“Sometimes you just need to be single for a while to figure out who you are.”
“You have to come into a relationship as a whole person, rather than looking for someone to complete you.”
“You can’t love another person until you love yourself.”
I used to hate hearing these clichés, until I spent 2 years being single (by choice, I think?) Now find myself agreeing with every single one of them.
I went through a string of co-dependent relationships in my late twenties, where I poured my whole self into loving another person, without saving any love for myself. Instead, I expected my partners to make me the center of their universe, and felt hurt and angry if they didn’t.
I kept pouring my heart into relationships where I never felt satisfied, desperately trying to fit my partners into the mold of my ideal romance. I spent all my time thinking about my partner, and how I could try to impress them or make them happy, in the hopes that I could gain more love, attention and affection. If I got dressed up pretty, it was because I hoped my partner would notice (and if they didn’t, I was dismayed.) The time I spent with my partner was the best part of my day, and I felt empty and lonely when they left me alone. No matter how many times they said “I love you,” it was never enough, because I never really believed it. I couldn’t trust my partner to just love me, without constant reassurance. And I resented them if they couldn’t make me feel the way I wanted to feel.
I look back at this time in my life, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief to be free of that misery. At the time, I couldn’t recognize my behavior as unhealthy, and I am grateful for these experiences because they taught me to recognize what I don’t want in a relationship. The guys I dated back then really were emotionally unavailable or even emotionally abusive. I can see that in hindsight.
At the same time, It takes two people to form a bad relationship, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved with them if I’d been operating from a place of self love and personal stability. I was looking outside of myself for love, instead of learning how to be a happy and whole person on my own. Now here’s the cliché: I did have to spend some time being single to heal, move past my heartbreak, and really, truly love myself in order to be able to love another person in a healthy way.
There is nothing wrong with dressing up to arouse your partner, or look forward to the time you spend with them. However, if you are unable to feel pleasure or joy without your partner’s presence or approval, and if you’ve become completely dependent on your partner to “supply” your happiness, you’re never going to be truly happy. There is the difference between a healthy, mutual “interdependent” relationship where both partners support and love each other, and a one-sided obsession with an emotionally unavailable person that we call “codependency.”
So where does self love fall into all of this?
I remember the moment things started to shift for me. I was lying on my Shaman’s massage table covered in crystals, being spritzed with chakra-balancing floral essences, feeling utterly vulnerable. (Yes, I have a Shaman. I’m “woo woo” like that.)
I had just broken up with my boyfriend. I felt lonely and misunderstood within my relationship, but I was terrified of letting go, because I hated being single. It seemed better to be in an unfulfilling relationship than to be alone. When I was single, I never knew when was going to have sex again, or sleep next to someone, or even go on a date, and that uncertainty frightened me. If I broke up with my boyfriend, would anyone ever love me again? This mindset is known as “scarcity thinking,” and it’s not an unusual response to a break-up.
“What do I need to do to find a relationship where I feel truly loved and fulfilled?” I asked my Shaman.
“You need to love yourself more,” she replied calmly. She was always telling me this, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong.
“HOW?” I asked, at wits end. God knows I was trying. But every time I tried to focus on “loving myself” I just felt kind of silly and pointless.
“JUST LOVE YOURSELF,” she repeated. What was I paying for exactly? But this was precisely my problem. I was looking for something or someone outside of myself to fix me.
I can think of another incident from that time in my life that really indicates to me how different my perspective was. Someone had given me a beautiful strawberry scented cocoa butter massage bar right after I’d broken up with my boyfriend, and I began to cry. Here was this lovely gift that I couldn’t enjoy because I was single! It didn’t occur to me that maybe I could use it as a solid moisturizer, or crumble it in my bath water, or even find a platonic friend to trade massages with. I believed I couldn’t have or enjoy nice romantic things if I were single.
Over the course of my single years, I gradually realized that you don’t need a partner to enjoy love and romance. I love buying myself flowers and expensive chocolates, taking myself on dates to the movies, and wearing lingerie around the house simply because it makes me feel pretty. Instead of feeling lonely, I felt excited that I could go out any time I liked, and do whatever I pleased. I no longer worried that I’d never meet a person who was right for me, but instead focused on enjoying my life in the moment, secure in the knowledge that I’d meet a good person when the time was right. (I highly recommend Amy Spencer’s book “Meeting Your Half-Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match” for anyone experiencing dating burnout or struggling with being single.)
These changes didn’t happen overnight. Learning to love yourself is sort of like getting over a relationship- it takes time, and it happens slowly, messily, piece by piece, with occasional setbacks. And like any relationship, it requires effort and maintenance. You must learn to express love to yourself the same way you would pamper and adore your beloved. You have to accept that sometimes you might have to disappoint another person or tell someone “no,” in order to take care of yourself. And you have to learn to really accept yourself, imperfections and all. I really believe that taking some time off from dating helped me grow, even if it was difficult at times. Spending time alone is no longer lonely or depressing, but familiar, comforting, and even necessary for my happiness.
As my shaman said, no one else can tell you how to love yourself, you just have to “do it.” Nevertheless, here are some ideas that can help you get started:
1. Take a critical look at the way the people in your life treat you. If your boss belittles you, maybe it’s time to look for a new job. Surround yourself with people who truly love and appreciate you, and give the boot to friends and lovers who waste your time and energy. Ask yourself “is this really how I want to feel in a friendship/relationship?” and if the answer is no, it might be time to move on.
2. Talk about it in therapy. A lot of people are scared to go to therapy because they think it means they’re crazy, or that a therapist will try to “brainwash” them. I view therapy as an ongoing conversation with a kind person who is able to give me an objectively neutral insight to my issues. Anyone can benefit from therapy, and it’s a great place to heal from hurts, and work on strategies for loving yourself more.
3. Ask yourself what you really want, without limiting yourself, or worrying about what other people might think. Maybe it’s a trip to Europe, a new car, a change of careers, or something as simple as a free afternoon to bake cupcakes or visit the art museum. What can you do to make these desires real? What are the little things that make you happy on a day to day basis? Notice them, write them down, and make an effort to enjoy them. Maybe you don’t know what it is you want. That’s okay too, just asking the question will open your mind to new possibilities.
4. If you’re single, don’t wait until you have a partner to do the things you enjoy, whether that’s going on an exotic vacation, getting dressed up sexy, or going out for Sunday brunch. Just do them with friends or alone. The happier and satisfied you are on your own, the more likely you will be able to truly appreciate your partner when you find them.
5. Really learn to enjoy sex with yourself. Educate yourself, experiment and discover new things you like.
6. Cultivate self-care rituals that make you feel good, for yourself alone. This can be anything from taking yoga classes, getting regular manicures, taking a bubble bath, spending time in nature, eating delicious food, listening to music you love, or anything else that makes you feel healthy, whole, and happy.
7. Recognize negative self talk, and don’t take it too seriously. Tell yourself “I love you” until you really believe it.
Whatever you do, just love you.