Unfolding into love is a process. Every day I have to enter myself deeply and work through the dysfunction and mental conditioning to peel back the layers of non-love that I falsely learned was love growing up.

I recall reading a line in bell hooks’ book All About Love in which she used Erich Fromm’s definition of love to create clarity around the word “love”. Fromm defines love as: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Continuing further, he adds “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely both an intention and an action.”

I am unlearning the myth we are born loving. We learn from a young age to respond to affection, this ensured a source of caring while we were still dependent. Caring for someone and giving them affection isn’t necessarily love though. I’m also learning that intention to love isn’t the whole picture, love is a verb. It is an action.

We are conditioned from a young age to conflate pleasant feelings with love. So often we confuse love with feeling good.

Real love is not always so glamorous. Real love is having the courage to have difficult conversations about how we’ve experienced harm even if it causes hurt feelings, in order to repair damage and foster loving growth, and connection. Real love requires us to be firmed grounded in reality, so that we are not easily moved or swayed. Real love is the willingness to process through our own shame to overcome habits and mental conditionings which harm others. Real love is holding ourselves and others accountable for the times we do not show up in love, and the willingness to remaining at the delicate balance point between forgiveness for ignorance, and having enough self-love to move out of harm’s way. Real love is taking the time to slow down and become deeply aware of our unmet needs so that we do not harm others in our desire to have our needs met.

Culturally, we do not equate love with things which may be uncomfortable, such as boundaries, accountability, reclaiming space, or building real trust. It is extremely rare we link uncomfortable emotions like guilt and shame to our desire to love. If we have been conditioned to equate all uncomfortable feelings to non-love we are unlikely to have any sort of desire to engage with our uncomfortable feelings. The problem with this is that not engaging with our difficult feelings causes disconnection between hearts which actually do have an intention to love each other. Challenging emotions such as guilt and shame may cause physical tension in our bodies which we define as painful or uncomfortable. We may wish to dispel these feelings as quickly as possible by blaming, yelling, looking for flaws in others, threatening or dominating others, or avoidance altogether, but these would be acts of non-love. If we truly want to love we must choose again and again to enter into our uncomfortable feelings and be with them.

So let’s talk a little about the two big difficult feelings that block us from being able to access real love: Guilt points to the places where we know we should be showing up in love but fail to for various reasons. Guilt is like a map that uses our internal value system as a compass to guide us back to love. In her article Shame VS Guilt, researcher Brené Brown defines guilt as a feeling which is “adaptive and helpful – its holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” Shame, on the other hand, shows us the aspects of guilt that have been woven together with our individual egoic-identity. We have a tendency to think of ourselves as “good people”, shame is the piece that gets triggered when we receive information about ourselves that challenges this self-image of goodness or worthiness.

Brown says of shame: “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.” When we disconnect from difficult feelings we may simultaneously allow our guilt or shame to go unchecked. In doing this we deny ourselves access to the vulnerability that is the foundation of real love – the kind of love where we can truly be our full selves, and be accepted for our full selves, flaws and all. When we repress our emotions and lived experiences out of fear of social isolation, or fear that our feelings make us bad people, we are likely to continue to harming others, and to continue making excuses for the ways in which we harm. It becomes very difficult to face the ever-mounting pile of uncomfortable feelings, when we push them down and refuse to acknowledge them. Accepting that we feel guilt or shame, and naming these things aloud can help us to release some of the pressure.

I was not taught to love. I’ve had to learn it on my own. I have learned much of it through my failures to love. I am only learning how to correctly love myself and others now.