“Love yourself first…” Really?

In his song Grenade, Bruno Mars laments the fact that he is willing to catch a grenade for his love, but she is unwilling to do the same for him. Is this a reasonable expectation in a loving relationship? Initially this struck me as more than a tad extreme, but then it occured to me that virtually every parent I know would throw themselves in front of moving traffic if they thought their actions would save the life of their child. Isn’t it reasonable to think that you’d do the same for your most significant other? I’d like to think that I’d let go of the proverbial rope if I had to in order to save my wife or family. Through the centuries men have gone to war and fought intruders to accomplish just this goal. It’s the “manly” thing to do, isn’t it? It could even be argued that this is a biological imperative… we are programmed to ensure the survival of our young by putting them ahead of ourselves.

And here’s the rub. If you’ve followed the site for a while, you know I am a seeker when it comes to the concept of “We can’t love others if we don’t love ourselves first.” In light of what I just said, how does this fit? On one hand, I get it. It is difficult to love if our tanks are empty. However, on the other hand, I have seen many, many people fill their tanks by performing acts of apparently selfless work for those less fortunate. Clearly, in the examples above, I’d be putting my interests after the interest of others if I laid my life down for them.

On the flip side, I have also seen this phrase used for everything from lying to a boss to skip work to abandoning children to fend for themselves. It is often found at the foundation of the walls built between people. When does self-love give way to narcissism? How does that make the world better? The contradictions have me really confused and as such I am very skeptical of this pop-culture axiom.

I think if I have to boil it down, I have a problem with the word “first.” I see self-love/love-others as coincidental sides of the same coin; the yin & yang of the same circle. In “love your neighbor as yourself” there is no implied beginning, rather a complimentary set of actions that happen in tandem rather like the proverbial chicken and the egg.

So here is the challenge, the scientist in me wants hard data. I want to hear from you, but rather than just your opinion on the matter, I’d love it if you could provide me with references/links to actual articles and papers on the subject. Do any of the research papers actually prove the concept of “first?”

Experts in the crowd. What does this oft repeated phrase actually mean? Speaking sincerely here, can you help unravel the psychobabble?

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About Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen

Becca works with couples to save and strength their relationship. She trains psychologists to do couple therapy internationally. She is a: Professional psychologist. PhD. in Clinical Psychology. Licensed Mental Health Counselor Research Faculty at Alliant International University. Director of the Training and Research Institute for Emotionally Focused Therapy. Certified Emotionally Focused Therapy Supervisor and Trainer.

14 thoughts on ““Love yourself first…” Really?

  1. Great question, Gregory! Well, I’m not a scientist, but you know my background in psychology and theology, so how could I not touch this question?

    Jesus teaches, “Love others as you love yourself.” I would argue that there has to be a concept of “first” implied here, because in order for me to know how I should love others, I would need to first have an understanding of how I should love myself. On the most basic level, I love myself by giving myself food, clothing and shelter; should I not make sure that I show love to my family using these concepts – cooking dinner, doing laundry, etc.? I know how to give myself comfort because my parents taught me this through comforting me as I was growing up. I love myself in this way, but then I also turn around and love my husband, children and friends likewise (and sometimes perfect strangers, too). I could go on for a while, but I think you get the idea.

    The other side to this “Love others as you love yourself” is the idea of sacrifice. Jesus says, “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.” Paul instructs the church at Ephesus, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church.” Christ died for the Church and all its members (and potential members); again, this idea of sacrifice. While I may carry with me this idea of loving myself so that I know how to love others, I can’t use it selfishly and be true to my beliefs. It’s not an “every man for himself” instruction, like in your example of lying to one’s boss. It’s more about understanding intertwined with sacrificial love.

  2. The Tao Te Ching is my source on this topic. I particularly like the translation by S. Mitchell, of which you may find a copy online at http://is.gd/hTDWU

    For the topic at hand, I see:

    Giving birth and nourishing,
    having without possessing,
    acting with no expectations,
    leading and not trying to control:
    this is the supreme virtue.

    To me, this says, to “love” others is done because it is the right thing to do. (Actually, it is the easiest thing, the path of least resistance, the most efficient, or just, “the thing”.) It is done with no expectation of the result. It becomes, in a way, a mindless act, a way of being, a part of oneself. There need be no “first” as there is only one.

