Love Must Be Selfish

Whether we see it or not, our lives revolve around one thing: A deep yearning to be loved. Be it from our parents, our friends, our partner, our god or anyone else, we want proof that we matter, that we are enough, that we are special, worthy and likable.

If we’ve found love, we feel at ease. There’s no hurry to go anywhere, to change or prove anything. But if we haven’t found it, we feel incomplete or unfulfilled. So we go looking for it.

The first place we look is in other people. The problem with other people is that they, too, are looking for love. They also want to be told how special they are.

We don’t want to hear this from just anyone, however. No, we only want to hear it from someone we adore. And we want them to tell us not just with words, but also with their actions and bodies, and we want them to tell us repeatedly. We want a romantic relationship.

So we try to find a particular someone to trade love with — aptly called “a lover”. Someone whom we deem exceptionally lovable, or at least slightly more lovable than ourselves, because our gut tells us that the only love that has any value is love that comes from someone (we perceive as) above us.

Some lovers can make you feel amazing. More powerful, more beautiful, more valued, more alive and more passionate than ever. They seem to complete you. You feel better with them than you’ve ever felt on your own. You become infatuated with the person, like there’s something divine about their personality and soul.

Maybe there is. But maybe what you’re really hooked on is the feeling you get from being with them. Maybe you’re mistaking the giver for the gift. Maybe you’re with them because they’re providing you with a feeling that you can’t find in yourself.

You think you’ve found love, and maybe you have. But the love isn’t yours. You’re relying on love from someone else.

Since you don’t know where else to find love, their affection appears to you as a vital and scarce resource that you must hold on to. You become needy, scared, possessive and desperate to keep them close.

The issue is more serious if you think the other person is above you, that they are more valuable than you. As long as you think so, without even noticing it, you make their opinion of you more important than your opinion of yourself.

That’s where you’re screwing yourself over. The relationship is bound to eventually get complicated, dramatic or painful — for you, at least.

You begin to center your life around them rather than around yourself. Your relationship becomes your purpose and meaning with existence. Their affection becomes your primary, or maybe even your only source of happiness.

Since your happiness becomes dependent on them liking you, you are basically handing them control of your feeling of self-worth. And that gives them immense power and emotional leverage over you.

Because you don’t want to risk losing them, you won’t set boundaries or criticize them when they mistreat you. If they tell you to do something unreasonable and you object, they can make you submit by threatening to withdraw their love. The prospect of being without them may even seem so unbearable that you become willing to endure emotional or physical abuse.

At the same time, however, you’re placing an enormous burden on them: The burden of convincing you that you’re good enough. You want proof that you’re lovable. As we shall see later, that’s an awful lot to ask.

If they can’t find that surplus sometimes — maybe they’re struggling to love themselves, too — you’ll blame them by saying they are distant or not paying you enough attention. If you have the slightest suspicion they’re getting tired of you, you become jealous. You may even guilt-trip them into staying by your side by saying that you will harm yourself, that you can never be happy without them, or that for some reason they owe you to stay. You’re trying to emotionally enslave them or blackmail them to love you, and that’s a fucked up thing to do.

If they do leave, you feel hollow and empty. You thought you loved them, but you may quickly begin to resent them, especially if they’re happy with someone else. This is what I call possessive love.

On the other hand, if they smother you with affection and give you what you ask for, ironically you may push them aside. Either you still don’t believe you’re worthy of that much love (more on this in a minute), or you suspect they’re being so affectionate because they are trying to secure approval from you — which would mean that they aren’t above you after all. If that’s the case, their love is no longer important to you.

No Substitute

What we are really looking for is a guarantee that we are lovable. Proof, indisputable evidence that we are good enough.

We look for this proof in a multitude of ways, not just in a partner. What all our attempts have in common, however, is that we continue to look outside of ourselves: A lover, a dozen sexual conquests, a hundred fans, a thousand followers, a million Instagram-likes — other people must approve of us.

In order to secure validation from the outside, you have to be (or become) someone whom other people admire, love or envy. But this isn’t something you can do just once and get over with: You continuously need to prove your specialness and evaluate if you are good enough.

For most people that is no easy task. If we try again and again to attract someone special but always face rejection, if we find no approval from the outside, we may give up entirely. And even if we do manage to secure affection and admiration, we may slowly realize that it still isn’t enough. The void is still there.

So we turn to other substitutes. Society offers many addicting choices. Drugs, food, porn, shopping, video games, gambling, work — the object of the addiction doesn’t matter. The root cause is the same, they are all substitutes, and they will never be fulfilling.

