Tigre, Love Explorer
07 Feb 2018
What is it to love someone? Is loving someone doting on them or sacrificing yourself for their needs? Does love require unwavering boundaries and firm discipline? Is it somewhere in between?
Learning to Love
As infants and small children, how we learn to love isn’t our choice or responsibility. The love we’re shown and exposed to sets a deep foundation for how we express love for others and ourselves.
Love—a very loose term according to the dictionary—can mean many things. It’s a noun and a verb. It can mean to care or to idolize, to provide compassion, or to lust for something or someone.
The love I’m speaking to here is the love of caring and compassion.
As a parent, I can see exactly how my style of love is unconsciously adopted by our children. The way our youngest plays with her dolls is a mirror of how we care for and love her.
Growing up, our daughter’s love will evolve and be shaped by how she learns to love with others. Heartbreak, rejection, adoration, comfort will all contribute to her own style of love. But there will still be that deep, initial foundation for her to build on (and return to).
In our own families, Lola and I were blessed to have stable, kind, and loving parents. They left us with little to no traumas or demons for us to work through as we’ve grown. By growing up with an inherent worthiness, we didn’t have to feel unworthy of love or fiercely protect it because it was withheld.
But, many people aren’t given such a loving foundation to this messy existence. With our clients and others, we witness consistent patterns of what a detrimental, fear, or violence-based foundation of “love” (or lack-there-of) does to a human as they mature.
Patterns of such families may manifest as:
- coldness or emotional armoring
- feeling unworthy of love
- repeating abusive patterns learned
- overcompensating with affection/clinginess
It’s inescapable: your childhood experience of love impacts how you’ll love in the future.
This is not a life sentence for flawed experiences of love. As I’ll share below, anyone can learn healthy ways to love and be loved!
Forgetting How to Love
At some point on our journey to adulthood, many of us wander onto a path that leads to some form of forgetting how to love and care for others. No matter what our foundations from childhood were, independence, adolescence, and and peer influences can all lead towards a time of selfishness, greed and unkindness.
Conversely, we can also forget to love ourselves; putting others’ needs before our own (at the expense of ourselves), or engaging in damaging behaviors that put our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health at risk.
But, even as potentially damaging as they can be, these wanderings and mistakes are a natural aspect of our human experience.
In a healthy culture, these negative expressions are caught early and redirected toward a kinder, more love centered expression. Those same cultures usually also have a tradition of oral story telling or initiations that addresses the shadow side of love and human experience so that people can know of it without always having to suffer from it directly.
While our own Western culture has some of these traditions, we don’t have enough to compensate for our climate of consumerism, materialism and individualism… Aspects that do a fantastic job of undermining the traits of love I mentioned above: caring, compassion, kindness.
A cultural albatross that I grew up with was my distorted concept of sex.
While I was raised in a very loving household with two affectionate, cis-gender parents, I don’t recall (and my father may dispute this) much talk or intentional work with me around what healthy loving for my partner would look like and how to cultivate it.
I have fond memories of my parents openly displaying affection for each other: long kisses without hiding, tickle fights within reason, lots of hugs, back/head scratches, zit popping (true family right there!)… They taught me a lot and I pull many of those images to mind when I create them in my own way for my family.
But—and I’m not blaming my parents—I can’t remember much discussion around what it means to love someone. Not just have sex, but to fully embody love in all its forms. Instead, I was left to my own devices… My images of “love” came from what I managed to see in pornography I’d find (or steal… sorry Grocery store), the media I consumed, or through my peers (and we all know what great advice teenagers usually give to each other).
American culture in the 80’s for the ladies was big hair, deep tans, and fake boobs; men were hairless (unless you were Tom Selleck), ripped, steely and aggressive. So, while I was gifted with a stable family who showed genuine affection to each other and myself, I was also simultaneously being raised on sex-and-violence fueled, highly image-conscious media.
It took many relationship derailments for me to learn how to relate to women in a healthy manner; that appreciated them for who they are and not some falsely idealized Barbie. I am grateful for the lessons learned, but also would have liked to leave less damage from my actions.
Now, imagine growing up in a family were there is zero affection, threats of violence or abuse on the regular, AND toss in our Western culture focused on male pleasure and female endurance of pain. Children growing up in those environments aren’t learning love; they’re learning manipulation, insecurity, unworthiness, and co-dependency. Love becomes equated to pain, lack of safety, numbness, and/or disconnection. Love withheld creates internal dialogues of, “I’m not worthy of being loved,” or, “I’m incapable of loving because I don’t know what that is.”
How can we expect people to behave or act as compassionate adults when they’ve only experienced these twisted versions of care and kindness? Add on top of that the trope that “blood is thicker than water” and we are suckered into believing that all families act like ours, and what ours did or didn’t do was OK. Our view of what is “normal” is skewed and healthy patterns feel threatening, scary, and unfamiliar.
Left unattended, our brothers and sisters with these wounds mature and carry that foundation of distorted love with them. They may have families of their own, and, unless they’ve worked hard to break the conditioning they were brought up with, will continue to pass along their generational traumas.
Learning to Love Again
Given our unique experiences and backgrounds, learning to love again isn’t a simple recipe that everyone can follow, but there are some general themes that can allow for healthy love in our lives.
In any healing, the first step is acknowledging that healing is needed. Most of us won’t be able to acknowledge this until we enter a crisis or breakdown. How we arrive isn’t important, but what IS crucial is that we’re willing to look at—and be humble about—the information we discover.
Think about where in your own life you’re experiencing irritated, frustrated, agitated or harsh emotions. Who are you expressing those emotions to? Yourself, your partner, your children… all of the above?
