Do you know how to love? Do you make it a point to convey loving feelings through loving actions to those who are most important to you?
A client in my therapy practice frequently says to himself and to me, "I don't love myself. I don't love anyone. I don't know how to love," That's a sad set of thoughts, so I have been thinking a lot of late about the important question of how to love.
Receiving the following email then led me to write these thoughts into a blog post.
Hi, Dr. Heitler:
I hope this is not too "basic" of a question, but in your experience, do you think that love is a necessary condition for a successful marriage? I am worried that I no longer have the capacity to "fall," yet want to make a long-term relationship work, even with my terrible trust issues. Your wisdom is greatly appreciated. K. from OH
One falls in love with romatic sexualized feelings. People stay in love by acting lovingly.
Acting lovingly entails habits like appreciating, caring, helping and sharing, habits that make a love relationship last. These loving habits, habits that spread positive energy make bonding feel safe and gratifying. Listening in an appreciative way furthers the spread of love as well.
Habits that make bonding feel unsafe and insecure, by contrast, erode affection. They smother love with negative feelings like anger, depression, and anxiety. Eliminating habits like criticism, sarcasm, irritation, blame, neglect or dismissiveness certainly can be a good start to learning how to love.
Eliminating hurtful habits is necessary but not sufficient for cultivating love. Loving also requires actions, frequent repetitions especially of the five kinds of habits described below.
If these actions are not spontaneously happening in your life, it probably means that you grew up in a family where these skills were not modeled. One of my clients, for instance, grew up in a family in which Dad, while not overtly hostile, seldom said anything positive to him, even showing no joy when the son received an acceptance letter to the college of his dreams. That's not loving behavior, from a parent or anyone.
The versatility of love actions
The five love habits below apply to loving yourself and apply equally to loving others. That’s because people tend to talk to themselves in the same ways that they talk to others. Criticize and blame yourself? Appreciative toward yourself? Probably you do these actions to others as well.
The How to Love Action Plan
As you read through the action plan below, it can be helpful to assess how you are doing on each factor. On a scale from 0 to 5, rate yourself first on how you interact with your "loved one," and a then do a second run-through on how you interact with yourself.
You might then add a 3rd run-through to check how loving your actions are with children in your life.
After each run-through, total your numbers. A score of 20 or higher is good, with higher clearly better and 25 top-of-the-line.
____1. Hands on. Take physical care of yourself and others.
After my father died, I told my sister how much, to my surprise, I was missing him. After all, caring for him by taking him out for rides and errands, seeing to his medical needs, eating dinner with him and bringing him to my house to enjoy time with his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids took a lot of time. Why wasn’t I relieved to have more discretionary time now for myself?
My sister answered wisely, “We grow to love, to care the most, for those we take care of. Caring-for is an act of love; the more you take care of, the more love you feel.”
One aspect of caring is responsivity. If you feel tired, do you listen responsively to yourself and therefore figure out how to get some rest? If others express a vulnerable feeling, say, of sadness, worry, or fatigue, do you respond with kindness and thoughts of what you might do to help?
Another aspect of caring is making time for those you love.
How well do you take care of yourself? Who do you help out and care for other than yourself? How could you do more caring for yourself? And for others?
____2. Eyes and Mouth. Use your good eye. Use your mouth to verbalize what you see.
The good eye looks to understand, accept and to appreciate what you see in yourself and/or in others. Sentences expressing what the good eye sees typically start with phrases like “I agree that …” or “I am glad that…” or “I like your ….”
Enjoyment, appreciation and gratitude are particularly strong indicators that the good eye is in the lead, leading you toward a loving place. Maybe that is why prayer tends to focus on expression of what we appreciate.
The bad eye, by contrast, looks at yourself and at others to criticize, judge, and/or demean with negative labels what you see. Saying phrases like “You shouldn’t have….” Or “Why did you have to …?” or “That was dumb…” indicates that the bad eye is in control.
The bad eye does have it’s place. Some things are genuinely wrong. Stealing is wrong. So is murder, hatred, brutality, corruption, and even small acts of meanness. The key is to save the bad eye for recognizing genuinely hurtful actions. A too-frequent focus on negatives breeds dislike, distrust, sarcasm and other negative attitudes, all of which are the opposites of loving attitudes.
The good eye focuses on positives like beauty, kindness, effort and anything that has been well done. See what is good, and then say what you like and you wil be solidly on the road to loving. At the same time, the good eye sees foiblles, your own and others, with acceptance and humor. No one is perfect. We all have plenty of room to grow, which brings us to the next step in the action plan.
____3. When things go wrong, breathe deeply. Then remind yourself: Mistakes are for learning.
After you make a mistake, what do you say to yourself? Or to others after they have made a mistake? Taking a deep breath before you react can help to calm you down and to give yourself time to let thinking catch up with the impulse to react. If your tone sounds harsh or your words are critical, step back again, breathe deeply to relax a bit more, and then start over.
Mistakes are not for punishing. Mistakes are not for pounding yourself or others into soft heaps of regret. Mistakes are for learning.
Mistakes also are not for revenge. As PT blogger Stephen Diamond has written, revenge leads to bitterness and then on to hatred. Those feelings are the opposites of love.
Mistakes are for learning: figure out what you, or others, did that turned out to be problematic and then figure out how to do things differently next time. Mistakes are for learning.
____4. Ears. Listening is loving.
When your shoulder hurts, do you ignore it? Or do you pause to figure out what might be causing the pain and how you might repair the difficulty?
When you feel lonely, do you deprecate yourself for feeling that way, or do you aim to figure out what you might do to alleviate the loneliness?
When others share their concerns, distresses and vulnerable feelings with you, do you listen to understand? Or do you brush their words aside as burdensome inconveniences, dismissively label their concerns ‘foolish’ or ‘stupid,’ or negate what you heard with “But…” and explain what is wrong with those thoughts? That would be listening with the bad ear, just like looking at yourself or others with an eye for what’s wrong is looking through the bad eye.
Listen with genuine interest to your own quiet inner voice and to others' in order to understand. Listen to share others' sorrows and to celebrate their joys. LIsten to learn from others when their viewpoints differ from yours . Listening is loving.
____5. Skin and more.
Get some "skin in the game" if you want to sustain a loving intimate relationship. Skin-to-skin hugging, cuddling, and "making love" in the full sense are essential ingredients of lasting love relationships.
Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, the chemical that produces feelings of bonding. Kids especially thrive with lots of parental loving of the hugging variety. And do keep in mind that a marriage without sex is a marriage at risk.
Opening your deeper self to feelings of love.
Some people are afraid to love, afraid to trust themselves or others. The good news is that anxiety is not a stop sign; it's just a blinking yellow proceed-with-caution light.
There's more you can do too to get past fearfulness about loving. For instance, energy therapist Donna Eden has interesting YouTubes on techniques for expanding your auras. Auras sound pretty far out to me. At the same time, I have to admit to having observed a success with a recent client who was fearful of loving. The energy therapist in my office suite did interventions that expanded my client's aura, after which she felt significantly more safe, more open to loving herself, and more willing to experiment with sharing more loving actions with her husband.
How to proceed from here.
Practice taking loving actions at least once every day toward yourself, and at least once a day toward the fortunate person or people whom you would like to be more able to love. Then add more...the more actions of love you do, the more loving you will feel.
Do however make the five steps for how to love in this blogpost just a starter. The more further ways of loving yourself and others that you discover, the more loving your world will become.