Whatever love is, it confuses me. I know the warm feeling in my chest when hugging my mom, swooning after taking a heavenly bite of Nutella, and feeling the relief of sinking into my bed after a long day. But true love? A foreign phenomenon to me.

At one point, I thought I was in love. Or rather, I convinced myself I was in love because I wanted to feel it so badly. A year ago, my friend set me up with a guy who I began to really like. Four dates, three coffees, and two movies later, I was naive enough to believe he could be my Prince Charming. As a young girl, I grew up watching Disney movies and it was ingrained in my head that I, too, would eventually be united with my prince and we would live happily ever after. The fantasy that someday someone would sweep me up off my feet and into eternal bliss stuck with me like glue throughout my adolescence.

It sounds so silly to me now, but for the longest time, I actually believed I needed to be in love with someone else to be happy. This feeling has chased me through many love interests and made it harder for me to put my foot down when I knew I deserved to be treated better. The guy I started developing feelings for—let’s call him Jake—decided, after getting to know me for three months, that he all of a sudden and without any explanation, wanted nothing to do with me. In a flash, we went from constant conversation to a hum of radio silence. It was painful—but I kept telling myself that he’d turn around, that he’d come back for me and realize his mistake. But he never did.

I clung to false hope like a kid climbing the monkey bars. When the radio silence began I mostly was confused. I thought it was my fault. I was angry at myself because, of course, if a guy lost interest, it was because I did something wrong.

My emotions became so potent that they blinded me from processing the situation rationally; if you are mistreated by someone over and over again, you probably shouldn’t waste your time on them anymore. I couldn’t fathom why I gave one person so much power—the power to dictate my mood, to empower me, to control me. Ultimately, I acted the way I did because I so badly wanted to believe that my fantasy of finally finding my prince charming could actually be tangible.

After giving many second chances, it dawned on me that I didn’t even know the person I was falling “in love” with. Clearly, I loved the idea—the illusion—of a person I constructed. In truth, my fantasy of Jake was simply that, a fantasy: a pristine version of him stripped of all his imperfections, of everything I wanted him to be, and for us to be. It blinded me from seeing how deceitful he actually was. My only regret? I willingly relinquished to him the power over my emotions.

Looking back, I know I wasn’t in love with Jake. I liked the feeling.

There was a void I was filling with this fantasy. When Jake wasn’t around to talk to me, my mood sunk. I felt hopeless. I knew there was a problem because if he did talk to me, I instantly went from devastated to cheerful.

The problem: I didn’t love myself unless Jake did. My self–appreciation stemmed solely from his compliments and feeling loved by him.

And that was the first time I realized that the void I was needing to fill was empty of self–love. I used to think it wasn’t okay to really like things about myself because often it feels like real self–love is mislabeled narcissism. As a result, I waited for someone else to love me so I could love myself.

What I didn’t know is that love should not and can not act as a form of validation. If someone says that they love you, that shouldn’t be treated as permission for you to love yourself. Self–love comes from within; it stems from believing in your self–worth. Only you can construct and control how you feel about yourself. External validation is not a prerequisite for self–appreciation.

The issue is that self–love isn’t a norm or expected behavior in our society. We don’t grow up learning that it’s important to love ourselves. Even the definition of self–love is misleading because its synonyms are vanity, narcissism, and conceit. Rather, self–love is a person’s comfort in their own skin because they have the confidence and courage to admire themselves. No one is perfect, but if we can learn to love ourselves and all of our imperfections, we can eventually work towards a genuine acceptance of our whole selves.

Although imagination is a beautiful thing, constantly ruminating about the past can only lead to disappointment and self-doubt. A friend once told me that a “happy” person is one who doesn’t get stuck in the past—the happy person learns from their past mistakes and then has the capacity to move on.

It took time, but I eventually I stopped thinking about Jake every day, what he was up to, who he was with—and I felt so much freer when I ceased to put energy into someone who never had the intention to reciprocate it.

I’ve realized that romantic love, even though I’ve yet to actually experience it, can’t possibly be what I saw and wished for as a young girl who idealized Disney’s happy endings. I know I will find someone who loves me because I chose to love myself first.

I don’t need a Prince Charming and neither do you.