Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.
Published: Dec 12th, 2012
Updated: May 18th, 2013
Unconditional love, when will I find this place in my own being? Will I always have to whisper to myself stay connected, stay connected, stay connected, in order not to disconnect from others emotionally, mentally (ie spiritually) and sometimes even physically when I am feeling hurt or angry? When confronted with anger, I so easily become fearful, defensive, and react emotionally. My own fear of not being loved or not being lovable takes over, and I lose my ability to remain present in the moment. Some more questions: how do I teach my son unconditional love, when I struggle so much to find it for myself? What happened in my marriage and with relationships with some friends and colleagues? When will I stop seeking the love of others in order to feel lovable? When will I stop holding others responsible for my not feeling loved? When will I fully realize that to truly love another human being, I need to first truly love myself? When will I love myself enough to set healthy boundaries with others? When will I be able to say no to others and not withdraw my love and energy from them as a way to protect myself from their disappointment or what I might perceive as their withdrawal of love from me? When will I be able to fully forgive myself for my shortcomings so I can fully forgive others for theirs? What is this life of ours all about?
To answer some of these questions, I recently attended an all-day workshop, Attachment-From the Inside Out, given by clinical psychologists Paul and Nancy Aikin. The sharing of deep wounds with a close friend during this workshop created an ah-ha moment for me where all the thoughts, feelings and experiences in my life came together like pieces of a puzzle. For the first time, I begin to profoundly understand what it means to be unconditionally, rather than conditionally, loved. All the relationships and attachments in my life started to surface, bringing at first fear, then anger, then lots of sorrow and sadness and later forgiveness and love and, most of all, a more compassionate understanding of myself and others.
The Aikins lifelong work is connected to the work of a Canadian psychologist, also named Sue Johnson, who wrote the book Hold Me Tight. During their workshop we learned about the kind of love, conditional or unconditional, that we experienced while growing up. If we experienced enough unconditional love as we were growing up, by at least someone in our lives, then we may have been able to internalize that love and therefore know we were indeed lovable. In other words, if our parents or primary caretakers maintained their loving connection with us, even when we said or did something they did not like, then we would feel unconditionally loved by them. Feeling this unconditional love, at least most of the time, from our caretakers builds a secure attachment. Now as adults who were securely loved as children we know how to love others unconditionally. We will not take what others say so personally. We will get curious instead of furious when another human being, especially a significant other, shows anger towards us. We will stay connected in our relationship and not withdraw our loving energy by avoiding or manipulating the relationship.
We learned in this workshop that If you want to know more about the type of relationship experiences you had while growing up and whether these relationships reflected conditional or unconditional love, then all you need to do is to sit back in a comfortable chair, take several deep breaths, and visualize the answers to some of these questions. First, look at your memories from the first 7 years of your life. What are your first memories? Was anyone else there with you or were you all alone? Think about a time when you may have fallen down and were hurt. Did anyone comfort you? Who comforted you? How about when you were sick or werent feeling well? Who was there? What did they do or not do to comfort you? Who tucked you into bed and read to you or told you stories at night? Did anyone give you a back rub or rub your feet? Did you have a regular bedtime? Did family members say goodnight to each other before going to bed or did they just disappear? Do you have memories of being hugged or kissed? Who do you remember that hugged you or kissed you? How did you feel when that person hugged or kissed you? Did you feel safe? Who did you feel safe with?
When the adults in your life were fully present to you in their mind, heart and physical body then these powerful moments will imprint in your memory. When the adults in your life were disconnected within themselves because they were distracted or overwhelmed by their emotional life or burdened and preoccupied by their responsibilities, then you will not feel their presence as strongly and your memories will be more vague and incomplete. You can repeat this same memory exercise for ages 7 to 14 years, 14 to 21 years and into adulthood. Your memories will show you the moments in your life when the people in your life met you with their full presence, and whether their presence was nourishing or not. It would be hard as a parent to give unconditional love to your child if your experience growing up was that love had to be earned.
Sometimes our parents and significant others only became fully present when they were angry at us. Now our memories of them will be filled with angry moments. As children we might even have triggered our parents anger as a way to get their full energy, their full presence, when we could not get it any other way. Children will seek full presence from their caretakers no matter what the costs. For to feel no energy, to feel no presence from their loved ones makes children feel abandoned. When you are in the presence of someone who closes his or her heart to you, then you feel all alone. Young children especially need our presence in order for them to feel grounded in their own body, since they are still developing the neurological connections between their mind, heart, and body. When children cannot feel our present moment energy, they experience tremendous fear and anxiety and will cry out or even scream for our attention. We know from studies of children in orphanages that children will fail to thrive and eventually die if they do not experience present moment connections with their caretakers. This is why having a big family with lots of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins or forming a village of caring adults can be so protective for children. If one adult is having a hard time being fully present then there is always another one around that can fulfill that role.
