We live in a golden age of advice-giving, of gurus and know-it-alls and professional grandmothers, of someone who knows better as its own industry. Social media means that we are pressed closer than we have ever been against the available examples of other people’s lives. With so much permission and even obligation to look at one another, there is more drive than ever to see other lives as comparable to our own. It makes sense that we would reach for nearly any nearby person’s choices as a lesson we can graft onto our own living.
One piece of advice popular in these quasi-professional advice-giving times is some version of the sentiment that “you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.” This standby is a near cousin of the even more insidious “how can you expect anyone to love you if you don’t love yourself?” Both offer the idea that, in order to have a healthy and happy relationship with another person, one first must have a healthy and happy relationship with oneself. With the problem of self-love solved, one can expect a loving relationship with another human to naturally appear.
As a shorthand for emotional well-being (rather than a euphemism for masturbation), self-love is mainly an invention of the wellness industry, in which watered-down and somewhat shady applications of psychiatry and spirituality are served up as a modern equivalent to religious ideas of virtue. Like religious virtue, modern wellness, whether to do with bodily presentation or mental health, comes back to the idea of cleanliness: To be worthy of love, one has to be rid of self-loathing, and once scrubbed clean, will achieve acceptance.
Why do we crave this security in thinking we can control our romantic destiny? Listen to Helena Fitzgerald explore this concept, and more, on The Outline World Dispatch.
A roughly sketched out genealogy of the idea looks something like this: Somewhere around the end of the 19th century, a secular disposition overtook a religious one, and an obsession with perfecting the soul gave way to perfecting the body. The Victorians viewed the state of the body as an indication of the state of the soul in an explicitly religious way; but over time, the religious connotations of these anxieties faded and the physical aspects took center stage.
The 20th century’s obsession with diet and fitness trends still carried a whiff of religious hysteria — the idea that one could, through unrelentingly hard work and bodily mortification, become blameless enough to be saved. Salvation was no longer operating on a cosmic scale, but rather a human one: Through physical perfection, one would be spared the pain that comes with loneliness or rejection. Beauty, the line of thinking went, would save you from ever being unloved.
These ideas of physical perfection as salvation remain comfortably popular, but they have become layered with a supposedly more-welcoming idea of emotional perfection. Beauty standards have not meaningfully changed; they have been painted over with feel-good rhetoric. Ideas of virtue now center neither on the religious soul or the physical body, exactly, but on some nebulous concept in between the two — the idea of emotional health and stability. Rather than saving you from eternal damnation or perpetual rejection, today’s idea of emotional perfection promises the salvation from need. Emotional perfection, the sales pitch goes, means we will be whole unto ourselves, we will want for nothing that we cannot grow.
Setting out to love yourself because that’s the only way to gain love from others is a knot that undoes itself when pulled.
One of the many cracks in the logic of emotional virtue, however, is that this very needlessness comes with the promise of external rewards. Once you become perfectly emotionally self-sustaining, the love you want will arrive. Once you need nothing, people will be drawn to your needlessness. Once you love yourself, love from everyone else will fall easily into your lap. Most often, what this really is is old-fashioned Rules style how-to-get-a-man advice — don’t ever chase them, let them chase you; don’t ever be the first one to call; don’t ever wait by the phone — rewritten into something acceptable for contemporary audiences.
Looking at this construction at a remove, it’s easy to see the trap. Setting out to love yourself because that’s the only way to gain love from others is a knot that undoes itself when pulled; needlessness as the tactic to get something one needs is impossible. But it’s an attractive emotional tautology in part because it keeps those who subscribe to it trapped in its hamster wheel, forever able to blame ourselves for wanting, when the fact of wanting is both the reason for never finding a relationship and the proof that we are not ready for it.
The advice that you cannot love or be loved until you can love yourself perfectly fits with our time and our contemporary culture’s sickness. We are everywhere told we have agency by the very corporate or political actors who deny it to us. We want to control what can’t be controlled, we want to believe we can win or lose at things that fundamentally resist achievement. When we do not find love, we are able to blame ourselves for simultaneously not wanting it enough and not having sufficiently purged ourselves of wanting.
To think of self-love as a goal-oriented progression leading to a tangible result, comparable to accumulating money in a savings account in order to purchase a house, is perhaps more harmful, in its cheery self-deception, than simply accepting that these things occur primarily through random chance. Equally useless is the idea that the love of others is some earned reward doled out at the zenith of one’s journey to self-love. Saying one is deserving of love is always only a few shades of nuance over from the idea that one is entitled to it. Nobody deserves love, or doesn’t deserve it; the only way people end up in relationships with one another is through random chance, and none of us are ready for it when we do.
I’m currently in a great relationship, and how I got into that relationship can be summed up in one sentence: I got lucky. I was kind of a mess when I got into it; I’m kind of a mess now. My parents, who have been married for 35 years, met when they were both going through divorces. My dad’s relationship advice has always been that the best time to meet someone is, counter to conventional wisdom, when you’re in the worst possible emotional place. At least, goes his thinking, then you find out early if you’re willing or able to do the hard work of a relationship with this person.
I don’t know that this advice is necessarily perfect, but it at least has more logic to it than the idea of some perfect emotional readiness. Most of us are kind of a mess, and even those who aren’t can’t guarantee love will find them because they have more wholly accepted themselves. Extremely self-loathing people find love all the time; extremely emotionally stable people often live without a romantic relationship. Love itself is not necessarily good or healthy. Romantic relationships provide benefits and also stressors and both of those things are usually not the benefits or the stressors that accepted wisdom tells us they will provide. Love neither fixes us nor arrives as a reward for our fixing ourselves.