I’m not against self-help literature. I’m a shrink, so I’m all for it. There are a few fashionable self-help myths, though, that drive me up the wall because they are not only nonsensical, but it’s actually cruel to lead others to believe in them.
So I’m creating a series of Self-help Hooey posts that expose and put right some of this silliness. I hope to make you feel a whole heap better about yourself along the way, and equip you with much better strategies.
We’re going to start with these two doozies…
You must love yourself before you can love someone else
and the closely related…
You must feel whole within yourself for a relationship to work
Sounds logical. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that these things are impossible to achieve. Every one of us knows in our heart of hearts that we have not quite achieved either of them. So our trusty brain tells us we must be falling short in life somehow. Our life is not good enough. We are not good enough.
Why are we are failing to achieve this lofty pinnacle of psycho-spiritual evolution? Others have obviously achieved it, because self-help writers are telling us so. The authors must have achieved it themselves, otherwise they wouldn’t be writing books telling us how to do it. Right?
The truth is that almost every one of us is ‘underachieving’ against this impossible standard. It’s unkind to make people feel lesser, just to sell a book or some kind of psychotherapy.
A better way to think
To be fair, sometimes it’s not so much the concept that’s at fault. The bigger problem is its literal interpretation.
Yes, achieving wholeness is vague and practically unachievable, but endeavouring to deal with your own stuff rather than dumping it on your partner and expecting them to be fine with it, is still a very worthwhile effort.
You will feel more empowered too, instead of standing by helplessly in the fruitless hope that something outside of you – your partner – will fix or compensate for everything that’s less than fully functional about you.
That is very, very different from saying that you should not even have a romantic partner until you achieve some vague, unknowable, impossible personal development target.
Likewise, whilst genuine self-love is liable to look to a psychologist more like narcissism than high functioning, having a head full of self-admonishing chatter isn’t ideal either. If you are talking to yourself this way, life won’t be pleasant. You’ll be underachieving in work or relationships due to the anxiety, lack of self-confidence or depression that this habit causes.
It may also be frustrating for your partner if they feel they have to expend a lot of emotional energy propping you up every day. So see a psychologist and get your negative thinking sorted out. See me, if you like, in person or via Skype.
Take a reality check
In the meantime, take a look around you. What couples do you know in their 40s, 50s or 60s? How many of those people, as individuals, are perfectly serene, well-rounded, rational, organised, independent, kind yet world-conquering, multi-skilled, relationship experts? Are there any? Or does each one of them have quirks and flaws that their partner works around?
See what I’m saying?
Maybe, just maybe, those of us who work hard at our own self-awareness, behaviour and life skills will have things pretty well together by the time we are 60 or 70.
The chance of achieving this enlightened, exalted level of character development while we are still fertile is too remote to deserve a mention.
It’s cruel for therapists or self-help writers to make 30 year-olds feel otherwise. It’s not natural. It’s not human.
But it is extremely natural to date and build lives together – and to work around each others’ flaws while we work on our own. That’s a big part of what a relationship is. Miraculously, our species has made it through using this particular method for a long time. We seem to be doing OK.
So don’t feel that you have to be perfectly psycho-spiritually formed, nor that your partner ought to be, to be worthy of a serious relationship. Just keep working on it, that’s all.