NOTE: this is a loooong post, and a little meandering, so proceed at your own peril.
‘What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
If you grew up in the 1990s, you might remember this chewing gum with a cartoon inside, called Love Is.
I used to collect those cartoons, even though at the time my English was too rudimentary to understand what the words actually meant, I still enjoyed trying to divine the meaning of the words through the pictures.
Now, those cartoons are one person’s definitions of love, they sparked a question in me: what IS love?
Because love was a very confusing thing to me.
My parents loved me, and they beat me up often. They loved each other, yet they called each other nasty names, cheated on each other and disrespected each other.
My mom loved us so she compared us to other kids and to each other constantly, shaming us into trying harder.
I was told that boys would pick on you and yank on your hair if they like you.
I was told that if a man beats you up or rages in jealousy, it means he loves you.
I was told that if I love somebody I will do what they ask me to do, that I will be anything they want me to be, do anything to make them happy and never make them sad.
I was told by my favourite rock ballads that ‘love hurts’, ‘love bites’, that when a man loves a woman he ‘can’t keep his mind on nothing else’ and ‘if she’s bad, he can’t see it’.
I saw parents show their love by giving their children everything they ask for: candy, toys, money; sparing them from any effort and any discomfort. I saw parents turn their children into obese, lazy, obnoxious, spineless little monsters in the name of love.
Parents say they do it because of love when they help children cheat on their homework or when they do battle against the teacher who rightly disciplined their child. It’s all done in the name of love when they step in and do the task ‘for’ the child rather than let the child fight his own battles and learn his own lessons…
I am sure that we all have had mixed messages about love, and a lot of them when we were young and sponge-like. When we were absorbing more than analysing. A cornucopia of beliefs about love, from which we try to piece our own.
If we do not regularly sift through those unconscious beliefs, reality checking them one by one, then we’ll keep on living them out. As my favourite coach Brooke Castillo from The Life Coach School likes to say ‘an unmanaged mind is like a child with a knife. It is a danger to itself and others’.
Because if we follow the above beliefs, then the acts of drug addiction, shopaholism, masochism, overeating, binge drinking and anything else – can all be acts of self-love.
Many years ago, when I left home at 15 years old, I decided that love means different things to different people. So instead of going by the professed feelings of love, I decided to go by the people’s actions. And if to them love meant violence or abuse, I will acknowledge the love, but I will not take any of their violence.
What I didn’t realise was that even though I left home, my beliefs, emotions and habitual actions came with me, and my unexamined mind kept faithfully applying its ‘factory settings’. It wasn’t a lack of self-love that had me overeating junk food until I had to throw up. It wasn’t lack of self love that had me overexercising until my adrenal glands carked it, staying up too late watching movies resulting in sleep deprivation, impulsive spending that sunk me into debt, biting my nails until my fingers bled, indulging in distractions, procrastinating from what needs to be done, thereby wasting my time and stealing my own life, avoiding the necessary discomfort thereby stealing my own dreams.
It was not the lack of love, it was the lack of skill.
The Adult Chair
One of my favourite psychologists, Michelle Chalfant, talks about ‘the adult chair’. It’s a great concept that describes the three mental positions that we operate out of, each one imbued with certain beliefs. There are the child chair, the adolescent chair and the adult chair. The idea is to operate out of the adult chair as much as possible while acknowledging the child and adolescent. Acknowledging and acting on are two different things.
The above realisations meant that I had to learn how to love skillfully, like an adult.
Is it love when you compare yourself, then beat yourself up for not being good enough, then escape from yourself into food, drink and empty entertainment? Perhaps, to your inner child, it is the only ‘love’ she has ever known.
Is it love when you let yourself avoid discomfort or fear and doubt that comes with chasing your goals, the discomfort of the hard slog that comes with the commitment to your dreams. Is it love when you let yourself procrastinate, distract, avoid and waste your life? To your inner adolescent, it might be the only ‘love’ she knows.
When belief becomes entrenched, it becomes an emotion. Because it’s faster acting and requires less thought, yet has more drive.
So, those old beliefs originating in the child and adolescent minds, are now living as emotions. They are desires, urges, but not (yet) actions. This is a very important thing to remember. An emotion, an impulse, a desire or an intention are not actions. And as Victor Frankel said in my favourite book “Man’s search for Meaning”, ‘between a stimulus and a response there is a space, and in that space, there is a choice’.
