“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
Before reading further, I want you to make a list with three categories: Higher, Others, Self. “Higher” stands for the higher power you believe in, if you do believe in one. For “Others,” I’d like you to write no more than five names, but preferably two or three. These should people who you love very much and you may not be able to see your life without them. They don’t have to be the people you love the most, but they do have to be important. Include family, friends, and a significant other. Next to “Self,” write your name. Okay, I hope you have your list, because you’ll need it later.
Before we get to that list, I’m going to sidetrack by talking about how I choose my best friends. I definitely have three best friends, and arguably two more than that. Confusing? Well, I have very specific standards for best friendship, and I also have a lot of life-long friends who I’m very close to. Some of these friends consider me their best friend (why wouldn’t they? I’m pretty awesome), but it gets kind of crazy if I say I have five best friends. It kind of defeats the purpose of “best” friend. There probably should only be one.
Anyways, there’s really one important standard to earn the best friend title in my book: be there for me no matter what and whenever I need you. It’s actually a pretty high and demanding request, but I definitely have three who have fulfilled it for years, and probably two more who also fulfill it. When I say no matter what and whenever I need them, I mean that even if we just got into a huge fight, even if we hate each other, even if you’re across the globe, you’ll be there for me. It doesn’t have to be a physical presence. It could be as simple as answering the phone when I call, or checking in on me when you can if you know I’m struggling with something.
Of course, a lot of my friends are there when I need them, but there are three that I know will never leave me, because our friendships have been tested over and over again. They’ve seen the worst and best of me, and love me anyways. I would never leave them either, and have also seen the worst and best of them. Our friendships are not perfect. I’ve mistreated them and they have mistreated me. But I have no doubt that they love me. I can’t help that I’m so lovable.
I’m not sure that I can say we love each other unconditionally, and I know that’s not always the case, but I think of all my friends, we’re the closest to that type of love. Put very simply, unconditional love is “the total acceptance of someone,” says Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT. It exists without judgement. It means that when someone you love does something you don’t agree with, you won’t stop loving them, or withdraw your love even temporarily from them. It’s the thing every person craves – we want to be unconditionally loved and accepted for who we are by someone else. It could be by a parent, a lover, a friend, etc.
In Lancer’s article, “Soulmates and Unconditional Love,” she describes what it means to put conditions on loving someone. “When we love conditionally, it’s because we approve of our partner’s beliefs, needs, desires, and lifestyle. They match up with ours and give us comfort, companionship, and pleasure,” says Lancer. The keyword is that we approve of them. Our approval of their lifestyle is really important to us, and it becomes something we impose on the loved one. To love unconditionally means to love without needing to approve of the way the other is. This is the toughest part about unconditional love, because where does the line get drawn between having standards and accepting the other for who they are?
There are clearly things we can’t and shouldn’t accept in a relationship. No matter how much you love someone, you should never accept abuse (mental, physical, or emotional), addiction, infidelity, or anything that is causing one or both of you a lot of harm. If a relationship is unhealthy, love yourself enough to walk away. But what about if you are with a good person, who has been good to you for a few years? Of course they aren’t perfect and neither are you. You both have many complaints about the other. If it’s a healthy relationship that has a lot of love, what are the things you can learn to accept about the other, or that you can’t?
It seems near impossible for friends or lovers to love each other unconditionally, but it comes most natural for parents to achieve this kind of love. It doesn’t mean that they always do, though. A New York Times article by Alfie Kohn describes very honestly that most parents show their love on conditional terms. He explains that the advice given by professionals to parents is, “turn up the affection when they’re good, withhold affection when they’re not.” This kind of parenting is designed to control a child’s behavior. They should be shown love and rewarded when they are obedient and doing what a parent wants, and they should be punished or isolated (time-out) when they are misbehaving.
Kohn warns, “The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love.” One of the premises of unconditional love is that it is freely given and not earned. Kohn isn’t saying that parents only love their children when they are well-behaved. He explains that children receive it that way, and studies replicated by different researchers show the effects of this kind of conditional parenting. Children who grew up with conditional approval were more likely to act as parents wanted, and they worked harder on academics, but there was a cost for their obedience. They tended to resent their parents, and also made decisions based on a “strong internal pressure” instead of “a real sense of choice.” Also, if they grew up feeling “they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations, [they] now felt less worthy as adults.”
