is not at all boastful but is instead constantly vigilant in managing their own fragile self-esteem. They will do just about anything to avoid the slightest insult to their self-esteem. They experience the slightest insult as an enormous injury; one that can send them spiraling into very painful feelings of inadequacy, shame or guilt.

Because this is a psychologically horrible place to be, the covert narcissist will essentially, though subtly, manipulate their close relationships to avoid this place. The problem is that the manipulation of the relationship to avoid slights and hurts directly interferes with their ability to actual love another.

When you don’t love yourself adequately, you will inadvertently engage in some level of these covert behaviors in your intimate relationships.

In other words, if you don’t love yourself, you can’t adequately love someone else.

When you don’t love yourself, your attention is necessarily aimed at protecting your own fragile sense of self. Under this condition, you simply cannot adequately attend to the connection with your partner or attune to who they are, what their state of mind is, and what they need.

To use the analogy of a parent needing to put their own oxygen mask on before that of their child: when you don’t love yourself, you are like the parent who can’t find or put on their own oxygen mask, so you never get to the place where you can breath well enough to attend to your child (or anyone else).

The prerequisite to mature love is the ability to weather the feeling that you have inadvertently disappointed or hurt your partner, or that they are struggling with something that you can’t immediately fix, and remain open to them because your own sense of self is strong enough to endure that inevitable sense of failure.

In other words, to love adequately, you need to be strong enough to endure the occasional, but inevitable, feelings of inadequacy.

self-love is what enables us to meet this prerequisite requirement!

So let’s break it down: how does one obtain this quality of real self-love?


By now you probably get that self-love is not the narcissistic kind of “confidence” or tooting horns one's own horn real loud. Some people assume that celebrities, or rock stars, or comedians, or professional athletes must love themselves, because they can be on stage, talk up their work, demand attention, and/or simply because they have success. What a fallacy!

Self-love is not boastful grandiose feelings about oneself. Self-love is actually poorly correlated with external success or accomplishments.

Self-love is the knowledge that we are inherently good enough, deserving of care, protection and goodwill, even when we are struggling, weak, lost or in pain.

Self-love is the capacity to be vulnerable, yet open, and able to accept compassion from oneself and from another. Self-love is what allows us to endure our own pain or challenges without harming anyone else. This is so because our self-love and self compassion provides a space in which to bear our suffering without looking to dispel it, blame someone else for it, or avoid it altogether.

The beauty of this is that we do not come to self-love in a vacuum, on our own. You do not need to “fix yourself” or somehow conjure up fairy-tale like feelings of self-love and adoration before you enter into relationship. We come to self-love through the mature, loving compassion of another: ideally we get this in our parenting relationships, but many people find this in mentors, coaches, friends, partners or their psychotherapist!

The beauty of our messy, vulnerable attempts to be human in the presence of another is that we get the opportunity to be held compassionately when we are vulnerable and through this experience, to learn the nature of love. When we are blessed with this experience, we develop self-love; then can turn to another and offer it freely, without need for manipulation.

Note that you simply can’t receive this blessing if you are hiding your own insecurities, wounds, or fears. Self-love, therefore, is built on the experience of being vulnerable in healthy, supportive relationships, and is the internalization of this experience.

Narcissism, which is the extreme opposite of self-love or mature love of another, helps us understand the spectrum between love and manipulation or control. The absence of self-love produces people and relationships that are brittle, self protective, easily hurt, reactive, and essentially mostly concerned with their own emotional survival (like a passenger in a plane who can’t get their own oxygen mask on).

Self-love and mature love produces people and relationships that are generous because you understand that vulnerability is human, that your core value cannot be taken by anything our partner says or does or feels, and that when we are open and vulnerable we are exponentially increasing our contact with our deepest value and worth.

Yes, we build self-love by both receiving love and by giving it to another. Let’s be clear, I don’t mean by receiving roses and fancy dinners, or sex, or idealization. I mean by receiving compassion in the face of our human vulnerabilities.

So, self-love is not completing a long to do list of self improvement, though these things do help us access our sense of agency (and this is a good thing!), but self-love is a paradigm shift in which you truly understand that your vulnerability, your humanity, your core wounds are okay, deserving of compassion, and an actual blessing in that they teach you the nature of love.

So, what to DO when you don’t love yourself? I’ve developed an extremely user-friendly, all online course that will guide you through the essentials of loving yourself. Sign up now for my Love Thyself Course, and let me walk you through everything from your attachment history, your emotional life, addictions, and fears or questions about what it means to love yourself! These are the building blocks that give you that prerequisite capacity for the love you want and need!

I am a psychologist, psychoanalyst, author and teacher who helps clients get to the root of and heal their relational difficulties. Download my free eBook "How to Be an Extraordinary Partner" or enroll in my online course LOVE THYSELF!


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