    Or as Larry says, “Gitter done.”

    • The expectation in the Bruno Mars song is probably the part that bothers me about it. A topic worthy of a separate post. 🙂

      Beyond that though, where do you stand on “loving yourself?” How does that fit with your philosophy?

  3. For me, I love myself enough to achieve contentment and calm. This makes it possible to do all the other (donating myself to others and my S.O. especially) easily, without expectation, and as a way of life.

    (The effort to achieve contentment, you understand, took some time: but when it arose, it was breathtaking!)

  4. I apologize for my vague reply there. I guess I should’ve said something like this. I ALWAYS tried to love others, especially my S.O.

    Because of that love, or in addition to it, I loved myself all along, in order to become a better giver. I suppose I loved myself first, as I was the first person I knew, before I could “become one” with the rest.

    This is very difficult to phrase, and must be felt to understand.

  5. If a person doesn’t inherently feel lovable (due to messages received from parents/primary caregivers/other circumstances early on) – it’s very difficult for them to have any concept of what it’s like to truly give or receive love. Offhand, I’m not aware of any hard research around this but Harville Hendrix, PhD and creator of Imago Relationship Therapy has written a number of books (including one called “Receiving Love” that relates to your topic). Much of his work has resonated with me and couples I’ve worked with.

    Many times I’ve observed couples in counseling where a problem with self love inhibits the relationship dynamic in that the other either 1) feels like no matter what they do there’s a wall around their partner keeping them from connecting emotionally or 2) no matter what they do to build trust, their partner continues to mistrust them. These or just two examples that typically have roots in views of self (lovable vs. not) if enough layers are carefully peeled back. A shift in this belief system can make a difference in ability

    It’s about a healthy self-concept, not raging narcissism. There’s a big difference between these types of “self love.”

    Hope that was useful to you – and thank you for an interesting question.

  6. What a fabulous question and discussion!

    I agree that love must first occur within myself, such that I have visceral, emotional and intellectual knowing of it. When I know and understand it, I can then express it to others around me. To the degree that I love myself, I am capable of loving others. This does operate as a ‘glass ceiling’ of sorts and limits or expands many relationships based on the current levels of ‘self-love’ that exists within each member of that relationship.

    The Gen X,Y and Millennium generations are being called the most selfish generations in many ways. Do they love themselves more than previous generations, I think not. In fact, quite the opposite. There is such a decline in esteem and worth that is manifesting as ‘raging narcissism’. Which begs another question, is ‘raging narcissism’ a symptom of lack of self-love, or an abundance of self-love?

    As for the Bruno Mars Song, there are many red flags there for me! He sounds a bit co-dependent and lacking in ‘self-love’ himself, she sounds narcissistic and also low on the self-love scale. Just to name a few issues.

    • Loving the discussion. Thanks so much Aly for your reply.

      To use your metaphor, how do we go about “raising the glass ceiling?” How do people that have not experienced love come to understand love? Could it be possible that doing loving things – technically loving others first – might be the emotional equivalent to jogging for runners? i.e. The more I run, the more I can run. The more I do loving things, the more I can love? Or is there another route to understanding love. And if so, what is it?

  7. Interesting dialogue Greg. Personally, I ask myself a few related questions? Do I take good care of myself? Am I taking care of my own physical and emotional health and wellness so that I can continue to take care of my children, spouse, family, friends and clients? Also, rather than asking the questions, “Do I love myself?”, I continually ask…”Do I like the person I am being? How can I both accept my own limitations and flaws while also working on being the best person: Psychologist, Wife, Mom, Friend, Daughter and so on…In healthy relationships, I think that it important to take care of both the “Me” and the “We”. Not easy, but a work in progress for me. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Gregory,
    This makes me think of the concept behind “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When looked at closely, that means that you must love yourself before you are truly capable of loving others. Similar concept I’m seeing in a book I am reading about unconditional love.

    As far as throwing myself in front of a train to save my children, I have a joke about this one: I would absolutely do it for my kids. If it was a choice between me and my hubby, it would have to be him, because I think they need me more. That is a joke. Do I need to repeat that?

    Great questions and discussion. Great site!

    Sincerely yours,
    Sarah Baron

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