Nothing will ever suffice. Nothing out there can ever complete you or convince you that you are enough. No amount of evidence will ever prove your lovability to you. Your efforts are doomed to fail.

Why? Because you can’t believe the evidence.

If someone loves you more than you love yourself, you won’t be able to accept it. People can tell you a million times and in infinite ways that they love you, that you’re enough, and you’ll hear them say the words, but the truth of the words will never register with you. You just won’t be able to believe them. The only displays of love you will ever accept as true and appropriate are those that match the love you feel for yourself.

This is why some people accept or even subconsciously seek lovers that will treat them like shit: Their self-perception is so low the only displays of “love” they can accept as appropriate is the lowest, most demeaning kind. They endure or create circumstances that confirm their belief that they’re worthless and unlovable.

All this confusion, all this anxiety and misery because of a single illusion: That love comes from outside. That it’s like a pot of gold to be found or earned.

The Journey To Self-Love

The only thing that will satisfy you is your own love for yourself. Just as hearing a story will never be the same as living it yourself, just as downloading 1,000 pictures of a foreign city can’t compare to actually being there, love from outside can never compare to loving yourself.

Your desire to be loved is a symptom of, and a substitute for, your lack of self-love. It follows that there is an inverse relationship between how much you love yourself and how desperately you will crave validation from the outside.

We may be deeply insecure at heart, but as long as we’re moderately successful at attracting the people whose affection we desire, the need for self-love isn’t apparent. Even if we suspect our closet is so full of skeletons that it’s about to burst, why bother dealing with it when we can just have someone else tell us we’re desirable, lovable or enviable?

We prefer to rely on love from others because it’s easier than uncovering our own. Essentially, we hope that a relationship can release us from the need to face ourselves. We’re afraid that our own love is not enough, that we cannot carry the burden of our own insecurities, our demons, and that we will self-destruct. It feels safer and more comfortable to find someone who will mitigate our destructive habits by talking positively to us or by threatening to leave us if we don’t manage our behaviour. We suppress our deeper issues and keep ourselves together, not for our own sake, but to keep them around.

But we can only postpone confrontation with our fears and flaws for so long. Sooner or later, in one way or another, they will show their ugly faces. We aren’t just delaying the inevitable, we’re actually making room for our demons to feed undisturbed. The longer we wait, the more haunting and invasive they become.

If we’re conscious of this we can approach relationships differently. We can find someone who will support us in our quest to grow. A lover who will have our back when we step into our darker corners to light a candle.

The relationship can be precisely what is needed to bring some of your issues to the surface, and then provide you with a safe environment to work on them. Or the relationship may help you for exactly the opposite reason: Because your partner helps you see that you don’t have any issues at all. They aren’t fixing you. On the contrary, it is because they don’t feel the need to change anything about you that you begin to change your view of yourself. Because they accept your flaws, imperfections and odd quirks — or sometimes even find them charming and endearing — over time, you come to accept them as well. Your partner can help you dissolve your shame, your insecurities and your fears.

The other person can help you see that you are loveworthy. They help you believe what you’ve always hoped to be true. Deep inside you is a timid voice, warily whispering that you are good enough, that you are great, that you are godly. Thanks to the loving eyes of your partner, that voice slowly gains confidence and strength and you begin to love yourself. That’s why, at their best, relationships are incredibly healing.

In the end, however, the person who does the work is you. The lover is just tolerating you and standing by you as you do it. So you don’t need a partner to grow. Spending more time alone with your insecurities probably forces you to confront them faster.

One of the greatest indicators of self-love is whether you feel okay with potentially being single for a very long time. If you feel really great about who you are, if you like your own company and if you’ve found meaning in your own existence, you won’t have a desperate need for a partner. When choosing a partner, it will be because of their own merits.

On the other hand, if you don’t feel okay with being single, you will choose a partner out of lack and fear. Your desire to be validated makes you act in a clingy, needy, jealous way that eventually destroys the attraction the other person may have felt for you. In romance, there are few things as repelling as desperation and lack of self-love. We want the other person to choose us because they love who we are, not because they urgently need us to fix their own issues.

Loving yourself is, at the same time, complex and simple, difficult and easy. It can take years or it can be accomplished in an instant.

It begins with understanding what self-love really means. Loving yourself does not mean being perfect or believing you’re perfect. It’s about being perfectly okay with being imperfect.

