In her recent blog post (linked above), Ilana Donna Arazie repeated the following folk wisdom:
No one is ever going to love you more than you love yourself. In other words, until you're 100 percent into YOU, no one else will be. Do whatever it takes to increase your self confidence and love who you are (curly, frizzy hair and all). [...] I mean, think about it. If you're not connected to who you really are, how the heck are you going to connect with someone else?
I have to admit, I'm very skeptical of many common feel-good aphorisms, and this one is at the top of my list.
Before we start, I want to make clear that this post is in now way a criticism of Ms. Arazie, who regularly offers a unique and fascinating perspective in her blog. But her post gave me a great opportunity to discuss some problems I have with the idea that you have to love yourself before you can love somebody else, which also builds on my own recent post on feelings of inadequacy and relationships.
Not long ago I told a friend (channeling Groucho Marx by way of Yogi Berra), "I wouldn't like myself very much if I liked myself." My own personal philosophy is very focused on humility, so I would be disappointed in myself if I were to feel confidence, pride, or self-satisfaction. So liking myself is out—not gonna happen. But I think I'm perfectly capable of loving other people, in many various ways (as family, friends, and lovers), and I've never understood what one had to do with the other.
I can certainly understand why not liking yourself very much would make you less attractive. I don't think many people want to be with a self-absorbed narcissist (with the obvious exception of groupies who chase after celebrities and politicians!), but neither do they want to be with someone who's constantly beating himself up and regards himself as worthless. (See the comments to my earlier post to hear from people in such relationships.) But this doesn't speak to such a person's ability to love others—if someone is willing to deal with such a person's unique mindset, they may find such him very giving, in part to compensate for his own perceived faults.
Part of liking yourself would seem to involve recognizing your own good qualities. But failing to recognize one's own good qualities would not necessarily prevent a person from recognizing them in others. And in fact, loving someone else—and being loved in return—may help such a person realize his good qualities as reflected in the other person. (As I said in the earlier post, it's hard not to admire yourself when someone you admire does.) So instead of self-love being a prerequisite for loving another, it may be a result: greater self-love through other-love. (This also serves as a response to those who say that knowing how to love yourself teaches you how to love others—it may very well work better the other way around.)
Another part of self-love is taking care of yourself, so some may argue that if you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of others (in a loving way). But I don't think this follows either: having little concern for oneself stems from feelings of low self-worth, which doesn't imply that such a person cannot take care of others whom he values more. One can even imagine such a person may need to take care of someone else to feel worth, which again implies that for some, loving others may help love themselves (not vice versa).
Please understand, I am not arguing against self-love (even though I have chosen not to practice it myself). But I do believe that loving yourself is very different—essentially, practically, and ethically—from loving others, and that neither is necessary for the other (though they can support each other to some extent, especially the other way around as described above). For most people, the ideal situation is to have both, but I can't see any reason that you have to love yourself before you can love others (or why loving yourself helps you love others).
If I'm missing anything, please let me know!