Kohn explains that unconditional acceptance of children should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explain the reasons for requests, allow children to participate in making decisions, be encouraging. He doesn’t fully explain the right way to parent, but it’s clear that he thinks children shouldn’t feel that they need to earn a parent’s love. They should feel fully accepted, because it affects their ability to accept themselves as adults. Leon Seltzer, Ph.D, takes it a step further and says that children are only able to accept themselves to the degree that they are accepted by parents. “Research has demonstrated that before the age of eight, we lack the ability to formulate a clear, separate sense of self--that is, other than that which has been transmitted to us by our caretakers,” says Seltzer. So, before we’re eight years old, we can only accept ourselves if our parents accept us, and that perception is carried with us throughout our lives.
Kristina Marchant has a very good definition of self-love: “Self-acceptance doesn't mean you push yourself to remove all feelings and thoughts of self-loathing. Self-acceptance doesn't have to mean you lose all insecurities and self-doubts. It means you get to a place in your life where you allow your self-deprecating side to exist, without allowing it to make choices for you.” We are flawed, and we will probably always remain that way. Can you accept your flaws and focus on making healthy decisions for yourself? Can you keep moving forward, trying to improve yourself, while not hating everything that is wrong with you? It seems like an impossible task, but it is a task of love, which isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s not supposed to be.
Time for that list. I have mine as an example. The focus of the list is about the people you love most, because these are the ones you most likely want to and probably should try to love unconditionally. The goal of the list is to be as honest as possible, so that you can learn where to improve the way you love others and yourself.
Higher: How do you love your higher power? Would you stop loving this higher power for any reason?
God – I have never been sure that I love God. It’s something I’ve always known that I should do as a Christian. We are called to love God even more that we love our family. That’s unfathomable for me to put into practice. I was raised being taught that my family comes first, so I put them before God. I would feel wrong to put God first, even though I think I should. All I can think to do is continually work on my relationship with Him, so that I can at least love Him as much as I love my family. I can’t really put any conditions on a love that I’m not sure I have.
Others: Why do you love these people? What conditions do you put on your love for them? What would it take for you to withhold your love from them?
1. My sister – My sister is seven years old, and the simple answer for why I love my sister is that she’s my sister, but there are many qualities I love about her. I love her because she’s the sweetest kid I know. She’s so different from me when I was her age. She’s filled with this joy and love that seems so untainted by anything bad. I like to mess with her a lot, and I think it’s so funny that she hardly ever messes with me back. For the longest time, whenever I playfully shoved her, she would just look at me and say, “hey!” when most other kids would shove back. She says I’m mean, which is probably true, and she’s just barely learning how to be “mean,” too. I also love that she’s very caring, and is mostly sharing, unless I just take something from her without asking, like her tiaras. Then she doesn’t want me to have it. I love when I see my dad’s traits in her, like being introverted, and the way she happily attaches to one person among a group of a lot of kids. I like seeing those qualities, because they’re my qualities too, so it’s a nice reminder that we’re both my dad’s kids. But I’m also surprised by how much I like to see my stepmom’s qualities in her. My sister is a lot sweeter than I ever was, and I know that’s not because of my dad.
I don’t know if I put any conditions on my love for her. But the thing I love the most about her is that she’s sweet and caring. If she were to ever stop being that way, I know it would hurt me. I wouldn’t stop loving her. I think if she were to ever become a mean person, the opposite of who she is, I might put some distance between us. But I hope I don’t. I would like to believe that no matter what my sister does or whoever she becomes, I will always be there for her. But she’s still so young that it’s hard to imagine what kind of person she’ll be when she’s older. I don’t think I could ever stop loving her, though.
2. Andrea – One of my best friends for twelve years. I love her because she’s the best person I know. She’s selfless to a fault. She, out of everyone I know, will go out of her way to be there for the people she cares about, which is the most important quality I look for in a friend. I love her because I can depend on her, she’s a great friend to me, she’s an amazing person, and she cares so much about me. We can have long talks for hours about important issues of life. We recently went on a thirteen hour drive through Arizona, and talked for more than half of the way, and still had things to talk about on the way back. We can laugh at the same things, and go from being deep to random in an instant. I love that we get each other.
For about ten years, our friendship hadn’t actually been tested. We had never gotten into a fight, or had any reason to be mad or upset with each other, which is impressive. But when we had our first fight, I learned the conditions I put on my love for her. It’s not that I stopped loving her, but I didn’t talk to her for a week (while we were living together), because she didn’t let me care about her. It seems like a small thing, but I love how she cares about me, and I care about her just as much. We were in a situation where she was trying to be selfless and thinking of me, but I was caring more about her safety. She ran off by herself while we were in Vegas so that she could get away from me, and I think I hated her for that.
