Everyone’s heard this self-help platitude: We need to love ourselves before we can love anyone else. This may sound wise, but it misses a great truth; if we want to experience true intimacy, we need to be taught to love aspects of ourselves–again and again–by the people around us.
As much as we want to control our own destiny, the humbling truth is that sometimes the only way to learn self-love is by being loved-precisely in the places where we feel most unsure and most tender. When that happens, we feel freedom and relief-and permission to love in a deeper way. No amount of positive self-talk can replicate this experience. It is a gift of intimacy, not of will-power.
Yet if our vulnerability is met with derision or disinterest, something tender shrivels and retracts within us, and we may think twice about ever sharing that part again. In my favorite Chipmunks episode, Simon falls head over heels in love, but has no idea how to win the (chip)girl’s heart. Dave exhorts him, “Just be yourself.” In response, Simon wails, “I tried that already!” When our authentic self doesn’t work in the world, we create a false self which lets us feel safe and accepted–but at significant cost. The great psychoanalytic theorist Donald Winnicot said, “Only the true self can be creative and only the true self can feel real.” I would add that only the true self can bear the risk of deep intimacy.