Acknowledging that your emotions exist (and not ignoring or excusing them) allows us to determine if they are emotions that we wish to feed (and invites us to explore WHY we are feeling them in the first place). Do these emotions and their manifestations feel good to you? Do those around you enjoy them or are you seeing reactions that only serve to perpetuate them?
Exercise: On one side of a sheet of paper, list out all the negative emotions that you know are present in you and that you are willing to release. On the other side of the paper, list situations that generate or have generated the emotions on the left.
Now, draw lines from your emotions to the situations. You can have more than one emotion for a situation and each emotion likely stems from multiple situations. Highlight or circle your heaviest negative emotions and what they’re connected to. Note the situations that contribute to your most negative emotions.
Now that you’ve acknowledged and listed out your emotions and reactions you’d like to transmute into a more loving wavelength, you need to create some receptivity in your life.
Depending on your family, relationships, and support structures, this step can get sticky, so let’s just stick with what you can control: yourself. (If you happen to have a very loving and supportive network, definitely bring them into any of these steps for accountability and positive cheerleading).
The emotional list you created in Step 1 helped you acknowledge your negative emotions. Now it’s time to start opening up to take those negative emotions and transmute them into more beneficial emotions or feelings that a) honor the “as-is” state of the situation, and b) create space and conditions for love to exist.
Exercise: With your highlighted and circled list, what emotional reactions are you open to release and change? Put a star next to the emotions you’d like to address.
Now, look at your situations and consider the other people in those situations. Put on your empathy hat and consider which people would be most receptive to your modified emotions as it relates to them. Mark a star next to that situation and write down any names that come to mind.
After you’ve gone through your list of emotions and situations marking the ones you’re willing to start addressing, pick one (perhaps the easiest/simplest) to focus on and write out on the top of a new piece of paper, “I feel [EMOTION HERE] when [DESCRIBE SITUATION].”
Below that, write out how the other person or party may have felt in that same situation. Really sit in their shoes, shorts, or seat and feel what your above action and negative emotion may have created in them. Write out a minimum of three scenarios imagining how that other person felt around your negative energy.
What we’re aiming to unlock is compassion. Often, in our rage, frustration or fatigue, we rush to a solution… but forget that we might actually be causing more damage on top of what we’re reacting to; especially with our children.
An example might be, “I feel enraged when other drivers are slow and plodding on my way to work.”
I can then enter into a state of compassion and empathy for the other person to start to become receptive to their experience:
“I felt scared and uneasy that an aggressive driver was tailgating me.”
“I was infuriated that someone would drive like that considering I lost my son to an aggressive driver.”
“I have a hard time seeing when the sun is low, so it’s tough for me to read signs and not miss my next turn.”
As we start to explore potential perspectives of others in our daily lives, we work our heart muscle to create more room and receptivity for their experiences and emotions.
Attention, Recovering Perfectionists: We are all human, so drop any notion that you’re bad for reacting in habitual ways or having these emotions to begin with. And also, know that this is a loooooooooong term process that will go in waves of forward progress and relapse. The crucial part is that you’re putting into action honest attempts to soften your conditioning and reworking the foundation you were raised with into one that is more heart-centered.
You’ve acknowledged your needs and desires to walk toward love. You’ve identified areas that you’d like to see shift and relationships or situations where you may have support or an easier time changing how you relate to these situations. Now, you get to act.
Above, I suggested that you choose an emotion and situation that feels doable to change… One that you are receptive to changing. A key in our emotional evolutions and improvements is not forcing anything. Like the saying goes, “what we resist, persists,” so you want to be ready and willing to go with the flow, and reactions you’ll receive, as you change your patterns.
Exercise: Start with the emotion you isolated in Step 2. Write it down in the center of a new page. Around that emotion, start writing positive emotions. Generate at least 5 emotions to counter the one negative emotion.
Now, sit in a calm space (free of distractions) with this paper. Begin to visualize the situation that caused your initial emotional reaction. Remember it in as much detail as you can. Find your breath, and breathe deeply (into your belly first, then chest, and finally your throat and sinuses; reversing it on the exhale). Notice any negative emotional pangs that may arise, but don’t focus on them.
On your next in breath, visualize one of your positive emotions from this last sheet of paper. Visualize that emotion pouring into your body and bathing any negative sensations with love and care. On your exhale, release your negative emotion with gratitude for what it (and this situation) has taught you. Repeat this for all of your new, positive emotions. Cycle through this at least five times to start infusing your heart muscle with this new programming.
The reason we attach this last step to your breath is because your breath (especially an extended out breath) calms the sympathetic nervous system and allows the parasympathetic system to take over; which allows us to calm and relax.
Repeat this exercise as many times as you feel called to. The idea is that when you’re next confronted with the previously triggering situation, you’re able to breathe and then call forth the emotions you want to be embracing in your life.
4. Continuing Your Evolution
IF you continue with this practice, you’ll find more stability as you explore your triggers and grow your empathic capacity. Then, you can move toward more delicate and challenging situations.
Depending on your relationships, it may be helpful to communicate your intentions for growth and transformation with people who are directly involved in the situations you listed. Share that you’re working towards improving your reactivity and increasing your ability to love. Invite them to help you achieve this goal by asking them to remind you when you slip or revert to your negative patterns with them in the future.
Invoking “more love into your life” sounds simple, but (for most of us) it involves a lot of self reflection, honesty and humility. Loving well takes work! And… it’s worth it!
May your journey into love uncover strengths, expression, and compassion in all aspects of your life and those you touch.