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Do You Have to Love Yourself Before Someone Else Can?

The link between high self-esteem and relationship success.

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There’s a common belief that, in order to truly love others, you must first love yourself. In order to have happy and healthy relationships with others, especially in romantic relationships, the thinking goes, individuals must first believe that they are lovable people of value themselves. Indeed, entire schools of thought in therapeutic settings within psychology have been focused on this very idea, such as person centered therapy and rational-emotive therapy.

What does it mean to love yourself in a manner that benefits not only you as an individual but also your interpersonal relationships? Researchers have long focused on high levels of self-esteem as the primary way that people feel good about themselves. As discussed in previous posts here, high compared to low levels of self-esteem generally predict individuals pursuing closeness and connection in their romantic relationships, especially when facing threatening circumstances (Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006).

But self-esteem can be a mixed blessing when it comes to relationships. Specifically, high self-esteem, although related to some positive relationship behaviors, is only weakly linked to overall relationship health (Campbell & Baumeister, 2004). People can actually behave quite destructively toward relationship partners when they feel that those partners have threatened their self-esteem in some way (i.e., insulted them).

So how else might people be able to feel positively about themselves that doesn’t come along with the risks of high self-esteem? Recently, researchers have started investigating a slightly different type of self-love, called self-compassion, as an alternative source of positive self-feelings that can benefit romantic and non-romantic relationships alike. Self-compassion involves viewing yourself—including your flaws— with kindness and acceptance, and not being overly focused or identified with negative emotions. It involves acknowledging your connection to the many others in the world who have likely been where you are now at some point in their lives (Neff, 2003). Self-compassion is generally positively tied to individual psychological functioning. It’s associated with feelings of well-being; self-compassionate people report more happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive emotional outcomes compared to those who harshly judge themselves (e.g., Neff, 2003).

Recent work suggests that self-compassion may also be highly beneficial for relationship outcomes. The very nature of self-compassion as a construct that highlights individuals’ connections to other people should mean that it has positive consequences in close relationships. Based on this rationale, Neff and Beretvas (2013) examined whether being self-compassionate was related to positive relationship behaviors in romantic relationships, such as being more caring and supportive with partners. They recruited approximately 100 couples for their study and examined how individuals’ reports of self-compassion predicted their partner’s perceptions of their behavior in the relationship. They found that more self-compassionate individuals displayed more positive relationship behavior—such as being more caring and supportive, and less verbally aggressive or controlling—than those who were less self-compassionate. Beyond that, more self-compassionate individuals and their partners reported higher levels of overall relationship well-being.

This benefit seems to extend to relationships beyond romantic relationships as well: Approximately 500 college students wrote about a time when their needs came into conflict with those of someone they cared about—their mother, father, best friend, or romantic partner. The students then reported on how they resolved the conflict, how they felt about the resolution, and their feelings assessing the well-being of each relationship. Across all of the relationships examined, higher levels of self-compassion were related to a greater likelihood to compromise to resolve conflict; greater feelings of authenticity and less emotional turmoil about the conflict resolution; and higher levels of relational well-being (Yarnell & Neff, 2013).

So it seems that loving yourself is an important way to enhance your ability to love others—but the self-love that seems to count isn’t just high self-esteem, or feeling good about yourself; it’s your ability to be compassionate toward yourself that matters, flaws and all.

Campbell, W. K., & Baumeister, R. F. (2004). Is loving the self necessary for loving another? An examination of identity and intimacy. In M. B. Brewer & M. Hewstone (Eds.), Self and social identity (pp. 78–98). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Collins, N. L. (2006). Optimizing assurance: the risk regulation system in relationships. Psychological bulletin, 132(5), 641.

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-101.

Neff, K.D. & Beretvas, N. (2013) The Role of Self-compassion in Romantic Relationships, Self and Identity, 12:1, 78-98.

Yarnell, L. M., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion, interpersonal conflict resolutions, and well-being. Self and Identity, 12(2), 146-159.

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