Love Yourself First?

Love Yourself First?

by Trenna Ahlstrom

“Before you can love others, you have to first love yourself.” It’s common advice. You can hear it in TED Talks. You can read it on motivational posters. Maybe you have even heard it coming out of the mouths of well-meaning friends. But is it true? Should you love yourself first?


Influential thinkers like Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, and Dr. Viktor E. Frankl have a different philosophy. They shared a belief that love and service to others must come before your love for yourself.

The Meaning of Life is Happiness

The Dalai Lama wrote, “One great question underlies our experience, whether we think about it or not: what is the purpose of life? … From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affects this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. . . Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness.”


So, if the purpose of life is to be happy, then how you achieve happiness? The Dalai Lama answered this question as well. “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”


The idea is elaborated on in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s philosophy.

The Meaning of Ubuntu

The Archbishop Tutu has said, “Bringing people together is what I call ubuntu which means, ‘I am because we are.’ Far too often people think of themselves as just individuals separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.”


He continued, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Do Not Pursue Happiness

Viktor E. Frankl a was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor. While a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp, Frankl observed prisoners who continued to try to serve others while they themselves were confined to the camp. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote:


“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”


You cannot love yourself first. The shared belief of these three influential thinkers is that the meaning of life is to be happy, and the source of happiness is caring for one another. If this is true, then those people striving for self-love before extending that love to other people are dooming themselves to failure. You must love other people before you can love yourself.