They say you can't really love someone until you really love yourself.
And I disagree. kind of.
It took me a long time to learn to love myself — 23 years almost. I'd like to say I loved myself as a child but I'm not sure I did — not knowingly at least. I can't remember thinking or caring much about how I felt about myself until I started to become aware of the things I didn't like about myself, which was probably sometime around the second grade. Sometime around seven or eight years old, I started to become aware of the ways I could be better. I remember starting to wish that I could be less talkative and less curious. I remember starting to care about the way my hair would string and tangle together. I remember noticing that my legs were longer and my shoe size was more than two times bigger than most of my friends. I remember starting to feel kind of wrong. This, the feeling of wrongness, started to root down inside of me and grow there. It grew into all these different forms. I didn't want to talk about the uncomfortable feelings growing inside me, feelings I'd later learn to name anxiety, because I didn't want to admit I was more wrong. I sought for control over things in life I'd never be able to control in hopes to make it right. I sought to correct myself, or at least stop feeling wrong, through dieting, perfection, drinking too much... I did a lot of things to myself but love wasn't one of them.
Within that time, within my life, I have loved people: friends, family, and partners. It's the partners I've been thinking about lately. It's the people I chose to love during those years, the people that I entered a willing, two-way agreement with to love. Was I lying to them? Did I pretend, for a collective six+ years of relationships, to love people?
No. The answer, I've come to firmly believe, is no. I wasn't lying.
I loved them, but I could have loved them more.
When I talk to women about loving themselves, I suggest they think about love as an action word or a state of being. Sometimes this is an easier and more healing concept than the broad idea of "feeling in love with oneself. Psychological studies suggest that you can change emotions by changing the behaviors attached to them. In other words: feeling can follow action. So when we're trying to learn to love ourselves, it can be an easier first step to start taking care of ourselves. As we continue to care and nurture that self, the mindset or "feeling" of self-love will become more accessible.
When I think back on the men I loved when I couldn't do the same for myself, I can clearly see the actions of caring and of wanting. I can remember the feeling, too. I can vividly call to memory the weakness is my knees and the emptiness in my chest when I knew it was over. I remember the grief that accompanied knowing life would go on and that my heartbreak wouldn't stop time, even though it felt like it should. It was all there but I was too preoccupied wondering when that love would fix me.
I kept hoping that the love I got from my relationships would create more love, an excess of sorts, that I could steal for myself. I thought if I could get good at loving someone else that I would surely learn to love myself, so I'd pour myself further into the relationship. More time, more effort, more care... I'd keep putting more in and yet I couldn't get what I wanted in return. I was prepping for an outcome that would never come. There wasn't going to be a surplus of good feelings to take for myself because the things standing in the way of me loving myself made that love non-transferable.
You know that scene in Alice in Wonderland where she keeps trying to make herself the right size to fit through the door, only to realize the door is locked?
That's kind of how it felt. I had all this love in one room and I just wanted to take it into the other room, my room, and the door was locked. I had locked it. I locked it years ago when all those feelings of wrongness started creeping in and then I hid the key. Things like perfectionism and control helped conceal it, every new diet and refusal to ask for help added a new layer to the maze, the stubbornness and the denial clouded my search.
I firmly believe that we can learn to love themselves better and in new ways by being loved by by others. Once the door is open, I think love can be moved around and used as a powerful tool in different. I don't, however, believe we can rely on our relationships to validate or "fix" us. We can't rely on other people to open the door — that part is on us. That part was on me.
I had to open the door. I had to get through the maze I'd created to keep myself at arm's length. And once I did, once I let go of the fear of being wrong and learned to love myself for the things that I was, I learned to love everyone else a whole lot more.
I started doing the actions of love and feeling love without needing to wasting it by trying to using it to fix something that love can't fix.
So, to the people I loved when I didn't love myself: please don't listen to what they say. You were loved. You just weren't loved enough. I could have loved you more. (Well, I couldn't. Not then, at least. But I should have, someone should have)
And to the people I love — relationships and beyond — now that I love myself: Know that I do love you more, so much more than I thought I'd ever get to. And I love that.