We have a redundant phrase in our lexicon: Unconditional love. To say “unconditional” love indicates that real love can be anything other than unconditional. It’s like what I learned in high school English that it’s redundant to say “close proximity” because the very definition of proximity is to be close. But the truth is that if it’s conditional, it’s not love, and, sadly, much of what we call “love” isn’t love at all but approval. My clients often share the following examples:
“I know my parents loved me but they were disappointed if I came home with mediocre grades.”
This isn’t love.
“I know my mom loved me but when I behaved badly – like broke a dish accidentally – she would get so angry and then withdraw her warmth.”
This isn’t love. And breaking a dish isn’t behaving badly. It’s being a kid.
“I know my parents love me but they seems so much happier with me when I’m doing well in my job and dating someone they approve of.”
This isn’t love. It’s approval.
So what is love?
Love doesn’t have to be earned.
Love doesn’t have to be proven.
When someone truly loves you, they love you for who you are, not for what you do.
When a baby is born, the parents don’t look at that baby and say, “We’ll only love her if she gets straight As (preferably A pluses), is beautiful, dresses well, is tidy and polite, excels at sports, and attends an Ivy League kindergarten.” No, they love the baby because she exists, because she’s a miracle, because she’s here.
Love isn’t dependent on “good” behavior which, in our culture, is defined by sharing your toys, not making a mess, using an indoor voice when you’re indoors, saying please and thank you and excuse me, not screaming in public, not crying too much or at all, not bothering your parents as you’re trying to fall asleep or in the middle of the night. A parent might not like all of their child’s behavior, but they don’t punish their child for being a child and they don’t withdraw their love even when things are hard.
Love is consistent. That doesn’t mean that parents are never triggered (God knows we are), but that they take responsibility for their triggers and apologize when they’ve acted out. Underneath the trigger, the child can feel the river of love that never stops flowing.
Love is as love does. It’s not enough to say to your child “I love you” if it’s not followed by loving action. Love means you take good care of your child physically, emotionally, and spiritually, doing your own inner work so that you can attend to your child’s needs. Again, I don’t mean that parents need to be perfect in any of these areas or in the area of self-love, but that there’s a deep devotion to taking responsibility for your own healing so that you can provide a healthy role-model for your child for what it means to show up for oneself and others with love and compassion.
When we’ve been raised with conditional “love”, we often develop into perfectionists as adults. The underlying belief is, “If I figure out how to do it perfectly enough, I’ll be loved.” As a child’s deepest need is to be loved, it’s not hard to imagine that children will do anything to figure out how to access their parents’ coveted approval (which they’ve mistaken for love). Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to win the love/approval of everyone around them, including teachers, friends, lovers, and bosses. As Rachel Naomi Remen so brilliantly writes in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom:
The pursuit of perfection has become a major addiction of our time. Fortunately, perfectionism is learned. No one is born a perfectionist, which is why it is possible to recover. I am a recovering perfectionist. Before I began recovering, I experienced that I and everyone else was always falling short, that who we were and what we did was never quite good enough. I sat in judgement on life itself. Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken.
Sometimes perfectionists have had a parent who is a perfectionist, someone who awarded approval on the basis of performance and achievement. Children can learn early that they are loved for what they do and not simply for who they are. To a perfectionistic parent, what you do never seems as good as what you might do if tried just a little harder. The life of such children can become a constant striving to earn love. Of course love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.
Love is a grace we give one another.
Love is sometimes effortful, but it’s not based on someone else’s effort.
Love is what happens when we open our hearts and allow the love that naturally lives inside to flow forth.
Love, by its very definition, is unconditional.
Love is a gift.
Love is why we’re here.