The stimulus: that urge to give yourself the love that you knew as a kid or adolescent, the instant-gratification and high-cost sort of love, the secretly violent, borne of expedience sort of love.
The space: pausing and sitting in the adult chair. Acknowledging the urge, the desire or the emotion. The adult does not judge, but acknowledges. Your inner child is trying to help in the ONLY way she knows how. Thank her. She’s looking out for you. Feel the feeling that is there.
The choice: Acting from the Child or Adolescent Chair means following the comfortable groove made by the thousands of thoughts and actions first laid down in your childhood. Acting from the Adult Chair means creating a new groove, building a new life, walking the new path, and loving yourself from your highest place of wisdom.
In evolutionary terms, our primal brain and our inner child, even though less wise, are much older (have been around for longer) than our prefrontal cortex and inner adult. The prefrontal cortex is a relatively recent development in evolution and the inner adult is a relatively recent development in your life.
There is a style of therapy in Japan, called Morita Therapy. It postulates that feeling emotions is a law of nature and experiencing emotions, positive or negative, is a facet of being a human being. It also states that our urges, impulses and emotions are not meant to stand in the way of purposeful action that we have committed to. Morita therapy is about taking action from your inner adult even as you allow your inner child to have its tantrum. A healthy person will allow themselves to experience all the emotions (positive, negative and in-between) as they do what they set out to do. An unhealthy person will let their emotions at the moment dictate their actions.
As my very wise friend once told me ‘I take myself to the networking event even though I would rather sit at home. I have a meltdown in the car on the way, but it doesn’t stop me going there’.
I used to wonder, what about letting loose sometimes and enjoying myself like a kid?
I think there is nothing wrong with it, but there is a lazy way to do it and a skilful way to do it.
There is a saying we have in Russia: Bear’s Favour.
A bear saw a mosquito sitting on it’s human’s nose. Instead of telling the human about the mosquito, the bear decided to swat it, to save the human the effort. Except when it swatted the mosquito, it also killed the human, being a bear and all.
The Bear’s Favour is an act done for someone with a desire to save them the effort but resulting in actual immediate or long term harm to the recipient. It’s bingeing on ice cream to distract from sadness or boredom, instead of taking the effort to go for a walk.
It’s taking the path of least resistance when the discomfort of overcoming will mean achievement of a meaningful goal.
There are childish pleasures that can be good for us but they often require some effort (going for a walk, participating in an activity, rather than sitting on the couch and eating ice cream).
Then, there is also the problem of being unable to enjoy oneself like an adult.
In his book ‘Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole’ author Benjamin R. Barber talks about the infantilization of our pleasures as adults. If we are unable to learn to enjoy ourselves in adult ways (what are those adult ways? goal achievement, meaningful adventure, relationships, community, contribution, purpose), we will go only for childhood pleasures. Since they are not inherently satisfying to the more complex adult mind, we will try to make up in quantity what we lack in quality. Except, this time when we indulge, there is no mother around to tell us ‘that’s enough’ and we literally eat/drink/shop ourselves to death and debt.
There is that un-sexy word. I used (and still am) to be a commitment-phobe, scared to be tied down to people, decisions, plans and places. And that fear of commitment kept me stuck in the child chair.
Loving yourself like an adult means being committed to doing right by yourself even after you have messed up, even when you don’t like yourself and even when others don’t like you.
In her insightful TED Talk, author Tracy Mc Millan extolls the virtues of marrying yourself and honouring that marriage above all others. It took me over 2 years of ‘dating myself’ to understand that I will not always like what I do or who I am, but once I made the commitment to loving myself for better or for worse, I must honour that commitment. That’s what love is.
And only my inner adult finds that sexy.
All self-love is not created equal.
There is a way of loving skillfully and unskillfully.
It is only when we love ourselves from our highest wisdom, from our ‘adult chair’ and from our prefrontal cortex, that we do things that are truly good for us. Loving skillfully, just like living skillfully, is willing to make an effort and experience some discomfort with a long term outcome in mind.
‘How we do anything is how we do everything’, so our ability to love ourselves skillfully will inevitably translate into our ability to love others just as skillfully.
The blog post must come to an end, but the inquiry and the practice (and the screw ups!) continue…