Loving Others Without Loving Yourself: A Reconsideration

What kind of self-loathing is more destructive of relationships?

Posted Jul 05, 2011

A recent exchange in the comments to an early post on self-loathing led me to rethink my original assessment that you could, in fact, love others without loving yourself. (As an aside, let me say how immensely gratifying and heartening it is that people still read and respond to posts I wrote months, even years, ago. Thank you!) As I think more about it, I think the issue hinges on the nature of a person's feelings of inadequacy.

Let's consider two possiblities (which are not mutually exclusive, although I do think they're distinct):

1. For some people, self-loathing is a general attitude, whether deliberately cultivated or developed through various experiences; and as such it bears little direct relationship to any assessment of their good and bad qualities.

2. For others, self-loathing does derive from self-assessment, in which they find some specific desired qualities lacking.

With respect to self-loathing that is an attitude, I maintain that such people can love others without loving themselves. As I said in my original post, such a trait may not be attractive to other people, making it difficult for the self-loathing person to find someone with whom to have a relationship, as well as to maintain a relationship once one has begun. (See my earlier posts, listed below, on difficulties self-loathing people may have with relationships.) But it does not necessarily prevent that person from loving another, because the inward focus of the self-loathing attitude may be separable from his or her attitudes towards other people. Call this type of self-loathing what you will—extreme or ascetic humility, perhaps—but I can't see any clear reason why it is inconsistent with loving others.

It is the second type of self-loathing which the recent discussion brought to mind: a person who is not predisposed to it but instead finds certain aspects of him- or herself to be inadequate, which results in a general state of self-loathing. The commenter to the earlier post suggested that you may see something in the other person that reminds you of why you don't like yourself—either something good in him or her which you lack, or something missing in him or her that you also find missing in yourself.

Both of these are bad because they're symptoms of the same basic problem: that you find something missing in yourself, which is reinforced by the other person whether he or she has that missing quality or not. Let's say you don't feel successful in your job, which makes you feel inadequate in general. If you find a person who is similarly unsuccessful (at least in your eyes), you may feel you can't attract a successful person because you're unsuccessful, reinforcing your feelings of failure. You would rather have a successful partner to make you feel less uncomfortable with your own lack of success. But then again, if your partner is successful, that may also reinforce your feelings of failure when you compare yourself to him or her. In both cases, it is your own perceived lack of success, and the fact that you're looking to another person to fill that gap in some way, that is the true problem.

So if you're a person with the second type of self-loathing, you may still be able to love others without necessarily loving yourself, as long as you do not try to use the other person to compensate in some way for what you find lacking in yourself. Ideally, you should be a "complete" person when you enter a relationship, but even if you are not (and you hate yourself for it), you must remember that it is not the other person's responsibility to complete you. As I wrote previously, the goal when seeking a relationship is to find someone who fits and complements you, not one who compensates for your perceived failures. Those issues are yours to deal with, and it is not fair to expect them to resolve them, especially if they're not aware that's what you're doing.

I'm not saying this is easy, by any means. It is all too tempting to use other people to prop us up, to disguise what we consider failures, to fill those missing pieces of our lives or ourselves. And it's fine to do it once in a while—as the song goes, "lean on me, when you're not strong"—but only for support during occasional periods of stress, exhaustion, or sadness, not compensation for a deeper, more existentialist malaise. If you feel you need that kind of help, please get it from somebody, but don't expect your romantic partner to carry that burden him- or herself.

---------- 

For previous posts about self-loathing on this blog, see the following:

When You Feel You're Not Good Enough for Somebody... (April 25, 2010)

Loving Yourself-How Important Is It? (April 29, 2010)

Self-Loathing and the Paradox of Selfless Love (August 31, 2010)

Don't Project Your Feelings of Inadquacy onto Others (December 30, 2010)

Self-Loathing People Fear the Fragility of Their Relationships (February 18, 2011)

Can Self-Compassion Help the Self-Loathing Person? (March 5, 2011)

Even Superheroes Suffer from Self-Loathing (March 29, 2011)

----------

You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and The Literary Table.