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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.


This Week:
Myth or Fact: You Have to Love Yourself Before Others Can Love You

Is it true that you have to love yourself before others can love you?

 

That certainly sounds politically, philosophically, and maybe even psychologically correct. In my opinion, however, it’s nonsense. I suspect we’ve all had the experience – or known someone who has – where those around us loved us despite how we felt about ourselves. In fact, true loved ones stick by you particularly through such times. I know this first hand from my work with depression patients and their spouses.

Now, there’s another side to this story – and perhaps this is what the question is really getting at. Maybe the question is trying to ask is “Do you have to feel good about yourself before you can attract someone that’s good for you?” This is a slightly different issue, and it’s not exactly a simple one. There’s a debate in psychology that goes like this. Some experts believe that everyone wants high self-esteem. Because of this, they say, everyone seeks out a partner who will very positively towards them. The people in this camp use the term self-enhancement to describe this tendency to seek out positive feedback about oneself.

Now another camp argues that not everyone wants high self-esteem. Instead, they say that people want feedback about themselves that specifically “fits” with or validates their own self-perceptions. What this basically means is that people chose partners who act like mirrors – mates that reflect back to us what we see positive or negative in ourselves. On one hand, this argument is consistent with the self-enhancement camp, because people with high self-esteem want positive feedback about themselves because this fits with their self-view. On the other hand, people with low self-esteem prefer interacting with people who don’t see them so favorably. The reason is that they see themselves as unattractive and incapable; therefore, such individuals want to be with others who share this negative view. The people in this camp refer to these behaviors as self-verification strivings.

These issues of self-esteem can become confusing in romantic relationships. Initially, it seems that we want our partners to be enamored by us. However, this desire to be seen idealistically by our mate declines as the relationship matures. What happens next is that we want our partners to see us accurately. People now want their partners to understand, love, and accept for who they really are. Nevertheless, the issue gets hairy again, because individuals in long-term relationships do want their partners to regard them in positive terms. Now, I didn’t say they wanted to be regarded as great on everything. No, people realize they’re not good at everything. Instead, mature individuals in mature relationships want respect and recognition for the characteristics that truly make them special.

So, in a way we really do get what we look for in a partner. If we don’t respect and love ourselves, we may not initially attract a person who’ll respect and love us in a healthy, nurturing way. If you’re afraid this describes you, then please know that changing one’s self-esteem takes time. What can you do? Fortunately, there are some guidelines that are well known in clinical circles and which have often been repeated in various resources. First, you can consistently behave in ways that communicates to others that you’re a person of worth and deserving of respect. To be sure, your self-esteem affects how people behave and interact with you, and feedback from others also influences how people perceive themselves. Second, it’s crucial to form realistic expectations of yourself based on your abilities. Those with low self-esteem tend to have extremely high expectations for themselves and others. Therefore, you must learn to evaluate yourself based on realistic expectations and observable facts. Lastly, choose your friends and online dating prospects carefully! The people with whom we associate can help or hurt our self-esteem.




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