What does love mean to you? The actual word: Love. What does it mean? When I say “love,” do you think of red roses and candy hearts? Do you think of warm hugs and that delicious neck smell of your romantic partner? Maybe you think about shared stories and laughter with your friends and family. Maybe you think about your mom’s chicken soup when you’re sick or a friend remembering your birthday. Maybe you think about feeling safe or like you belong. Or, maybe you think about the lack of these things in your life.
I’ve recently thought a lot about the different ways in which love shows up in my life—and the many, many years that I felt it didn’t show up at all. I’ve been reading All About Love, a philosophical examining of the different types of love by bell hooks, and examining the many types of love that have made their way into my own life across the span of it. So often, I blocked myself off from love or ignored it. Other times, I chased after love that would never be within my reach. Sound familiar?
I think a lot of us have this relationship with love—the push and pull of longing for a love that will only ever exist in our minds while simultaneously denying the healthy, genuine love that is standing on our doorsteps, politely asking to be seen and allowed in. I don’t think any of us wants to be that way. It’s just the only way some of us know how to be. It’s in our stories—our movies and shows and books. For too many of us, it’s also the hallmark of our childhood relationships with parenting adults.
How do we escape? How do we stop fantasizing about a love that can’t, by definition, exist and begin to appreciate and accept the beautiful love that already exists for us, that is waiting for us simply to open our eyes and welcome it home?
There are two beautiful pieces of advice I received in the past year that I think are the first steps toward accepting and cherishing the real love that we are meant to have and that we deserve. Both were given to me by amazing therapists who have been in long-term, healthy relationships for decades. On this, the day that many in the Western world choose to celebrate one particular type of love—romantic love, I want to share this advice about all love that I have found so very helpful in all of my loving relationships.
Last year, in one of my final support group sessions, I made the observation that the second I start to feel close to someone—be they a potential romantic partner or friend—something will switch on in me, and I’ll begin to harsh judging them for even the smallest things. “First,” the counselor and group leader told me, “this is something we tend to learn from our parents, typically the mother. If we were harshly criticized as a kid, we will tend to be critical of ourselves and others as an adult. Second,” and this is the crucial piece of wisdom, “the key to stopping this behavior is actually through self-compassion.” I remember cocking my head in confusion, and she chuckled. “I know, you may think you need to focus on compassion for others, but we are often critical of others because we are first overly critical of ourselves.”
She went on to explain that while building self-compassion makes it naturally easier to have compassion for others, that doesn’t go in both directions. Having compassion for others does not end in having more compassion for ourselves; however, having compassion for ourselves does lead to having more compassion for others. “That’s just how it works!” she said with a grin.
The next piece of advice came from my individual therapist only recently while we were discussing some of bell hooks’ assertions about love. When I had first begun seeing her years ago, I was under the impression that it would be pointless to enter into any relationship that I wanted to last before I felt I was ready to truly love myself, too. She pushed back gently against this, instead asserting that sometimes we find a good partner when we are still figuring things out. Plus, building strong friendships can be a way of learning how to better love ourselves, as well. She has pushed me to see life and growth as a process, rather than a series of achievements that must be attained before I can have the next reward of companionship.
More recently, we’ve circled back to the ever-present primary topic of my therapy: my early childhood relationships (surprise, surprise). I joked that, “while most people show up with some baggage—maybe a cute clutch or even a full set of luggage—I feel like I’m walking the world with a full team of moving vans and a mansion. And we’ve only just begun to unpack the entire east wing: my mother.”
“Oh good,” she replied, “I was hoping you’d realize the theme of that wing.”
We shared a small laugh and then dug in, as we so often do. Therapy has become a safe haven of sorts, where I can bring my sharpest emotions and leave them there until the next week. During this conversation, though, I babbled on about various frustrations with my mother and about dating, until I suddenly blurted out a very real truth.
My therapist had been coaxing me to spend time imagining myself as a small child. “Can you picture yourself clearly when you were little, anywhere from three to about seven or eight?” she asked. I nodded. “I want you to hold her image in your mind for a few moments. Does that little girl deserve love?” Of course she does. “Then,” my therapist continued, “what’s the difference between that little girl, who is you, deserving love and you as an adult deserving love?”
“It’s not that I don’t deserve love,” I explained, brow furrowed. “Of course I deserve love, and of course I deserved love as a little kid, but…” I paused, letting my mouth catch up with my brain. “I guess I figured out as a kid, and I keep thinking now, that I am really smart, and I do read people really well, and I do really want to help people. I keep thinking, subconsciously, that if I can just say the right things and do the right things at the right times, then I can help the person I want to love me become the kind of person who can love me the way I deserve to be loved.”
There it was. This big, painful inner story that I’d been telling myself since before I could speak. If I could just help people grow and heal, then maybe they could love me the way I wanted—the way I deserved.
The thing is, as my therapist explained and as I logically already knew, we can’t grow and heal for other people. We can’t manipulate others into becoming more whole and vibrant people—and yes, that is what I’m talking about here, manipulation. No matter how much we love a partner or a friend or a parent, we can’t force them to heal. We can’t force them to become the kind of person who can love us the way we deserve—the way they deserve, too. That might just be the most painful lesson of my life.
When I was lying in a hospital bed in 2008, refusing to let the doctors and nurses tell me how close I was to death, I remember thinking over and over how grateful I was that it was me in that bed. I remember thinking how grateful I was that I didn’t have to watch someone I loved in such pain. Part of me already knew this strong desire in myself to shield others from the pain of life, of living in this harsh world. Yet, we cannot be that shield forever. Parents must watch their children grow up and get hurt by the world around them. Lovers must stand by as their partners make decisions that negatively affect their own lives. Friends must hold their tongues as they watch people they care about date the same version of wrong again and again until they figure out the pattern for themselves—or don’t.
It is a truth of life, and of love, that we cannot love another person enough for them to be the best versions of themselves. Nor can another person love us enough to save us. Instead, we must care enough for those we love to be there for them as they find their own healing journeys. In some cases, we must love ourselves enough to walk away when another person’s lack of growth and healing becomes detrimental to our own growth and happiness. In both instances, we must find compassion first for ourselves in doing our best in each and every moment that we can, and then we can hold compassion for others who may or may not be able to do the same. When someone else cannot be for us and do for us and love us in the way that we deserve, we must be willing to be that loving person for ourselves—this was the advice of my therapist.
I wish for you all immense self-compassion and self-love, and I hope for you a community of people who already know how to love you the way you deserve. We are all, each of us, so very deserving of that love and compassion, just as we are all so very deserving of the chance to heal and grow and blossom.
What does love mean to you today? Are you willing to share that with yourself?