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The Secret to Happy, Long Lasting Relationships


self love grafitti“You can’t love someone else until you love yourself first.” Everyone knows this talk show-pop psychology platitude. Self-help gurus regurgitate this mindless mantra ad nauseum.

I don’t know its exact origin, but whomever first uttered the phrase confused things terribly. Accepting and loving yourself is a precondition to being in a healthy, reciprocal relationship. However, the oft-recited advice has it backwards: Before you can RECEIVE love from another, you must first accept and love yourself.

There are women and men who have no trouble chasing after their romantic quarry, loving and desiring them without rhyme or reason, only to have their feelings unmet. They languish in their unrequited anguish—driving their friends crazy with endless conversational autopsies about why she or he hasn’t called them when they had such a powerful connection on their date or beginning of the relationship. These are usually the same people who run in the opposite direction—uninterested and completely turned off—when someone shows real romantic interest in them.

Why? These individuals are attracted to others who can’t love them in return, usually for similar reasons, i.e., “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members” (Groucho Marx). This begins a futile cycle of pursuit and distancing behaviors that reinforces their inner and oftentimes unacknowledged feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy and unlovable-ness.

They seek intimacy only from those who also cannot tolerate intimacy. The pursuer feels vulnerable and needy. The distancer feels put upon and guilty, which then breeds contempt and resentment. Think of it as mutually assured unhappiness.

When these individuals are lucky enough to meet someone who sees and is attracted to them, they push them away. They devise many reasons why the other person isn’t the one. Standard excuses include:

  • There must be something wrong with him or her.
  • He or she is too much of this and not enough of that.
  • There isn’t any chemistry.

Mind you, the only chemistry or attraction people who struggle with these issues are likely to feel is for someone who’s only interested in keeping them at arm’s length and therein lies the problem.

Loving someone else is easy enough, especially since people who molder in this position tend to idealize those whom they love (i.e., an unrealistic, highly selective version of the other person—the love usually disappears as soon as they realize the other person isn’t perfect.)

How do you begin to love and accept yourself in order to let someone else love you?

1) Acknowledge and wrestle with your inner demons. This usually involves going back and dealing with the unfinished business of childhood. Sometimes these issues are buried so deep that many people aren’t even aware of them.

Typically, you’ll experience them as vague feelings of not being good enough, that something’s wrong with you, shame and believing that no one would love you if they really knew you. These feeling didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Figure out which early relationships caused you to think and feel like this and work through them. This is easier said than done, but it can be done.

2) Accept that you’re not perfect. No one’s perfect. You’ll never be perfect, but that doesn’t make you unlovable and unworthy. Perfection, if there is such a thing, has nothing to do with peace and wholeness.

If you can’t tolerate your own imperfections, you won’t be able to tolerate them in another person. Other people will always fall short and leave you feeling disappointed and that’s definitely not a recipe for relationship success.

3) Develop the ability to hold and sit with the discomfort and strangeness of the new and unfamiliar. If change felt the same as that to which you’re accustomed, it wouldn’t be change. (Repeat the last sentence to yourself a few times.) If feeling rejected, not good enough and unwanted is your comfort level, it’s going to feel mighty weird and unnatural when someone expresses genuine interest and wants to be with you without you having to cajole, pressure or pester them into it.

You shouldn’t have to perform feats of strength and/or demonstrate why another person should want to be with you. If they can’t arrive to that conclusion of their own accord, they’re not worth your time. Plus, it sets up an unbalanced power dynamic in your relationships in which you’re always having to please the other person. Do you really want to spend the rest of your romantic life as a performing seal?

The fear of being loved is tied to the fear of being discovered and known; of having your vulnerabilities and those aspects you don’t like about yourself exposed to another. This is fundamentally silly because we all have things we wish were different or better about ourselves. The fear is that he or she won’t love us if they find out how horrible we think we are. True love is acceptance, not unforgiving judgment and it begins with you.

Shrink4Men Counseling, Coaching and Consulting Services

Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides confidential, fee-for-service, counseling, consultation and coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.

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  1. Free at Last
    April 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Joel, what an inspirational comment! Dr. Tara describes how you have to accept and love yourself, flaws and baggage and all, and you went on to describe how what a decent woman looks like, flaws and baggage and all. The real difference (as I see it) is that a decent woman takes responsibility for her life without laying blame or causing drama.

