In the canon of popular relationship advice, “love yourself or no one else can love you” gets dispensed so often, it’s reached the point of cliché.
It’s the “something to remember” that Madonna’s former lover passes on to her in Something to Remember. It’s RuPaul’s catchphrase on Drag Race. It’s the advice well-meaning friends give you when you’re full of negative self-talk after getting dumped
Still, just because something is overused doesn’t mean it’s of no value. In truth, it really is a tall order to love someone else when you’re dealing with cripplingly low self-esteem or a lack of self-love.
“You have to know how to love someone to be in a healthy relationship, and that starts with yourself,” Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, who specialises in counselling men, told HuffPost.
We often hear how narcissists can sabotage their relationships, but someone with low self-esteem can do just as much relationship damage, Smith said.
“People who deny themselves love, and love their partner too much, can result in a co-dependent relationship,” he explained.
It creates an impossible bind for their partner. “Since we love them, we want to help them change things like this – their low self-confidence or low self-worth,” Smith said. “But these are internal changes only the partner can truly make, so recognising our limits is crucial.”
What else can you do if you love someone who struggles to love themselves? Below, Smith and other therapists offer their best advice.
First, recognise that you can’t fix someone else’s problems.
Feeling good (or bad) about yourself is an inside job. The seeds of self-loathing are usually planted early in life and are difficult to overcome, said Shari Foos, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. It’s possible, but Foos said it’s the self-doubter who has to put in the work, not their partner.
“You cannot fix someone else’s problem, but you can lovingly acknowledge it,” she told HuffPost. “It is also imperative that you share your own challenges, both separate from theirs as well as the impact their feelings and behaviours have on you. This gives your partner a chance to rise to the occasion, put themselves aside, and truly be there for you.”
Smith agrees. Let them know through a series of conversations how their thinking and behaviour affects you, he said.
“Say something like ‘It’s really hard to love you when you don’t see anything positive about yourself,’ or ‘I need you to get some help changing how you feel about yourself, because your lack of friendships and dependence solely on me for conversation is smothering me.’”
Be a mirror.
Someone with low self-esteem will dwell on an endless list of things that are wrong with them: They’ll never get that job promotion because they were underqualified for their current job; they hate how awkward they are at parties; they’ll never live up to the childhood or college-era expectations they set for themselves.
As their partner, you have the unique ability to point out all that’s positive, good and lovable about them, Smith said. As you do so, state how that shapes the way you see them.
“Have these positive, confidence-boosting talks in casual conversation and over time, so that you can stay consistent with it as opposed to having a one-time conversation,” Smith said.
What you’re doing is modeling for your partner what they need to learn to do for themselves.
“For instance, you might say, ‘You’re really good with managing money. It’s one of the things I love about you,’” Smith said. “Don’t just compliment behaviors. Compliment personal characteristics about them, too: ‘Honesty and integrity are so rare in the world ― I love that you possess both.’”
Don’t be afraid to criticise or speak up when problems arise in your relationship.
In a relationship, you have to ask for what you need, or sometimes you’ll never get it. Don’t let your fear of upsetting your partner’s wobbly self-esteem stop you from disclosing any problems you’re having within the relationship, said Winifred Reilly, a marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California.
“It’s fine to praise the things they do well and appreciate their good deeds, but it’s vital to the health of the relationship not to tiptoe around what’s not going well,” Reilly noted.
“Don’t like the wet towel on the bed, or seeing your partner text and drive?” she said. “Speak up, even if they react as if you’ve just said they’re the worst person in the world for bringing it up.”
If you face their reaction with calm instead of guilt, it will be good for both of you.
“But if you backpedal, or lather on the praise to counteract the flood of self-loathing, neither of you will grow and you’re likely to just feel depleted and resentful,” Reilly said.
Be a cheerleader when your partner succeeds in life.
People who have low self-esteem often have a running inner monologue of negative self-talk that diminishes their accomplishments. When something positive happens to them, they won’t relish it. Rather, they’ll find a way to negate it so it confirms their poor self-view, Smith said. That’s what they know; that’s what’s comforting.
If your partner is their own toughest critic, you can be the reliable person in the grandstands, always ready to cheer them on.
“Call it out when someone compliments or praises your partner, they start a new friendship or have some success with a hobby or get a job promotion,” Smith said. “Again, this is about modelling for them what they need to learn to do themselves.”
Share how you came to value and cultivate self-love.
Have you ever felt low similarly to how your partner is feeling now? Tell them as much, said New York-based psychologist Sanam Hafeez.
“People experiencing self-loathing often feel very alone with their feelings, so hearing that someone they deeply care about felt the same way as they did at one point in their life is very reassuring,” she said. “Hopefully they can take some of the steps you took and apply them to their life.”
Consider therapy, maybe for both of you.
Gaining self-esteem or enough self-love to feel lovable is generally a DIY job, but getting some professional counseling or therapy can help, said Marcia Naomi Berger, a psychotherapist and author of “Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted.”
“Breakthroughs are a lot less likely to happen in a peer-to-peer relationship than they are between a person and their therapist,” she said. “But a constructive way you can help would be to suggest that your partner see a psychotherapist if they want to gain confidence.”
Berger said this is healthy for the relationship because the “helper” gets to withdraw from the enabling rescuer role, while encouraging empowerment and growth for their partner.
Berger also noted that the confident partner in this equation might benefit from therapy as well ― to gain insight into why they would choose a partner with low self-esteem, and to learn how they can increase their own self-worth and lovability.
“Therapy would potentially help both parties, because it could change the relationship from an enabling parent/child type to an adult-adult one, in which both would feel more empowered to express their authentic selves,” she said.
I Love You But is a series that offers advice on how to love someone when you don’t love a big aspect of their life ― from their sex and sleep habits to their pets.