As a teenager, I used to obsess over the fantasy of a love story that would be so passionate, romantic, and intense it would make me into a new, more experienced, more exciting and confident girl. I watched romantic comedies and religiously followed up on famous celebrity couples — what they were doing together, how long they were dating for, how in love with each other they said they were. I was desperately looking for love. And I gave for granted that love was something that was going to come to me like an unexpected miracle from the exciting yet mysterious outer dimension BOYS belonged to — or what I thought it was.

I thought relationships were the answer to my struggles, the void-fillers of my existence: I was destined to wander around blindly until I would finally find my “second half,” my soul mate, the love of my life, and then, when reunited with this person by concession of our unquestionable romantic karma, I could finally see clearly. It sounds funny, but this is actually what a lot of us are taught growing up: we are supposed to wait for someone else to allow us to be a better person, to really live up to the expectations we have for our own lives. Romantic partners are supposed to love us wholeheartedly, respect us, make us happy, satisfy us sexually and reassure us emotionally, and (my absolute least favorite one) “complete” us. By ourselves, we are not capable of experiencing happiness or love. The most delightful things life has to offer are to be found within the realm of romantic relationships.

This is a story that we are told. But I want to challenge that. For so long, I was hungry for validation because I did not have the tools to define, understand, or know myself. During the entirety of my adolescence, I was heavily bombarded with media content that idealized and glorified romantic love as the only kind of attainable real and authentic love. I became convinced that no matter how hard I worked on myself, I would still be miserable and incomplete until the day prince charming showed up to my door. So, logically, instead of learning to like myself, I tried to learn how to be liked and become worthy of love, so that I would never have to deal with being left alone — or shoul I say, with myself.

I know a lot of my best girl friends were going through a similar process of making themselves available to anything that would vaguely resemble romantic love, never for one minute thinking about the remote possibility of establishing healthy boundaries or acknowledging personal needs — but I mean, that is just kind of what teenage girls do, right? Yet the hopeless romantics I was surrounded by growing up were not only girls, but boys too. Some of my male best friends were as obsessed with romantic love as we girls were. Maybe they would not admit it, for different gender roles and limitations of masculinity would apply to them. But they would engage in romantic relationships with similar expectations: finding “love,” i.e. validation, acceptance, physical and emotional satisfaction — someone who would show them they were worthy of love.

Little did we all know that the romance we so optimistically idealized wouldn’t make us better or happier people — it surely would teach us about a variety of different things and shape our identities— but it would, for the most part, socialize us to think external validation equals love. I don’t want to be misunderstood, and I am not saying that we are not meant to find romantic love in this life, or that romantic love is not something we should aspire to. Intimacy, trust, complicity, these are all things we crave as human beings. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that we often struggle to see romantic relationships as something that adds to our personal growth rather than something around which our lives are centered.

Let me put it this way: we tend (unconsciously, for the most part) to see romantic love as the ultimate savior that will overwhelm us with such pure passion and devotion, it will brush away all of our problems. In our partners, we find the comfort we are unable to give ourselves. We become familiar with our partners, we may feel insecure about their love and affection but we also feel reassured that, if they chose to be with us, they must love us and therefore think we are special and worthy enough to fill their love tank.

In our partners, we look for the perfect version of ourselves we are told we can achieve only through romantic love. What happens in getting to know and taking care of our significant other though, is that we don’t pay much attention to ourselves and our true needs anymore (hopeless romantics out there — have we ever even known what we truly need?). We tend to avoid our issues, we are less likely to address some things about our past that might still be unresolved, we lose the ability of being by ourselves without feeling a sense of loneliness creeping in.

In short, we somehow stop investing in the painful practice of self-discovery. We might even be great at helping our partner figure out what their issues could be in regards to different things, but we give up focusing on the more complex, uncomfortable stuff about ourselves. We find refuge in our partners — which can be a good thing if we are bond together by true understanding, affection, and reciprocal respect. But sometimes, in our partner, we find refuge from ourselves. That is dangerous, tends to be unhealthy in the long run, and it’s an act of escapism.

I am not saying this applies to everyone. It’s based on my own experience and the experiences of people who are close to me. But I do think there is something toxic in the romantic love narrative we are sold, and that needs to be changed. If we aspire to live in a society where every-one’s emotional health is taken seriously and self-awareness, self-love, and self-care are valued and talked about, we need to teach each other more about love from different perspectives. Real love does not only exist within the realm of romantic relationships. It also comes from accepting and valuing oneself without relying solely on someone else’s validation or attachment.

I’m in my early twenties and I’m still utterly attracted to the idea of falling in love with someone smart, kind, and loving, who will support me and my growth and be there for me no matter what. But I am learning — or, more accurately, unlearning, that love is not something to be found. We already have it within us. Tons of it. And once we accept that (which, if you ask me, takes a lot of time and dedication), we start seeing that we do not need to be saved or completed by anyone. We might just need to dig a little deeper and spend some more alone time to realize, we are our own saviors.