As Lizzo put it so well, “True love ain’t something you can buy yourself / True love finally happens when you by yourself.”
I’m not saying that you can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself, or whatever white moms named Rachel like to post on their Facebook timelines. That’s bullshit. I loved so many people before I ever learned to love myself. What I’m saying is that you can’t love someone else sustainably if you don’t love yourself.
My first two relationships were built on puppy love, the fact that we were the only single gays in a 6-mile radius, a strong mutual obsession over female singers and the desperate need to not be alone with our thoughts.
Looking back on my previous relationships, I had an abundance of love to give. I’d write little notes and doodle small drawings for my girlfriends on whole stacks of Post-it notes. I’d pick flowers off the side of the road, make drawings or write songs about them, and give them as gifts alongside the Post-it notes. (I said I had love, not money.)
Even though those gifts were well intentioned, I was so desperate for praise that I felt like I needed some show of gratitude to reaffirm my self-worth as a partner. I was so unsure of myself and so unable to give myself care and love that I depended on my partners to be my source of love. So if they didn’t respond in the way I wanted, I’d be upset without knowing how to name it and voice my concerns, and they wouldn’t know how to deal with it. That wasn’t fair to them, nor to me.
Not only did my lack of self-love affect my relationships, but it also affected breakups and how resilient I was after them (spoiler: not at all). Because I was so desperate to fill the void left by loneliness, breakups hit me really hard. I’d cling to my partner the same way she did to me, both of us unwilling to acknowledge that our time together was long past over. That made breakups even more painful and drawn-out. Multiple times, I tried the “taking a break” approach, knowing that it would just prolong the inevitable.
I was so afraid of being by myself that I wouldn’t break up with partners until the relationship was long over. Not only that, but I dove headfirst into relationships without asking myself if we were compatible or good for one another. I didn’t allow myself to properly process breakups, which bled into my next relationships, and the cycle would continue.
So a year ago, after the last iteration of the new girlfriend-both of us desperate for love-realizing that our relationship isn’t sustainable-breaking up cycle, I took a step back and properly looked at the patterns of my dating life.
The cycle was clear to me. I was running away from myself and doing so by filling up my time with dating. What was I so afraid of? Why was spending time with myself so terrible? Sure, kissing and holding hands and cuddling were all great, and I missed it from time to time. But my relationships were founded on an unstable dependency, rather than being built solidly on myself.
So I took some time to myself. In fact, I’m still taking time to myself. Not that I’m not going on dates or not having sex. I’m not a hermit spending time in her bedroom completely alone in search of enlightenment. That would just end up with me watching Netflix 24/7.
No, taking time for myself just means that I’m willing to take myself out on dates. If I want to drive to the ocean and eat my own pizza by myself so that no one can judge me, then I will. If I want to sit in a bookstore for hours on end, then I’m going on a bookstore date with myself. If I want to go to a party and get messy drunk with my friends, then I will. If I want to leave and get Taco Bell, put on a face mask and fall asleep like that? Then I will.
Self-love is not just being able to know what my boundaries are — it’s also knowing how I can actually take the best care of myself. And it means being able to spend loving, indulgent time by myself. Taking the time out of my day to do so was hard at first. But as I practiced going out of my way to make sure I felt loved by myself, soon it just became routine.
The only person who stays by your side every day of your life is yourself.
Astrid Liu writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].