Do You Love With Your Whole Heart?

Love

True love. This phrase has been drilled into our heads by fairy-tales and movies with happy endings all of our lives. It conjures up thoughts of men on white horses charging in to save the day. Teenage boys standing in the rain with boomboxes overhead and one on one basketball games for the chance to win someone’s love and affections. However, the reality of love is much less newsworthy. Authentic love requires us to love with our whole heart. When I first encountered the concept of wholehearted love it was in Brené Brown’s book The Gifts Of Imperfection: Let Go Of Who You Think You’re Supposed To Be And Embrace Who You Are. As a qualitative researcher, she spends a lot of time collecting data on various topics and then following the truths revealed by that study. From the data she gathered regarding love she came up with a definition that I think is much more accurate than the vision we currently have.

Through the data she defines love this way:

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honour the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

Love is not something that we give or get, it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each of them-We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal and the withholding of affection damages the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”

By this definition it is plain to see why many relationships do not thrive. Most people spend so much of their lives protecting their own feelings that they never truly open up and allow themselves to be vulnerable with anyone. I know that it has been a challenge for me to allow myself to be wholehearted with family, friends and romantic partners throughout my life and I believe that this inability to trust someone else with my feelings has crippled many of my connections. This fear of being hurt has led me to shallow friendships and uneven romantic partnerships because I found myself hustling for my worthiness instead of reveling in the fullness of who I am.

The first thing that I did to correct this imbalance was to learn to love myself by these standards. How can I expect to attract a romantic partner who exhibits these traits unless I first cultivate them in myself? How can I expect my friends and family to trust me with their inner most feelings if I am unable to trust myself with my own emotions? Loving myself, flaws and all was harder than I thought it would be and took a lot of work.  Heck I still need to remind myself to be respectful, kind and to show myself affection but I’ve gotten much better at it over the last couple of years. I’ve taught myself how to do manicures and some fun nail art, started working with a trainer to build strength, started taking better care of my skin and nutrition and when times get tough or I miss the mark I try to speak kindly to myself to get through the rough times.

During this process I also began to be more honest with my friends and family about my feelings and began to be more purposeful in communicating my feelings with them. I also began to be more open with my romantic partner about my feelings and desires for our relationship and this has created a wonderful safe space for us to explore what we mean to each other and how we want to shape our connection moving forward.  These types of interactions are still very new and nerve racking for me however I began trusting the people in my inner circle enough to share my feelings of love, appreciation, joy and thankfulness for our connection. To my surprise instead of them running from me, as has always been my fear, these connections have blossomed into deeper connections. I have also been able to extend this courage to the workplace and am now speaking up, offering suggestions and being more forthcoming with my concerns which has created new opportunities for me to advance my career within the company.

This process has shown me that there is an amazing strength in vulnerability. It takes courage to allow someone to have access to your feelings, however the reward of deeper connections far outweighs the fear of rejection. It has not been all roses during this journey. I have faced rejections, the pain of knowing that my feelings were not reciprocated or that some people do not want to form deeper bonds and I have learned that this is OK. Through this definition of love I have embraced the idea that “Love is not something that we give or get, it is something that we nurture and grow”. Thinking of love in this way has allowed me to have a sense of peace because I know that I am living and loving with my whole heart even if friendships end, family connections change or romantic partners leave and that is pretty amazing.

Meet Them Where They Are

meet in the middle

There have been times in my life when I have been hurt by someone that I care about. I am talking about small hurts like they don’t call when they say they will and large hurts like a broken friendship, a destroyed romantic relationship and broken familial ties. Over time these injuries add up and can make us timid in our relationships, overly cautious in romantic relationships and generally living in fear of pain.

Last year I read Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind To Yourself by Kristin Neff and in it she asked the question “What if instead of being disappointed in people for not living up to the potential that we believe them to have we treat them as if they are already doing the best that they can?” She said that she conducted a group therapy session with Pastors who do a lot of community outreach with people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and they were expressing their frustration with people who keep having the same issues over and over again. They felt anger towards the people they were helping and were on the verge of giving up on them. When she posed this question to them by framing it as “If God told you that these people were doing the best that they could how would that change the way you continue your outreach?” She said that when they thought about it this way many of them broke down in tears because it changed their whole perspective of these people and they could no longer feel anger towards them because they were doing their best.

So, I started thinking of people who have harmed me emotionally and asked myself “What if this really is the best that they can do? What if they have reached their capacity for caring?” I must admit that I was also brought to tears because I could no longer hold on to my “righteous” anger. I could no longer hold them to standards that I had built for them in my mind that they, clearly, were not living up to. I thought about watching my child learn to walk and not getting angry with her because she constantly fell. Instead I treated her with compassion and encouraged her to keep trying and sure enough she learned to walk and has been running ever since.

I am not suggesting that we stand idly by and take emotional abuse from our family, friends or romantic partners but I am suggesting that we remove the burdens of our expectations for another person’s behavior. For example, if I know that my friend is not very good at initiating communication with me I shouldn’t be offended when I go months without hearing from her. She has demonstrated that this is not how she is wired. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care about me or our friendship it simply means that if I desire more frequent communication then I will need to reach out to her. If this is an untenable arrangement then it may be time to sever the relationship.  If my romantic partner prefers to do everything as a couple and this is not something that is comfortable to me I can either constantly argue with this person and deal with them feeling unloved when I want to be alone or I can find a new partner who doesn’t require constant connection to reaffirm the relationship.

If you find yourself constantly frustrated and/or disappointed in someone because you are expecting them to parent, communicate, love or strive in a direction that they are not currently going perhaps it is because you are seeing them as you wish they were instead of seeing them for who they are. It can be difficult to start treating them with compassion instead of disdain but it is not impossible if we change the way we think about their actions. I am no longer interacting with people as I hope, wish or pray they would be, instead I am interacting with them based on their actual behavior because that is who they really are. Now they are free to be themselves without my added pressure and I am free from constant disappointment and judgement.