One way to discover how present we actually are in our life is to do an exercise at night known as the Review of the Day. Rudolf Steiner wrote an entire book about this exercise. First we sit up in bed before going to sleep and within our mind we picture ourselves sitting in the bed and then, like a movie, visually picture the actions and feelings of our entire day, going backwards in our thoughts until we arrive at the time when we first woke up. Just allow about 10 minutes to do this entire review. Insight comes when we realize that we can only form clear visual memories of our activities if we were fully present in our mind, heart and body at the time we were doing the activity. If we have no idea what activities we were doing or cannot remember the sequence of our activities, then we know we were multitasking in our thoughts and that our mind was not fully connected to our heart and physical body during that moment.
This is a very humbling exercise, and the first time I tried to do it as part of an assignment during my Waldorf teacher training program, I could only clearly remember what I ate at each meal! It took me an entire month to slow down my multitasking and to slow down my life in order to fully remember and therefore be present to my entire day. Now I could remember where I put my keys when I came home and where I parked my car at the grocery store, but more importantly this exercise made me more accountable for the things I said to others, the feelings I thought, and the deeds I did. This exercise also showed me how I disconnected my thoughts and my feelings from my actions when I spent my time being a victim, resenting what was occurring in my life. I think this is why Eckhart Tolle said, say yes to what is or why Byron Katie wrote that we need to love what is. For anytime we resist our life, whether mentally, emotionally, or physically, we are no longer living in the present moment. Instead, we are worrying about the future or regretting the past. Once we say YES to our life as it is right now we can go about making the changes in our life while staying deeply connected within our own self.
We can heal our children and ourselves with this present moment, unconditional love in the midst of this fear-based culture that has us performing and seeking the approval of others for survival, and thereby keeps us in a chronic state of stress. For children, the brain cannot fully develop or even connect fully to the heart and physical body when the brain is experiencing so much stress. In addition, our disconnection within ourselves and the chronic stress that results can end up fostering addictions. For addictions to alcohol and drugs, whether in a parent or teenager, are simply attempts to numb the pain that is felt when our mind, heart and body are so disconnected. Alcohol and drugs numb our thoughts so we no longer feel how disconnected our thoughts are from our feelings and our actions. In addition, all the screen time and violence in our media, especially the violence shown on the news, cause our thoughts to separate from our emotions and leave us paralyzed in our ability to act. Screen time, whether television, computers, videos or hand-held devices, over-stimulates and stresses children's autonomic nervous system, disconnecting the right and left sides of their brain and short circuiting their memory, so their brain and mind can't develop properly and they can't effectively learn.
Also, when parents do not experience unconditional love in their upbringing, then they will struggle trying to provide that kind of love to their children. For example, if parents withdraw their love from their children when they are upset with them, they teach their children that love is conditional. Their children learn that they must always do something to please their parents or always agree with their parents in order to receive love from them. When love is just conditional, children may succeed in pleasing their parents for one moment in time but, sooner or later, they will do or say something that displeases their parents and their parent's love will once again be withdrawn. This trying to please others to feel lovable is very confusing and stressful for children and further disconnects their mind from their heart and body. Now their actions are based on pleasing others rather than being directed by their own thoughts and feelings about a situation.
As adults when we truly learn to love ourselves, we will care for ourselves by acquiring healthy habits and setting healthy boundaries. There will be no need for addictions. We will take care of the vessel that is our body by eating nutritious foods, getting plenty of sleep, and being physically active. We will know when to say yes and when it is necessary to set limits to honor our boundaries. We will know how to find balance in our lives, in our work and in our play. Our word will be impeccable, and we will have true integrity. We will easily recognize the good, the true and the beautiful in this world, and we will be able to sort out the essential from the nonessential in our lives. We will deeply love ourselves and form secure loving relationships with others. We will learn to entertain only loving thoughts, loving feelings and loving deeds since to do anything else would be the opposite of love, it would be fear, and this fear would take us out of the present moment.
Being fully present with our children and with our life is the key to giving and experiencing unconditional love. We heal our children when we surround them with our full presence. This presence is the greatest gift we can give our children. When young children feel this amazing kind of love from us, then they know that whatever they think, say or do will not change our love, the positive flow of our loving energy to them. Our children as they grow will internalize our unconditional love for them, allowing them to grow into adults that feel fully loved for who they are. Our children as they grow up surrounded by our unconditional love will learn that what they think, what they feel, and what they do all matter. They will have the self-confidence, self-trust, and security to unconditionally love others because they will unconditionally love themselves. This will give children, as they become adults, the courage to follow their heart so they can fulfill their destiny.