There's a common phrase that pops up just about any time someone expresses a desire to find someone to have a relationship with. Invariably, someone will say, “You have to learn to love yourself first.” or “You have to be comfortable being alone before you can be comfortable with someone else.” I've discussed my dislike of these before, because it makes a lot of assumptions, not the least of which that they don't love themselves, or they're not comfortable with themselves.
The other day I was at work, and one of the coworkers mentioned a bad dating experience. This brought up a conversation, and someone asked me about my dating experience. I made a offhanded, self-deprecating comment like I usually do. Almost immediately, someone gave me the “you have to learn to love yourself first.” Normally at this point, I point out that if that's true, I'll NEVER find someone to love me, since loving myself just isn't in the cards. This time, however, I had an article on my mind from the night before. The article was on Maslow's Pyramid. For those who don't know, Abraham Maslow was a psychologist in the 1940s, who published a paper titled "A Theory of Human Motivation", where he outlined the heirarchy of needs for a human to become self-actualized. Most of the time, this is written as needing to fulfill the lower levels before moving up to the next. For instance, one must fulfill the physiological needs, before progressing up to the safety needs, and then must complete those before moving on to Love and belonging. Of course, this isn't necessarily the case, because even people that are struggling with the “safety” level still have a desire for friendships, self-esteem, and morality.
What it DOES show is that things higher on the list become more difficult if things on the lower levels aren't fulfilled. Notably, It's difficult to find esteem without Love/Belonging being fulfilled. And likewise, it's difficult to achieve love and belonging, if your unable to feel safe.
“You have to love yourself before anyone else will love you” is literally saying that you must fulfill the “Esteem” level, before you're able to fulfill the “Love/Belonging” level. You have to have self-esteem, confidence, achievement before you can begin to find friendship and intimacy. This is actually a difficult feat, because self-esteem and confidence come primarily from friendships, family, and a sense of belonging. Humans are social creatures, and without a social framework to build on, it's difficult to find a level of self-esteem.
Most people that say “you have to love yourself first” miss this point. To them, they love themselves, so it's natural that people accept them. It's always been that way, as far as they know. But the truth is that in most cases, that self-esteem came from others. Family, friends, colleagues, or others helped build it up first. Yes, if it already exists, it's easy to assume it's always been there. And of course, confidence, self-esteem, and achievement ARE attractive qualities. So if you have those qualities, you'll see people attracted to you, and it's natural to assume that self-esteem leads to love and belonging, rather than the other way around. In terms of relationships, though, saying “You have to love yourself first” literally is the romantic equivalent of “If they have no bread, let them eat cake.”
When a person DOESN'T have a support network, they haven't fulfilled the Love/Belonging tier, and it is incredibly difficult to build the esteem tier. How do you feel good about yourself, if there is no indication that you SHOULD feel good about yourself? Just assuming you're awesome is fine, but it will only get you so far, especially when there's literally noone to verify that. Or worse, if things happen that make you question that, like not being able to find a relationship.
Unfortunately, I don't know what the solution is. “Just love yourself” isn't an answer. I don't know about other people in this situation, but I just don't see that as a possibility. What's more, speaking personally, I don't know HOW to love myself. You might as well say “before you find someone else to love you, you have to prove there's life on mars.” It's not a matter of not wanting to, it's a matter of not knowing what to do to even start. And without a support network, that continues to be harder, rather than easier.