When the positive thinking guild says, “If you don’t love yourself, no one else will,” I think they’re trying to motivate people to prioritize self care. I think they’re trying to emphasize the importance of self esteem and self love. It’s true that a lack of love for yourself will translate into a lack of love for others and you will eventually burn out no matter what you’re doing (as one who struggles deeply with self care, trust me on this). But this, much like the idea that “the world doesn’t owe you, you owe the world,”contains a grain of truth while perpetuating a damaging lie. “If you don’t love yourself, no one else will” twists the necessity of self love into a fear-based chore done to obtain something else, i.e., the love of others. It makes it seem like loving our selves is so that we can be loved by others, which is a recipe for protracted anxiety and transactional relationships centered on proportionality: if I love myself this much, then that is how much I can expect to be loved by others.
Even beyond this, though, it’s just not true that if you don’t love yourself, no one else will love you. It will certainly make it difficult for you to feel loved by others and it may pose more of a challenge to others if you don’t love yourself but actually, we cannot love ourselves unless others love us. We are communal beings and, as C.S. Lewis said (somewhere) in The Four Loves, we show different aspects of our personality depending on who we are interacting with at the moment. People are like diamonds in so many ways; we are able to reflect the light we receive from another and, while we all wear masks (different masks for different people even) to hide ourselves, we all also are made wholly ourselves by the varied parts of us that are brought out by our friends. If we cannot even be ourselves on our own, how are we to love ourselves without one another?
One Other in particular. “We love because He first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 tells us. This does not just pertain to loving and serving others. We are unable to love ourselves by our own power; we are empowered to do so only because Jesus first loved us. Self love is critical to self sacrifice – how can you self sacrifice, that is, lay down your life for your friends (which is the greatest love according to John 15:13) if you don’t have a self to lay down in the first place? But self love is not conjured up with one’s own strength; the ability to genuinely love oneself only comes from external inward: we love ourselves as God’s handiwork and Christ’s reward for His Passion.
The Cross comes before self love, the love of self and the love from others is intertwined in an interdependent, mutually informing and nurturing braid that cannot so easily be discerned as, “If you don’t love yourself, no one else will” and in no case is God’s love or the love others choose to give us (love is, after all, an verb, not a feeling) predicated upon merit. If you don’t love yourself, there is One who always has and if you do love yourself, it’s because the unconditional love of God, at its pinnacle in the incarnation, life, crucifixion and resurrection of the One Son God sent has made it so.