Obviously this can be a challenge. We’ve spent years believing that we aren’t good enough and that there are parts of ourselves we need to correct or hide. We all have imperfections, insecurities, things we’re not good at, and throughout life we struggle to correct or compensate for them.

I’m not saying you don’t need to work on yourself and become the best person you can be. Of course you should try. But self-love does not arise when you’ve fixed all these things and achieved everything. Because you never will. There will always be another thing to possess, another form or degree of validation to have, another physical blemish to correct.

You cannot work your way to self-love. Likewise, self-love is not something you find or happen to attain. During meditation I would often look for self-love inside me. How do I know that I am lovable? Where is the proof? What does it feel like? I couldn’t find it anywhere, I didn’t know what it was, and that was terrifying.

I couldn’t find self-love because it is not a thing. It doesn’t come from what you’ve achieved or from having had a loving childhood. Rather, self-love is a choice, an attitude. Self-love is the conviction that, no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you deserve love anyway and you will always be on your own side.

Sometimes I feel alone, vulnerable, flawed and scared. I feel that nobody can help me solve my problems, nobody has answers to my questions, and I don’t have any partner whose love I can lean on. In those moments, I don’t know where to turn, who to call, or what to do.

That’s when I turn to myself. I remember that my despair only exists because I’m not completely okay with who I am. Whenever I crave help, love or comfort, I give those things to myself. I ask myself, “How does love feel?”, and when that feeling arises in me, I contain it in my chest, I give it to myself. I tell myself, sometimes not with words but with emotions, “I wish myself the best, I can always rely on me, I am always on my own side.” For me, the journey of self-love is the journey of becoming my own best friend.

I keep looking for answers to my questions, but even if I can’t find the answer outside or inside, I know that uncertainty is a part of growing, discomfort precedes greater comfort, and I’ll be strong enough to carry on until the answer reveals itself. I mentally pat myself on the back for still standing.

You can’t make everyone love you. Some of the people you trust will let you down. You will be hurt, disappointed and rejected many times in life. People will tell you shit and fail to see what you’re worth. But I promise you this: The most important words you will ever hear are the words you say to yourself. Talk shit to yourself all day and no amount of love from the outside can ever make you feel adequate. Support yourself every day and rejection feels like nothing more than bad weather.

Lovers will leave you, marriages will end, people will die. The only person with whom you are guaranteed to spend your entire life is you. If you’re in a relationship, you are still there. If you are alone, you are still there. Until you die, you will be there. Your relationship with yourself is worth nourishing, wouldn’t you agree?

So my philosophy is that love has to be selfish first. It doesn’t appeal to our idea of romance and passion, and for that reason many will disagree. But you need to love yourself the most.

This isn’t lonely, sad or weak, it’s fucking awesome. True strength does not come from having others validate you or cheer you on. It comes from cheering on yourself. Applauding yourself for not having given up yet when you easily could have. For having the courage to face life as it is, to face yourself as you are, and to always be on your own side.

Self-love involves many things that you maybe aren’t used to: Valuing your own opinion. Acknowledging and prioritising your own needs. Setting boundaries that ensure you don’t leave yourself in a situation where you are being neglected, materially or emotionally. Forgiving yourself for what you’ve done. Embracing your shortcomings. Changing your beliefs. Getting to know your fears and trying to overcome them.

Ultimately, the journey begins with a single step: Deciding that you will always have your own back and that you deserve all the happiness the world has to offer.

Mirrors of Beauty

Much good can be said of self-love, but ultimately, almost everyone wants to have someone by their side, even if they love themselves. What good is our love if we aren’t able to attract someone to share it with? Someone who wants to be with us?

Some people aren’t very sexy and get “friend zoned” a lot, they’re seen as likable but not attractive. We may start to think that our current appearance makes us entirely unlovable. We want to be beautiful because we think we’d love ourselves more that way, and that others would too.

At the opposite end are those who are so sexy they become objectified but not loved. We fear that all we have is our looks, but we want to be more and be loved for more than just our shell. Until I was at least in my early twenties, I considered attractiveness and lovability to be one and the same. I measured myself by how I looked and how much approval people gave me. I had no idea what else I could offer.

In either case, we want to be both sexually desirable and loved for who we are.

Our mistake is that we’re confusing attractiveness or sexiness with loveworthiness. They’re two entirely different qualities, but there is something special that ties them together. More specifically, there is something that can make us more attractive and give us more soul at the same time. That thing is beauty. Beauty, the way I see it, is something we can all cultivate. Let me explain.