    I especially appreciated your last point, compassion for people through action. Few of us are ever going to go to Africa to help starving children, but it’s easy to send $20 to an organization that does. Or to volunteer in a community activity a couple of hours a week. Or foster homeless pets until they’re adopted (which I did for a couple of years). At the end of the day, what it boils down to is “Did I make a little positive difference in the world today?” The interesting thing is that small positive differences add up over the years, and the net sum is far more significant than doing one big thing that you can wear like a badge and brag about for the rest of your life.

    I only hope that I can find someone who also believes that “a little help makes everything better” as you so simply and eloquently put it. Thank you very much for your comment, you obviously put a lot of effort into it, and I (and probably many other visitors) certainly appreciate that.

  2. Christo
    February 28, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    I keep this article on my bookmarks for days like today. My life, (from very early on) was spent reinforcing the notion that I’m not good enough until I “sort everything out” or “live up to my potential”. While these goals are noble on the surface, they represent something completely different in practice. “Perfectionism” is a great way of explaining it.

    I’ve been in a relationship with a healthy female for over a year now, and I still struggle daily with allowing myself to be or feel loved.

    She touches me, and I almost feel anger or resentment. I don’t want to trust that she finds me attractive physically.

    She compliments my ability to see and say what nobody else is brave enough or insightful enough to.

    I feel as though my imperfections make it quite obvious why she should be disappointed with me.

    Given this embattled viewpoint on myself, you had better believe I was a target for narcissistic and borderline females. The most recent experience drove me to a place that hurt so badly that I question if I am capable of ever feeling love the same way again.

    Reading this website has enlightened me to the fact that I wasn’t feeling or experiencing love in a healthy way. I’m learning and working on accepting and loving myself and I’m in a relationship that makes me happy when I’m busy living and not busy tearing myself down. Therapy is a godsend. Don’t be intimidated!

    I read the previous post about spotting a female that is not dysfunctional. I guess here is my advice from my experiences:

    – Beautiful girls are the ones that require the most cautious approach. Confidence is great in a woman! But you have to pay attention to what they ACTUALLY DO! If they tell you that they don’t care for their body (read: hate), yet seem to enjoy photos of themselves, and send you provocative pictures of themselves to you with their phone, BEWARE. They may be working to get you to complimenting them, and possibly become defensive about how she/other people look at her. Its a hook that she isn’t even aware of.

    – If she can’t stand people checking her out, and vocalizes it quite often. BEWARE. You may not be a jealous person, but hear it enough times and you will subconsciously start resenting these other men as well. This goes as well for a case where the girl passively mentions something she couldn’t stand about her ex. Those mentions will become more frequent. You will become a jealous maniac and EXTREMELY self-conscious if enough messages come your way. You won’t want to repeat their mistakes. You will try to be perfect. GET OUT. Her past boyfriends went through the same things. They aren’t villains.

    – If she harms herself through cutting, eating disorders, or gets sick quite often (especially sick when you are going to visit friends or family together), she wants hook you. How could you not feel sympathy? Its a control thing. GET OUT.

    – If she she claims to have a great family life, only to get into frequent fights. It is not what she says! It is what she does.

    – HERES A BIG ONE: Change plans on her right up front or after a few dates. Life is crazy and we all seem to run into issues here and there. Her response may be compassionate, or she could get angry beyond reason. My experience was far worse though: She could get depressed and act hurt. It is a play on your compassion. It is a control thing. You wouldn’t want to hurt her like everyone else seems to do would you? She will make things about her and play the victim. RUN LIKE HELL.

    – Life keeps being unfair to her, but against all odds she is still standing… Not successful… Kind of mooches a lot…. But still standing. This is a calling card of a professional victim. She will suck you dry. RUN.

    – Run like hell if you get the silent treatment. I put myself in the hospital from being tortured like this. No previous heart condition to speak of.

    NOW on to the female that found me. I wasn’t looking, but some how I was lucky enough to find her.

    – Employed. Aspires for professional advancement, and is (or has) actually working toward it.

    – She has a family life. A REAL family life with fights, resolutions, and forgiveness. How can you hope to have a functional relationship with someone does not know how to fight fair?

    – She is vulnerable, but she knows things are temporary. She doesn’t get hurt and try to play the martyr. “I have had to do this before, I’ll just suck it up and be strong BLAH BLAH BLAH”. That stuff is all crap. Life sucks at times.

    – She takes advice and gives feedback. No stabs. No anger. She doesn’t blow you off. SHE RECEIVES AND GIVES ENCOURAGEMENT!

    – She wants to hang out. She pursues you at times. What a refreshing idea!

