Updated: Mar 8, 2021
My first Valentine’s day card, February 14th 1992
I was in primary school, age 9. The teacher brought out a post box made of cardboard and we were encouraged to 'post' the Valentine’s Day cards we had spent the morning making through the small slit in its side. We had to write the name of a classmate, aka secret love, on the card and to keep it anonymous. The teacher would then distribute the cards at the end of class. I was reluctant. I was a quiet, introverted child who enjoyed working by myself on tasks like art, I didn’t want to give my work away. But Marianna was worth it. She was also 9, Italian, a vegetarian, had a killer fringe and we often crossed the primary school gender divide by playing and working together.
No one sent me a card that year. I remember feeling that I ought to receive a card. People who are loved receive Valentine’s Day cards. To 9 year old me, this communicated that I was not loved.
“In order to be loved, you must learn to love yourself first” … really?
While this was a very dramatic reaction from my 9 year old self, being loved is a big part of what makes us human. But love is difficult; finding it, accepting it when it’s offered or avoiding it when it’s unhealthy.
If you wander into the self-help corner of the internet, you’ll hear that in order to be loved, you must learn to love yourself first. It’s a common phrase you’ve probably heard before, especially around this time of year.
I think this is too simplistic, even problematic. It suggests that learning to love yourself is a means to an end to finding love from others, but surely finding a partner shouldn’t be the goal of loving yourself? I also don’t believe a person’s ability (or lack of ability) to love themselves should dictate their worthiness to receive love from others.
The s**te in-between!
I do believe if a person finds it difficult to love parts of themselves, for example, they feel shame about their sexuality, or get frustrated by their lack of confidence at work, then they are more likely to accept situations that further shame or exasperate their frustrations. They stay in a relationship that shames them or a job that undervalues them. Those relationships reinforce our negative beliefs about ourselves. Conversely, however, loving our sexuality or nurturing our lack of confidence means we are less likely to accept relationships that reinforce these negative beliefs.
To make things more complicated, I also believe that healthy relationships can help us love the parts of us we find shameful or frustrating or in some way not good enough - the right relationship can allow us the space to develop this love.
What’s (self) love got to do with it?
Loving yourself doesn’t guarantee finding a relationship. However, it does allow us to set boundaries with jobs, family, relationships and friends that are healthy and help us avoid situations where we could be undervalued. This means when new people or opportunities come into our life, we can negotiate our boundaries from a stronger place.
In my (online) therapy room, I try to build an environment where each client can develop love for themselves. This doesn’t mean each client gets a heart-shaped box of chocolates each session (sorry potential new clients), but I ensure that all parts of my clients are welcome, especially those parts that feel shameful, unconfident or not good enough. By shining a light on these difficult parts in a kind, non-judgmental way, they become easier to manage and clients can show themselves more kindness, and of course, love.
It's Valentine’s Day this month. I’m not going to join the chorus of mental health professionals and social media influencers telling you to love yourself, we all know that can be a tall order sometimes. I do want to acknowledge though, is that you are here, reading this article, and that may mean you are giving some time to yourself to explore what love means to you and this feels like an excellent (and loving) thing to do.