Needs, Ability, Love

If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘love yourself first’, you may have also heard that this way of thinking is ableist, in the sense that mental illness (particularly PTSD) can be a barrier to self-love. The arguments are essentially as follows:

If you haven’t learned to love yourself, you will be incapable of loving others, at the very least because you’ll be ignorant of how to proceed. To the self-loathing person, love and care from others becomes a substitute for self-love, a crutch for a wounded respecting engine, and their self-esteem is dependent on what is offered by others, and is therefore fragile and incomplete. Relying on others for a sense of self-worth also makes it difficult to choose one’s social values, because they will inevitably be sourced from what is available, regardless of how poor those available examples are.

But humans need external care regardless, and excepting them from this care on the grounds that they have a lack of internal care only compounds their loneliness. One might as well be saying, ‘If you can’t take care of yourself, no one else should either.’ A lack of love and compassion in one’s life tends to make any mental illness worse, or even make the difference between being a little neurotic and morbidly insane. ‘Love yourself first’ implies that mentally ill people are, despite their illness, actually well enough to ignore their social needs to develop a new, complex skill without a social safety net.

Of course neither of these are easily prescribed perspectives in a broad sense, because people’s self-loathing or self-apathy doesn’t all manifest in the same way. Furthermore, the scope of what love is and how much of care constitutes love is a murky subject, and a person with a poor relationship with their self can actually behave in a very practical and healthy manner in their close relationships, or at least fake it enough for it to work. A concern of those making the ‘learn to love yourself first’ is that folks who don’t might not know how to participate in genuine relationships, so will practice manipulation to get their social needs met, and may even be dangerous. A counter-argument to this is that these manipulative folks are responding to perceived scarcity, so they need more love, not less, in order to be set straight. But then, what if fear of abandonment can’t be silenced, and the love isn’t therapeutic, and the manipulation never stops, the person feeling fully responsible for keeping the love flowing through whatever means possible? And care and intimacy and security aren’t necessarily a cure for PTSD, or a lesson in how to manage a personality disorder or being a fringe neurotype… but who wants to focus on a more thinky, sterile therapy while they’re lonely and afraid? And so on.

First of all, no one should expect love from a person, unless it is part of some personal agreement (that is subject to be amended or canceled), no matter how well-adjusted they are. If low self-esteem manifests in abusive coping behaviors, the abused has just as much responsibility to leave as the abuser has to stop, when all other factors are considered equal (obviously, abusers are capable of creating traps for their victims, situations not easy to escape). Those participating in our healing are only helping; it is not possible for them to do all of the work for us. Then, being loved isn’t our choice. Companionship in general is not earned; it is given (a person can do all the right things, checking all the right boxes, and still be rejected, entirely because the one in the position to reject has agency, has a choice, and acceptance and rejection can not happen without that choice). ‘Falling in love’ tends to imply love going both ways, but other people can love me without me loving them back, so the implication that I am undeserving of love until I love myself goes beyond the scope of ‘love yourself before you try to love others.’ A person can try to practice care, kindness, affection, and social passion without expecting anything in return, and practicing one skill often improves our ability in related skills. Deliberate practice may be necessary, as opposed to desperate seduction, but discovering how to love others with ease is not unrelated to unlocking the path toward self-love.

Overlapping with self-love, we have confidence. Confidence is attractive, but lack of confidence in one’s general merit or worth can easily be buried beneath confidence in specific skills, which can include social skills, and people interpret self-deprecating humor as confidence all the time. The social rewards of being perceived as confident can actually provide a person with confidence; there are healthy ways to acquire confidence without meditating on our personalities in isolation. Confidence and self-esteem aren’t personality traits, not idle states or easily measurable characteristics; they are practices, sets of behaviors, abilities, that are used much in a confident person and little in the opposite. And while it’s relieving and connecting to share and discuss our insecurities, the purpose of this ought to be to build each other up, to normalize insecurity so that it may become lighter, so that we may eventually have the strength to throw it away. In both playing to our strengths and confiding in others we can build ourselves up, and in doing so experience all sorts of pleasing and necessary social interactions, without developing any expectations, commitments, or even lasting bonds. When the goals are to give and practice, love becomes less about the object of love and more about the loving.

Bad habits and patterns are easier to replace than they are to simply shed, though, so it’s worth mentioning that the alternative to shedding insecurities is to sublimate them into sensitivity and care for others. Grasping our own insecurity gives us insight in to the insecurities of others, so insecurity with a bit of understanding can be morphed in to compassion. Sensitivity concerning our own suffering can be diverted in to sensitivity concerning the suffering of others. Feeling empathy and compassion isn’t enough, though, and can be quickly fatiguing if not acted upon. This brings many of us to a new layer of insecurity, though: helplessness concerning helping others, insecurity about our ability to make positive impact in the world.

For some, the quest for internal tranquility is a lifelong struggle, and a great enough burden as it is. For others, those who have at least sampled that inner peace, it’s not enough. It becomes only a worthy foundation for crafting an active, providing, fighting character, something we can solve a bigger problem with, whether that be guiding others to their own internal tranquility, or helping sculpt pockets of joy, wonder, and freedom in the world. But such problems are immense, and require a lot of sacrifice, and there’s no guarantee we’ll make a significant impact, and if we’re not up to the challenge, or fail again and again, what does that say about our worth? Well, of course it’s not useful or practical to think about it in terms of worth. Does a judgment of worthlessness show us how to solve the problem? No. Instead, it should be a matter of ability: whether due to stress, lack of material resources, lack of time, lack of knowledge, etcetera, how are we disabled? Is this a disability that can be overcome? Do we need to allow ourselves space, grace, and patience in order to overcome it? Perhaps, if trying to provide for the greater good is nothing but taxing and trampling on that inner calm, finding that tranquility again and living as an example is all the influence one needs to be. Without flexibility, fluidity, adaptability, whether we have inner tranquility is only a matter of lucky circumstances.

Nevertheless, we have within our ranks those that feel guilt and shame about failing their peers, about failing society, because they are not great heroes. Shame can manifest in a very self-centered way, and so can a need for selflessness, but these characters do not self-loath out of a lack of acquisition, by neurotically measuring what they have. Instead, they judge their selves harshly regarding what they can’t provide, and how can we decide whether a person is motivated by greed and desperation or care and usefulness by simply asking them, ‘Do you love your self?’

Which brings us back to the point. ‘Love your self first’ is a moral rule, rejecting context. So is ‘the disabled deserve your love’. To frame the self-loathing as disabled to denounce social rejection of them on those grounds is to do what people so often love to do regarding the disabled: infantilize them. Disabled folks have agency and can do harm. Yes, it is destructive and short-sighted to categorize folks with low self-esteem as toxic personalities, and yes, low self-esteem comes from trauma, therefore to categorize these people as simply toxic is to blame the victim, but the opposite extreme is pity, and pity is just a gentle repackaging of resentment and dehumanization.

Instead of judging someone based on their self-image, why not be more curious about how they’re handling it? We show respect by complimenting their efforts, after all. When we compliment their natures, it is mere flattery. Are we only interested in those folks that are stagnating in a good place? Or are we interested in those going somewhere better, regardless of their current standing? And what does it say about us, if our only offering to those alienated even on the inside is shaming and rejection? We, as a society, ought to have something better prepared even for those self-loathing individuals who project their inner turmoil as outward harm. We can’t simply rely on our therapists, who are severely outnumbered, under-educated, and expensive, to do all the work of healing a lonely and connection-starved world.

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