    – She wants her own space at times, and can express that idea to you in a way that doesn’t hurt your feelings. You aren’t a bad person! You aren’t being punished!

    – She will pick up a tab. She will offer to drive. She has ideas about what she wants for dinner. She has OPINIONS that are expressed without passive aggressive delivery or back-handed comments. It may seem satirical and funny now, but just wait until you are on the receiving end of criticism and sarcasm.

    – She touches you. She goes for the hug. She compliments you at times. She doesn’t say that she doesn’t deserve you. She cooks/cleans/plans to surprise you for no other reason, but to enjoy your company. You don’t even need to save the day or assume other superman roles!

    – Your family and friends are not overly criticized. She can not like them, but that doesn’t mean that they are targets for her to vent to you. Your friends and family helped mold you. If she resents them, she might just resent those traits in you and try to push you into being someone else. Trust me!

    – You disagree! About living together. About movies. About anything! This means you two are your own individuals and have a backbone of your own. You aren’t trying to be her perfect guy, and she isn’t trying to be your perfect girl.

    – She takes care of herself, but it isn’t an obsessive thing. You’ve seen her without makeup and she can deal with it.

    – She knows that she has limits. She knows to go to bed on time. She knows that she can’t drink too much. She doesn’t have to do it, but she recognizes that she is short changing herself. She doesn’t say “I usually can do this! I don’t know whats going on!”. A) This means she doesn’t think she can do everything. She has accepted that she is human. B) She isn’t concerned with impressing everyone by being superhuman. C) She recognizes by association and compassion that you need to get to bed early on some nights.

    – Compassion for people through ACTION. This is a funny one. Every lady I’ve come into contact with that I believe had a severe NPD or BPD dreamed of going to 3rd world country and making a difference. One even did once. BUT that was the basis on which they judged other people. If you didn’t want to go to Africa to help starving children, or you weren’t concerned with it, you were less than her. Never mind that she may or may not have ever gone and done anything, it was the fact that you didn’t make yourself miserable thinking about it. That you had the audacity to go out with your friends every weekend and enjoy your life. My current girlfriend volunteers. Looks for opportunities. A little help makes everything better.

    Well that was a doozy! I hope I helped a little. Thanks again for this wonderful website. It really put me on a path to healing and becoming a better person.

    – Joel

  3. Jasmine
    March 23, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    FANTASTIC blog! There is a lot here about the dysfunctional woman. How do we recognise healthy women?

    • shrink4men
      March 23, 2009 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks, Jasmine.

      A good start would be finding a woman who embodies the opposite of the dysfunctional traits…Also, do you feel good about yourself and accepted as a person when you’re with her or does being in her company consistently make you feel bad about yourself? I think that’s a significant indicator for either sex.

      Dr T

  4. loupsolo
    March 20, 2009 at 8:02 am

    Hello Dr T,

    After reading this post over and over again I feel somehow relieved. I have always thought that I wasn’t good enough to be loved by someone else and did everything in my power to be the best (perfectionism). This way of thinking was the fertile soil for the depression that I’m currently experiencing.

    Even though I’ve never entered into pursuit and distancing game with loved ones, I’ve never been totally opened with them. I feared that they would stop loving me and start judging me if they saw my weaknesses.

    Things changed recently when I started to discuss openly what I’m feeling and thinking, as part my therapy. And, I’m relieved to see that the loved ones still love me despite all the confessions about my weaknesses.

    To resume I started loving and accepting myself after noticing that most loved ones love me unconditionally (what a chance!). Since they can do it why can’t I?

    However I continue to behave in the old way when it comes to other persons. Your article opened my eyes to the fact that I need to unconditionally accept myself in front of any person, act naturally, stay open, don’t worry (too much) about he is thinking about me.

    So I totally agree with “You shouldn’t have to perform feats of strength and/or demonstrate why another person should want to be with you. If they can’t arrive to that conclusion of their own accord, they’re not worth your time.”

    Same applies to “If you can’t tolerate your own imperfections, you won’t be able to tolerate them in another person”.

    Thank you for this article and looking forward to new ones.

    LoupSolo

    • shrink4men
      March 20, 2009 at 3:22 pm

      Thank you, loupsolo. Accepting yourself and being able to receive love is difficult for a lot of people. It feels very strange at first to accept yourself and be accepted for who you are, but then it’s a relief and a source of peace.

  1. April 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm
  2. November 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm
  3. November 30, 2009 at 5:16 am

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