I distance myself the most from her when she doesn’t let me care about her, and when she makes choices I know will hurt her. It’s the hardest thing watching someone you love hurt themselves, especially when you know they’re smarter than that. I can’t stand it when she isn’t caring about herself, because I feel very protective of her and I just never want her to get hurt.
3. Bre – My old roommate, and partner in crime. I love Bre, because when I started college wanting to be someone new, she saw in me what no one ever had. One of the first things she said about me was that I was feisty, and I liked that compliment a lot. She made me feel fun, which was one of my most hidden insecurities in high school. I didn’t think I was fun. People see me as reserved, modest, quiet, and good. She brought out in me wildness and the ability to be carefree. I love that she’s crazy, and isn’t afraid to do crazy things to her hair, or dress however she wants, or do whatever she wants. I love that she isn’t simple. She’s one of the most complex people I know, and she’s not easy to get along with. Most people who meet her think that she hates them, and she probably dislikes most of them anyway. But she loves me, and we’ve had a shared growing experience.
Everyone who knows me well knows that if I don’t want to do something, you cannot force me to do it. And if you manage to, I will resent you for it. Bre is the only person who can get me to willing do something I don’t want to, like jump into a pool when it’s 40 degrees outside, and then rush into a hot tub right after (not a good idea). She’s the person that watched a meteor shower with me at 2am even though she had an 8am final. And she waited an hour for me to see a good meteor. She also once missed class while I was sick, because I ran out of tissue, so she went to get me some more.
I’m not sure if I put any conditions on my love for her. I don’t love her because she’s good to me. She’s definitely done things that I would hate most others for doing. Any mistakes Bre makes, I either look over or forgive very easily. She’s very far from perfect, but that’s why I love her, because she’s just a very real person, with real vulnerabilities and real flaws. She’s a complete jerk to me most of the time, which is why we get along so well. And I also don’t get mad or upset with her for making decisions I don’t approve of. I think I accept Bre for who she is more than I do for any of my other friends. For a lot of my friends, I know that I want the best for them, and I hold them to my standards. When they don’t meet those standards, I get mad or upset. But ever since I met Bre, she’s been so definitively her own person that I feel like I have no right to judge anything she does. I think the only reason I would distance myself from her is if she ever stopped seeing me as a good person, and if she ever stopped caring about me.
* There are clearly a lot more people on this list, but the point is to really focus on a few
Self: When do I feel like I love myself the most and the least? What can’t I accept about myself?
Me – I feel like I love myself the most when I’m being a good person and working on my relationships. I love myself when I’m making others feel loved. I love myself when I feel confident, smart, witty, and proactive. I love myself when I’m taking care of myself – exercising, doing my eyebrows, dressing up, writing. I love myself when I’m pursuing my dreams, accomplishing a task, and getting better at something.
I love myself the least when I feel lazy, stuck, or like I’m not accomplishing anything. I don’t like myself when I don’t write for a while, because I feel like I’m not pursuing my dream. I don’t love myself when I feel like a failure, when I feel like I’m not where I’m supposed to be or where I thought I’d be. I don’t love myself when I feel insecure and make stupid choices that I regret later. I love myself less when I don’t make time to spend with people I care about.
I don’t love myself when I hurt those I love.
I can’t accept when I fail, because I don’t think I’m allowed to. I’m afraid of letting my dad down. I’m afraid of not being a good example to my sister, or younger cousins, because I’m the one they look up to. I’ve accomplished a lot so far in my life, and I feel like I’m expected to keep accomplishing more. My family wants to see what I’ll achieve, and I’m afraid of letting them down. I’m afraid of letting myself down. If I were a failure for the rest of my life, and lived a mediocre life, I don’t think I could love myself. I have dreams I’m sure of and many I’m not sure of yet, but I want to know that I’m trying to pursue them every day. I need to know that I’m going down a path, even if it’s the wrong one, if it means I’m continually moving forward.
So now you’ve been honest with yourself. There are reasons why you love and things you believe can’t accept about yourself and others. There are conditions you put on love. The challenge is to take away those conditions. Can you fully accept yourself as you are and love yourself even with your greatest flaw? Can you accept others as they are even if you don’t approve of their choices, lifestyle, etc? If you want to be loved unconditionally by someone else, can you learn to do the same?