Most people would agree that good music and genuine laughter are beautiful things. But music and laughter in themselves are just sounds, vibrations creating pressure waves moving through air. What makes them special is their effect on you. Music and laughter are beautiful because they help you recognize beauty around you. That feeling you get when you listen to a song and it makes your surroundings look way more charming? Or when someone starts laughing and suddenly you see them in a more positive light? The music and laughter enabled you to see the beauty that was always there.

Some things help you recognize beauty in yourself, too, even if in a very subtle way. The smile on a child’s face reminds you that you still possess an in-born happiness, and the child’s excitement about the world makes you excited too. Watching a dog gleefully playing in the grass makes you laugh because you also have potential for such effortless joy. Music gives you goosebumps because it connects you to your own greatness and depth.

The beauty you see around you is actually a reflection of your own beauty. They are mirrors that reflect your own light back at you.

So beauty is not an appearance. Beauty is the quality of helping others see or create more beauty. You can’t own or have beauty, you can only live it or do it. Ugliness is the opposite: Depriving others of seeing or creating beauty.

Some things and some people express beauty without knowing it, as would a child, a dog or a flower. But it can also be done intentionally. Then it becomes an attitude, a skill, a practice, a way of living. It is the choice to express and look for beauty everywhere you go.

No matter how hard we work, our physical attractiveness has a genetic limit. There’s only so much we can do to change it, and there’s only so much we can do about the fact that we are biologically drawn towards it. But while physical attractiveness is only skin deep, beauty has no limit. And along with self-love, the attitude of expressing beauty is damn sexy. I’m going to take it a step further and say they are the most desirable and attractive traits a person can have.

At least that’s how I feel about the opposite gender. Some women don’t see beauty in the stars and the universe, in animals, in helping old ladies across the street or anything at all. They just complain, talk shit about their friends, go clubbing and eat McDonalds. They look at people and see ugliness.

Other women can’t seem to get their hands down from excitement. Their eyes are lit up, they’re passionate about something, they get furious at injustice, they aren’t afraid to express how much they love knitting or collecting weird stones from the beach. They look at people and recognize beauty because they are connected to their own.

“For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his fingers through it once a day.”

— Sam Levenson

Call me an idealist or a romantic, but when you think about it, that attitude is what all emotionally healthy people look for. It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl. We are generally so stuck in our heads and so bad at appreciating life that when we meet someone bubbling with excitement, we are drawn towards them like moths to a flame. Something about them makes us forget our worries, our troubles and ourselves. Instead they make us see adventures, opportunities and blessings. They appear charismatic, magnetic, almost like fucking fairies, sprinkling magic dust of wonder and joy into our dull, self-conscious brains.

Be that kind of person. Become a kind of channel or conduit of beauty. Point at it wherever you see it and express your own. Then you are giving the greatest gift you have. When others look at the world through your eyes, they see more glimpses of beauty, too. Maybe even in themselves. Maybe even in you.

(Cover image by Berli Mike)

11 Comments

  1. Thank. You. So. Much. For putting so many thoughts, feelings, truths, awarenesses, wisdoms and authentic heartfelt sense into such an accessible string of beautiful words.

    • Riekie, it’s my pleasure! Thank you too for those kind words!

  2. Wow. THIS is why I read Elephant Journal. Because it leads me to more ideas like these. Thank you. For being a man and expressing all of this. My own journey of self-love has been an uphill one for sure, but reading this, I felt happy and kinda Proud because I could SEE my journey and how far I’ve come. At 42, I am still learning to give myself high-fives, and I’m still learning to dance alone, and I’m still learning that my opinion has value, and I am still learning to be good with my own skin and bones, but I am loving it too. “This isn’t lonely, sad or weak, it’s fucking awesome.” Yeah, it is.

    • Felicia, I’m so glad the article was useful for you! That’s why I write. Also really happy you took the time to leave such a kind comment and letting me know. Keep high-fiving and valuing yourself!

  3. I am Speechless.
    Thank you for sharing!
    I needed to read this today.
    Yes Today. I can and must do better at Loving myself and Sharing My Love with Others!
    My friends call me a Fairy Mother F$!?;@ for a Reason! And I just discovered Some Truth I have been struggling with for years! Like Whoa!

    • Hi Leslie, thank you so much for reading and letting me know you liked it. Keep sharing that fairy dust!

  4. Dear Peter, man of heart. Thank you, just what I needed. I relate to your article, especially when you replace the feeling not good enough by too much.

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