By Judy Pigott
Reblogged from Personal Safety Nets (January 2015, Issue 76)
Most of us might define “unconditional love” as loving another with no conditions or circumstances – regardless of how that person treats you or us, or what they do to or for us – we think the mandate is to love them no matter what. When you find someone who loves you for “who you are,” it’s an amazing experience, and similarly, it’s rewarding to love someone else just “as they are.” But what does this mean?
Dr. Jeremy Nicholson, doctor of social and personality psychology, believes that such bonds are priceless and should be nurtured with great affection. But he stresses that “relationships” are an entirely different thing. “Relationships are working partnerships. They involve thoughts, reasons, and decisions. They require two (or more) individuals in communication, commitment and cooperative exchange.” Relationships have boundaries!
Therefore, love (feelings) and relationships (decisions) can have separate rules and expectations. Nicholson believes, “Love, because it is a feeling, can be unconditional. Sometimes, no matter what a partner does, feelings towards them do not change. Relationships, however, are working partnerships, and as such, they require conditions, boundaries, limits, and directions to run smoothly.” In other words: while you may continue to love a partner “no matter what,” you may not choose to be in a relationship with them under all or any conditions. (“I love you, but find your behaviors/actions to be hurtful or wrong or unappreciated”).
According to Nicholson, “Some individuals may say, “love is enough” – deciding as long as they have love, nothing else matters, and as a result, their relationships become “unconditional” as well. But for most, there is a need to maintain a distinction between love and relationship. While these people love their partners unconditionally, they set rules that maintain a relationship that ensures a balanced, equitable exchange in their romantic partnership.” Therefore, “It is possible to continue to “feel” love unconditionally, while choosing to end unhealthy partnerships/relationships when the conditions are no longer feasible.”
How does this relate to loving our children? Here there have been conflicting opinions over the decades. More than 50 years ago the psychologist Carl Rogers postulated that simply loving our children wasn’t enough – that we have to love them unconditionally – for who they are not for what they do. But does this match today’s idea that we should turn up the affection when children are good, and withhold affection when they are not? Today’s pop-psychological book-writers such as Dr. Phil and Jo Frost (the Supernanny) push us towards “conditional parenting” – the idea of rewarding good behavior, and withholding love and attention (often through “time-outs” that exceed safe or reasonable limits) for bad behavior (sometimes called “love withdrawal).
Alfie Kohn, author of 11 books on human behavior and education, including Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards follows international research and data that tells us “love withdrawal isn’t particularly effective at getting compliance, much less at promoting moral development.” He states, “The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love, and a steady diet of that (as Rodgers warned) will see children turning to alternative resources (therapists, lovers) to provide the unconditional acceptance they did not receive from their parents.” When a time out looks like a withdrawal of love, then it’s too much. Love for the child is secure, all behavior isn’t acceptable. Ideally, parents can convey this balance.
A 2014 study by America’s leading expert on the psychology of motivation, Dr. Edward L Deci, at the University of Rochester, working with teenagers, found that both positive
and negative conditional parenting were harmful – in slightly different ways. The positive kind may get children to work harder (say at academic tasks) but at a cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative “conditional parenting” didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents. (editor’s note: luckily, this is usually short-lived and disappears long before the child has children of their own).
So what about the use of parental love as a tool with children? According to Deci and others, unconditional love by parents (as well as unconditional acceptance by teachers) should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraged without manipulation, and actively imaging how things look fro the child’s point of view. All age-appropriate, of course. “We must start to look at our love for our children from the perspective of the child – whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.”
Thinking about unconditional love for a partner and/or a child, brings us to one greater point: giving and experiencing unconditional love for ourselves! Some of us may never have received or felt such love (even from a parent) and that may be creating a large block in our ability to provide that love to others – beginning with ourselves. But the good news is that the ability to experience unconditional love starts with giving that love to ourselves – and that starts with accepting ourselves – imperfections and all!
Some psychologists, including Dr. Laura Markham, and author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, believe that learning unconditional love starts with a first step: “a commitment to radical self-compassion.” This means “parenting yourself in a loving way through all the trials and tribulations of life” – first by accepting that humans are never perfect, and each of us has flaws an makes mistakes. Markham says, “Radical self-compassion – whether it comes from inside or outside -gradually moves humans from a state of being “self-centered” to a state of being “centered in self.” Researchers say this deep self-love is the opposite of selfishness. We become so secure in our ok-ness that we’re more emotionally generous.”
Dr. Leon Seltzer, clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, tells us, more than anything else, undertaking such deeply personal work (learning to unconditionally love ourselves) involves developing greater self-compassion. “You need to recognize that given your defenses, blind spots, insecurities, and the harmful things you may have been exposed to, you really are doing the best you can – and have been – all along. Additionally, you need to stop evaluating yourself according to standards that don’t really fit who you are, or what you can realistically expect of yourself.”
Dr. Seltzer agrees: “As you succeed in accepting yourself more – in simply coming to appreciate who you are, and are not – the self-judgmental barriers that have prevented you from loving yourself other than conditionally begin gradually to fall away.” Just as with another person, it is likely that there are some behaviors of our own that cross lines of acceptability: things done for which guilt is appropriate. This is a time for self-compassion. The action was regrettable and may need repair, but the love of basic self is broader. “It’s precisely in this much more kindhearted and understanding self-recognition that lies the path not just to unconditional self-acceptance but also to unconditional self-love.”
A second step is to make repair and connection a way of life. It’s been said that we need seven positive interactions to every negative interaction to keep a relationship in good shape. Whether this exact number is true or not, think of balancing your self-speak negatives with more positive connections – it will help you keep the relationship with your self in the best of shape. Don’t let others tell your story for you. You are the determinator of your life and what you choose to tell and receive. Life does not have to continue the way it has been in the past. When you change your thoughts, your feelings become more forgiving and more loving. It’s like setting up your own positive mantra.
A third step is to realize that unconditional self love can be learned by cultivating a more benevolent attitude toward yourself.
Dr. Seltzer says this is an attitude that is “one that’s more benign and forgiving, but also more charitable, considerate, and sympathetic – comprising the essential ingredients of self-love. And with this profound attitudinal shift, such love of self can eventually be “set in stone”-virtually automatic.” It can then extend to love of and compassion for others, while setting boundaries for behavior & safety. Give the benefit of the doubt, but stay safe.
Harold Becker, author of Internal Power: Seven Doorways to Self Discovery, and founder of The Love Foundation writes, “The most courageous act we can ever undertake is to love ourselves and life unconditionally. . .doing so ensures that the energy of life flows through us uninhibited and free of judgement and misqualification.” He also reminds us that, “loving ourselves is a continuous process not a goal.”
How about taking your first step today!