Often I am asked questions like, “How can I learn to love myself? I don’t have much self-esteem, and it’s affecting me in a lot of negative ways. People have told me I should love myself more, and I’m trying to, but it’s not making much difference.”
When we’re very young, we don’t formulate our own ideas about the nature of the world. We’re not born with the knowledge, for example, that it’s dangerous to play on the highway. We’re taught this truth by people who are more experienced, and when we’re young, we naturally tend to believe them. After all, adults—notably our parents—are masters of our universe, all-powerful and all-wise. When they tell us, therefore, that the hot stove will hurt us, or we’ll freeze in the snow if we don’t wear a coat, we generally believe them. Occasionally, we test their knowledge—by touching a hot stove, for example—but overall our experiences prove that our caregivers are right.
In short, the people around us—parents, teachers, and others—teach us what the world is like. To be sure, they are often unaware of what they’re doing, just as we are usually unconscious of being taught, but the process is nonetheless powerful and real.
Much of what we were taught was right and beneficial—playing on the highway is bad, for example—and we were wise to listen to our instructors in these instances. On many other occasions, however, our teachers taught us principles that were false and destructive, and we lacked the experience and wisdom to know when we were being taught lies. We accepted the entire package—truth mixed with error—that was handed to us. One of the incorrect principles we learned involved the concept of our worth.
As a child, when you were quiet, clean, and obedient, it’s likely that the people around you smiled, spoke kind words, and in other ways communicated that they loved you. When you were dirty, loud, and otherwise inconvenient, undoubtedly you noticed that the reactions of others were quite different. On these latter occasions, you saw frowns, irritation, and withdrawal, and from these behaviors you learned this terrible lesson: When you’re “good,” I love you, but when you’re “bad,” I don’t—or, at the very least, I love you less. No one intended to teach us this lesson, but it was nevertheless taught clearly and powerfully.
We heard people tell us with their behavior that when we made mistakes, we were unacceptable, and even though that message was selfish and incorrect, we still believed it. It didn’t occur to us to question whether these all-powerful adults were right or wrong as they taught us falsehoods along with the truth.
When a parent is angry, what four-year-old is capable of responding, “Dad, let’s talk about this. Do you really think this is all about me? Is it possible that you’re just feeling empty and afraid yourself, and that you’re taking it out on me so you can get a brief sense of relief from being powerful?” Impossible. By virtue of their positions of authority in our childhoods, our parents and others were able to dispense principles and perspectives that we received as unquestioned laws. At that age, what else could we do?
The lessons we were taught about our lovability and worth have had far-reaching consequences. In order to be happy, the one element we all require most is unconditional love—Real Love—but our parents and others clearly communicated that we were worthy of “love” only when we were good. We were raised, then, in a world where loved was defined as conditional. We were raised without Real Love, or with so little that we could not identify it as a core pattern.
Without sufficient Real Love, we were painfully empty and afraid, and most of us have spent our entire lives trying to fill that emptiness with whatever feels good temporarily: praise, power, money, sex, and so on. These “imitations” of love, however, can never make us happy, a lesson most of us have thoroughly proven on countless occasions. Only Real Love can fill us up.
Where, then, can we get this Real Love that’s essential to our happiness? In self-help and psychology literature, we commonly encounter the fervent recommendation that we love ourselves, and that has come to be accepted as the true path to happiness by many—virtually an axiomatic mantra. Before we dedicate ourselves entirely to this course, however, let me suggest a metaphor that might be illuminating.
Let’s suppose that you are hopelessly lost and starving to death in the middle of the desert. I approach you on foot, and after hearing your situation I ask, “So, why don’t you just feed yourself?”
How would you feel? Would you not think or say, “With what?!” You can’t give yourself what you don’t have, and for me to suggest otherwise is both foolish and unkind.
Similarly, when we feel unloved, empty, and afraid, we simply cannot get the Real Love we need from ourselves. Over a lifetime we have consistently observed that when we didn’t behave in the ways that our parents and others expected, these god-like figures clearly communicated that we were flawed and therefore not worthy of their love. The vast majority of us, then, have received little or no Real Love, and without it we are simply not in a position to give unconditional love to anyone, including ourselves. We really can’t give what we don’t have.
Why, then, is there so much talk about loving ourselves? Because we have experienced so much disappointment in our efforts to find other people who will love us unconditionally. Over and over, we have developed enormous hopes and expectations that a particular person or group of people would finally love us in the way we needed, and repeatedly we have experienced the searing pain of disappointment, even betrayal.
In an attempt to avoid more of that pain, we simply avoid the risks of looking for love from others. Instead, we try to love ourselves, because it’s safer. After consistently disappointing experiences, we simply give up on looking for love from other people. We advocate loving ourselves because we see it as the only choice we have. A belief in loving ourselves also justifies our avoidance of interaction with others, where we might experience more of the rejection we fear most.
This understanding about the futility of loving ourselves brings us to the notion of self-esteem. The term itself is misleading. As we’ve discussed, we were taught by others what we’re worth, so how we view ourselves would not properly be called self-esteem, but other-esteem. We simply believed—and continue to believe—what other people taught us about our worth.
So, how do we go about changing this artificially deflated valuation of our worth? And if loving ourselves isn’t the answer, what is? It is from thousands of experiences that we have acquired our belief that only conditional love exists—and that somehow we don’t measure up in the world of Imitation Love. In order to change that belief—in order to trust that Real Love exists and that we are infinitely worthwhile—we need new experiences and new evidence that we are worth loving unconditionally. We must acquire this new evidence from other people, from people who can genuinely accept and love us.
You will create the opportunities to be unconditionally loved only as you tell people the truth about yourself—about your mistakes, flaws, fears, and foolishness, as well as your successes—and allow these people to accept and love you as you really are. Understandably, you’ve likely been reluctant to do that because of the many occasions when people have been disappointed in you or angry with you when they learned about your flaws. Remembering those painful experiences vividly, you’re anxious about repeating them. In order to prevent more such experiences, you’ve learned to withdraw more and hide yourself. Ironically, however, when you hide, you guarantee that you’ll feel alone and unloved.
Delightfully, there is a way out of this awful pattern of fear and hiding. You can exercise a little courage and faith and make a decision to start telling the truth about yourself to people—just a few in the beginning—regardless of the painful experiences you’ve had in the past and the fear you’re experiencing now. Tell someone about your fear of being around people. Share a few of the mistakes in your life.
That might be a bit frightening in the beginning, but if you’ll do it anyway, you will eventually find people who will accept you, and then you’ll begin to know the profound joy you’ve always wanted. It all becomes possible when you start being honest despite your fear. It’s true that some people won’t accept you, but that just won’t matter when you find people who do love you. These loving experiences will convince you that you are worth loving without doing anything to earn it. As a result of the unconditional love of others, you’ll learn that you are infinitely worthwhile, and you will experience true happiness. The need for loving yourself—or for self-esteem—simply fades away.
I realize that what I’m saying here contradicts a widespread notion, but I’ve seen so many people experience consistent and terrible frustration in their efforts to love themselves. The effort leaves them even more discouraged and alone. For a short time, loving ourselves often seems to work, but uniformly it proves to be an illusion. To be sure, as we feel more loved and happy, we lose our self-loathing, but that’s not the same as loving ourselves.
We must exercise the faith and courage required to share with others who we really are. If we do, we will find people to love us unconditionally, and the rewards of those experiences are beyond expression.