Loving yourself has a bad press in the West. We often associate it with being self-centered and not caring about others.
In fact, we have a tendency to want to put ourselves down to avoid being thought of as self-centered.
But in the Buddhist tradition, which has produced countless outstandingly generous and selfless individuals, there is an emphasis on developing love for yourself as an indispensable prerequisite for loving others.
In the Christian tradition we can also bear in mind that the injunction is to “love others as yourself,” implying that we ought to love not just others but ourselves as well. In fact the assumption in saying that we should love others as ourselves is that we already do love ourselves and that we need to extend that love to others! It’s ironic that it’s often people with Christian conditioning that think that loving yourself is sinful.
Buddhists believe that if you don’t love yourself, then it’s hard, if not impossible, for you to love other people. And if you think about it you might find you already suspect that some of the most selfish people you know really, deep down, don’t like themselves. Their selfishness is a compensatory mechanism. On the other hand, many warm and generous and loving people are able to be at ease with themselves without appearing at all narcissistic or selfish.
If there are aspects of yourself that you don’t like, the tendency will be to dislike those same things in others. In fact psychologists talk about “projection” where we dislike some part of our personality so much that we actually refuse to admit it exists (if you think only other people do this then you’re projecting right now!). But we still see the same characteristic in others, and so we “project” our unacknowledged “dark side” onto them. So a lot of our ill-will towards others is actually a dislike of ourselves. It stands to reason that if we want to improve our relationship with other people, we have to also improve our relationship with ourselves.
Of course, if our metta started and ended with ourselves then it wouldn’t really be metta — it would be selfishness. So although the first stage of the practice begins with ourselves it moves on to others in the remaining four stages.
It’s important to make sure you do the first stage (don’t skip it — if it’s hard then that means you need to do it). The cosmos will not award you extra “brownie points” for leaving yourself out. But also make sure you do the other stages as well.