Terisa Siagatonu, a Bay Area spoken word artist, recently inspired me to reconsider the often-heard and readily accepted idea that “you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.”
“I’m not so sure that’s true,” Terisa stated in a speech to the graduating Community Studies class of 2016. Instead, she posited, it may be that we first love our people, our families and communities and collectives, and it is through this love of others that we come to truly understand ourselves as part of the whole and as therefore also worthy of love.
This idea struck home for me. To be honest, the idea that “self-love” as a starting place has never really fully resonated with me. I do believe that it is important, but I also believe that it is derived from something much more fundamental and profound than a mere positive regard for the self as an individual. Contrary to American belief, Self is not necessarily the Source. We are, after all, a social and communal species. Our identities, our statuses, and all of our various positions in life are group-based, collectively defined and socially constructed. So then, it makes sense to me that we only come to love ourselves once we have figured out what it means to love those around us. It is, perhaps, by opening our hearts to our fellow humans that we fully grasp the significance of membership in this human family, and can finally approach ourselves with the same type of compassion, forgiveness, and kindness that we offer unto others.
In my own life, I can say that I didn’t know the true meaning of love until my sons and twin daughters were born. Being there for them unconditionally as they tumbled into toddlerhood and beyond has taught me what it truly means to see another person, to look into their eyes and understand that there is an entire universe in there worth nothing less than awe. Through my children, I have been taught lessons of patience, grace, and empathy that I would have previously dismissed as abstract nonsense. The daily practice of parenting has stretched my heart muscle more than any church sermon or metta meditation ever could. And the raw understanding of what it actually means to love, to invest my own time and energy and care into another person for no other reward than to see them thrive, has now made it possible for me to apply such love to myself and to other members of my larger community.
I can now look back and see that before my kids taught me this lesson, what I often referred to as “self-love” could really be more accurately described as self-absorption, self-indulgence, or just plain ego. My life revolved around my goals, my desires, my wounds. But coming into conscious parenting, and the community of loving and thoughtful folks that I have built as a sort of chosen extended family, has forced me out of my own head and into the vulnerable position of actually caring about other people and their well-being. It’s uncomfortable, at times very painful, and it means that I have given up any illusion or delusion of my own control over the world (something that was much easier to believe in when I was practicing extreme individualism). But it also means that I get to feel a legitimate sense of connection to someone and something outside of myself, which for me has come to serve as a bedrock of purpose, meaning, and yes, self-love in recent years of transitioning from an individualistic approach to life to a more communal and collective way of being.
Are we doing people a disservice in the worlds of personal development, self-help, and psychology when we tell them that they have to love themselves first? Probably. Because the truth is that for some of us, love without a grounding in community is simply empty. We can all know that we have worth and value as individuals, but perhaps the true path to self-love is not through an incessant and determined focus on our internal worlds, but a committed and compassionate engagement in the world that we all share.