By Kathleen O’Reilly

Humans need attachment and love. We crave to be connected to others and to be loved. This basic human need for togetherness is felt more deeply than ever in our isolated and lonely society. Our shifting society has emphasized online interaction, more people live alone or lose close relationships as we leave home and leave school. The result is that many people, particularly young people are struggling to find or keep loving relationships. It’s because we are looking at love all wrong. 

Love Yourself First?

How many times have you heard “You have to love yourself first before you will find someone else to love you”? This annoying urban legend of love and relationships seems to pop up a lot – especially for those who have had to look long and hard for a healthy primary relationship.

Newsflash: the way to find love is not to first ‘love yourself’. Humans do not love in isolation; we love in relation to others. How we were loved by our caregivers growing up leaves a blueprint for how we take in love. If you have only experienced love that feels cold and indifferent, you might find it difficult to love yourself (or anyone else) warmly and compassionately. If your experience of being cared for was marked by a sense of suffocation or being cajoled, it is not realistic that you will know how to give yourself or anyone else space from a place of patience and understanding.  

In our modern society, there is a lot of pressure to improve ourselves – read books, watch videos, and take in as much self-help information as possible. Social media is simply inundated with pressure to ‘self improve’.  However, for most people, it is impossible to heal a relational wound on your own. Our attachment system cannot and, will not, be bypassed no matter how hard we try. Our attachment system is so powerful, it will override our threat system if necessary. This is what happens when people stay in abusive or negative relationships – their attachment system overrides the threat system and they settle for unsafe attachment. This can explain why people often struggle and end up in familiar horrible relationships – their attachment system wins over their threat system. 

So, you may be saying to yourself, “That’s all well and good Kathleen, but I keep ending up in horrible relationships, how am I supposed to heal in a terrible relationship?” This is a valid question, and my response would be, that you’re not supposed to heal in a terrible relationship. Rather, a terrible relationship can reveal where your attachment wounds are. This insight can set you on the path to healing. If you find yourself resonating with this information, I hope you learn more about attachment, and give yourself the gift of finding a safe and secure person to explore and heal these attachment wounds with. 

Attachment before love

For many people, me included, my first safe enough person to explore my attachment wounds with was an attachment-based therapist. Slowly, as my therapist proved to me over time that she was a safe person to heal these wounds with, I began to experiment outside of the therapeutic relationship with the people in my life. I found I needed her less and less because I began to understand who I was in a relationship and felt empowered to say when something did or did not work for me.

This resulted in some relationships undergoing a metamorphosis, while others disappeared completely. Most importantly, it created room for the people in my life who love me for who I am and vice versa. And this is my hope for you – that you get to experience that through the healing relationship with a secure person, whether that is a therapist or a mentor or even a loving partner or friend, you can learn how to love yourself.