Loving and being loved are not “givens.” The world would be a far better place if each child who is brought into it was wanted and beloved—if not before birth then shortly after, once its presence resounds. That, unfortunately, is not the case. Horror stories, such as those described in the Adverse Childhood Experiences studies, abound, detailing challenges faced by unloved children. One inevitable outcome is that they then need to learn to give and receive love. Because love was not something they always knew, they do not automatically know how to do it well, especially when it comes to loving themselves and feeling worthy of being loved by another.
Happily, a capacity to feel love seems to be as hard-wired as our abilities to walk, speak, read, or play. Some internal conditions such as a sound sensorimotor system, absence from pain, access to relative comfort, and basic safety from harm allow a baby to enjoy the pleasures of touch, of reciprocity in gazes and laughter, of being able to depend on someone to care for needs that cannot yet be met independently. A “secure attachment,” the cornerstone of a loving relationship, develops out of trust that someone will provide what is needed. When neglect, abuse, or squalor replace basic comfort, the baby develops a different understanding of and set of expectations for relationships.
Human impulses to help and provide care cannot be assumed. The simple kindness of someone who offers comfort or attention can be (mis)understood as love; perhaps sheer consistency of availability provides a safe feeling that becomes labeled “love.” In these cases, love is defined by a relationship that offers care instead of cruelty, friendship instead of unpredictability, or affection instead of deprivation. Love becomes defined by experiences that release chemicals—oxytocin (the cuddle/caring hormone), dopamine (the pleasure chemical), vasopressin (for attraction) or, following puberty, the estrogen and testosterone of lust. The delight of feeling accepted and valued is yet to be experienced.
Yet love can be learned, especially once we reach adolescence, gain capacities for forethought and conscious intention, and can learn to love ourselves. With a maturing brain that permits reflection and expanded life experiences that make room for a broader social circle, people are able to observe themselves with curiosity, attention, compassion, and kindness.
- Curiosity, a willingness to explore and accept the full range of reactions and feelings, brings the ability to be grateful for all that our emotions and bodily sensations can teach about the human experience. It can prod one to look beneath the surface of appearances, to discover substance beneath an introvert’s quiet or emptiness underneath glitter. Trying out a new role, developing a new skill, investigating a possible future self can bring honesty and inner direction and with them the self-respect that lies at the core of loving oneself.
- Attention is the second prong of self-love. Attention means examining what brings pleasure or alleviates pain and to invest in providing for both. It is a form of self-love easily amplified by mindfulness, reflection, stillness. In taking the time to listen to one’s body and honor a need for food, drink, movement, an increase or decrease in stimulation, we learn to identify our own needs, to discriminate between needs and wants, and to discover ways to care for ourselves. Yoga stretches can be metaphors for stretching oneself in other ways; balance postures can reflect internal equilibrium; the regular practice of the art can build self-discipline. Our subtler needs come into focus when we slow down and pay attention.
- Compassion may be the magic key to self-love. The empathy we feel when we look at ourselves with compassionate love allows us to recognize our imperfections and accept our human desires, impulses, and especially our limited reserves. We can stop making irrational demands on ourselves in order to believe we are lovable. Seeking to be “good enough” to be worthy of love only invites us to climb onto the treadmill of perfectionism. Countless innovative psychologists have shown us that “perfect” does not exist in our human experience. For example, Roy Baumeister, in conducting his famous chocolate chip cookie experiments, demonstrated that will-power uses our emotional energy. He showed that self-control is not infinite, and we become depleted after exhausting extended self-discipline. In another example, Sheldon Cohen, Bert Uchino, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, and their various colleagues, in separate series of studies, examined the physical health costs of emotional pain and negative communication in close relationships. In doing so, these researchers and others have documented an immune system that has wisdom beyond the illusion of physical invulnerability. As the French say, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”—perfection just does not exist and the belief it can be obtained will result in failure.
- Acts of kindness are ways to demonstrate and build self-love. Through gentle thoughts, respectful habits, and nurturant behaviors, we both show love to ourselves and are forced to acknowledge its consequences. Dignity, delight and self-respect document that loving is a worthwhile activity.
Curiosity, attention, compassion, and kindness, practiced as ways of honoring ourselves, allow us to develop a loving relationship with ourselves. And once we learn to love ourselves, to treat ourselves with care, consistency, and affection, we can direct our loving hearts outwards.
What other kinds of love await us?
- We can love babies. Their soft skin, sweet smell, oversized heads and responsiveness when their needs are met invite us to love them. The more two beings know each other, the greater the bonds of love can grow. As our capacity increases, we can reach out to love more broadly and deeply.
- We love family. Sometimes. Some family members more than others. And family of choice as well as family by blood or legal ties. We can learn to love those with whom we share our daily lives because of our sheer exposure to each other’s basic existence.
- We love those we care for. There is something about physically taking care of another human being who is dependent on us for that care that reaches deep into our capacity to give, to make a difference. It allows us to love them as well as to love how we feel being able to make the difference. Caregivers often report abiding joy from their connections.
We love companions. The bonds of friendship are a special form of love, one in which we grow and share as our lives evolve. In navigating our mutual stresses and triumphs, sharing activities and tribulations, we come to appreciate each other’s strengths and grow from them. The “expansion theory of love” developed by Arthur and Elaine Aron can apply to friendships as well as romantic love relationships.
- We love our pets. The relationship between a pet and its owner can also be symbiotic, especially when the pet shows the kind of attachment that comes so easily to some mammals. After I was widowed, my relationship with my bichon gave me something to replenish all the empty spaces that had been filled with love. In her Canine Cognition Laboratory, Yale professor Laurie Santos has demonstrated the unique bonds that dogs can have with their masters and mistresses; the Canine Cognition Laboratory at Duke has traced the sources of these bonds down to their chemical roots.
- We love our passions. Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly published his first book about the state of “flow,” a full engagement in an activity in which passion becomes its own motivator, in 1975. A flood of validating research followed. Our dedication to an activity that we love brings countless benefits that align with those of other sorts of love.
- We love places. We can easily attach to a place with particular meaning to us. Whether because of our history in that location or our aesthetic response to it. The field of environmental psychology explores this love. Some scholars have even argued that we imprint onto the geography where we are born and are forever attracted to a similar landscape. In a more limited way, people can create a home that they love and ensure that it helps them access nourishment for body and soul.
Source: janeb 13/Pixabay
We love altruistically. Religions have been structured around the concept of altruistic love. The Abrahamic religions all command us to “love thy neighbor as thyself." Through meditation and self-love, Buddhists are able to find their connection to and thus love for all living creatures.
- We love the world. The physical world that we live in can be a source of love for those who believe in transcendence or the universal beauty of nature and evolution.
- And yes, of course, we can love romantically. Ah, the bliss and agony of romantic love! The magic of a committed couple can indeed last a lifetime, as documented by Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron in their review of studies of long-term lovers.
If your life did not begin on a note loaded with love and attention, do not despair. Love can be learned, and you can have the joy of not only feeling it, giving it, and sharing it, but also of teaching it. What greater blessing can there be?
Copyright 2019: Roni Beth Tower.
Acevedo, B. & Aron, A. (2009). Does a Long-Term Relationship Kill Romantic love?, Review of General Psychology, 13, 39-65.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., Elliot, A. & Nakamura, J. (2005). Handbook of Competence and Motivation. The Guilford Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-87589-261-2