We are all familiar with the phrase: “You must first love yourself before you can love another”. There seems to be a lot of sense in it. Yet, we also know that being loved by another helps you to love yourself. The feeling of being loved validates that we are indeed lovable. There is also an overwhelming amount of evidence that people who were well-loved as children tend to more easily move into loving relationships as adults. And likewise, those abused as children are more likely to attract abuse as adults.
So we have a chicken-and-egg situation: which comes first? the self-love or being loved by others?
Ideally, we are raised by a harmonious family who loved us and cared for us in a way that we learned a powerful imprint of how it feels to be loved. When we are a young, we are forming our imprints of reality that teach us how to treat ourselves and others. If our vulnerability as children was protected, we learn what is means to develop healthy boundaries. If we were treated with kindness, care and love, we are more likely to be kind and loving to ourselves and others as adults.
However, few people end up with the picture-postcard happy family!
The reality for many is conflicts at home, parents who separate, bullying at school and a world that shows us that we have to build walls of protection (healthy boundaries are developed from within from strong inner values, whereas walls of defense are erected as a response to overwhelming outer circumstances). How do we know how to love ourselves if no-one ever showed us?
As adults, one of the biggest issues people complain about in self-development is a lack of self-love.
People suffer from a lack of self-love in many ways. Self-criticism can be debilitating. Sometimes it can even lead to forms of self-harm or addiction. We are also more susceptible to abuse and violence from others. Many people hold themselves back from entering relationships because they are waiting to love themselves before they allow another in. As time passes by in this endless waiting we are missing out on one of the greatest opportunities as human beings: to love and be loved.
“the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”
Nat King Cole, Nature Boy
So, how can we start to move towards developing self-love?
In answering the question, which comes first: external love or self-love? I would like to suggest a little bit of both!
We attract in what we know, and the frequency we resonate at attracts other people to us. Therefore, we can take a few leaps and bounds by meditating on the vibration of love. Think of a time you felt really loved and held, and then notice how it felt in your body. Spend a few minutes each day cultivating that feeling and letting it become a practiced state of being. You do not need to stay dwelling on the memory, but use the memory just to remind the body how it feels. then drop the memory and focus on the bodily sensations and the frequency of love you feel.
If you never had an experience of being loved and held, then look for examples. Maybe you know a really loving couple or family. Media images and movies are often not such a great source of inspiration because they are just actors and models and the happiness is only surface deep. The true deep resonance is usually lacking from the media, so try to find some real-life examples. Even just one loving person is enough! Think of the most loving person you know, then notice how you feel in their presence and start to cultivate that inner state.
You can also start to practice heart meditations, which are used in Tantra to cultivate more inner love. Download a free heart meditation here.
If we do not shift our inner world, the chances are we will attract in relationships that we are used to, and this will keep recurring patterns arising. We are so comfortable with the familiar, even if the familiar is violent or harmful. Thus to break the cycle, we need to start to create a new imprint and make a new familiarity. Familiarize yourself with lovingness, and start to attract more love. This practice also helps us to act more lovingly to others. What we give out returns to us.
Note that if you are not used to loving feelings and connections, then often at first you will feel uncomfortable when you feel or even see love. A common response to love if you are unused to it is to find it “cheesy”. Sarcasm, insults and even violence are commons forms of responding to love if we are unfamiliar. Yet in such a case we are judging and pushing away the very thing we most long for. So try to watch the ways in which you sabotage love.
A powerful way to cultivate self-love is to act lovingly towards yourself, even when you do not feel it at first.
How would it look if you took great care of yourself, nourished yourself and loved yourself? Start to create actions that are loving and self-love will begin to develop. This may look like running yourself a bath full of scented oils and lit with candles. It may be cooking a meal for yourself as amazing as if you were cooking for a first date. It may be taking yourself for a walk in your favourite location. Find what feels loving to you. When you love yourself, you are showing the world how to do it!
You do not need to wait to be perfect or completely healed before letting yourself love another. In fact, if two people come together willing to love the “inner child” of the other, then you can co-create a loving space together to accelerate your process. Love doesn’t wait for perfection, but it accepts what is.
Love and self-love is about bringing a loving presence to all parts of yourself. If there is pain, you can hold it as you would a small child who was crying in the night. Love is not just about being sugar-coated sweetness, it is about having the courage to hold pain and witness it- yours and others’. Love is choosing to surrender our judgements and instead develop compassion.
Loving another and loving yourself are two experiences that run parallel to one another. Even as we start to love another, we also have to take time to love ourself. If we start to depend entirely upon another person as our only source of love, then we will risk suffering if the relationship breaks up and we may become excessively clingy (often suffocating the very love that we sought to hold onto!).
There is no replacement for self-love. You can receive love from another as a teaching: teaching you how to love yourself more and more. But throughout this life you remain your sovereign self, responsible for your own reality.
The beautiful thing is, the more you cultivate a healthy self-love, the more love you have to share with the world. It is not just about your romantic relationship, but all relationships: family, co-workers, children and strangers you meet along the way. If you desire love, then don’t wait. Nothing needs to be fixed first! Just choose love and begin to cultivate it, within and without.