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.
As part of this work, I am learning to drop the notion that love is always warm and fuzzy feeling. I am working to replace it with Fromm’s definition as it resonates more deeply with what I know to be true in my heart. I am stepping towards being better than I have been. I am learning to acknowledge the times I have failed to show up in love. I am choosing to do whatever it takes to align my intention of loving myself and others, with the actions I take in the world. Recently feminist writer and activist Lutze Segu shared with me that it helps her to not think of allyship in terms of good or bad but rather to ask ourselves “are we effective?” I’m finding it helpful in overcoming guilt and shame, is to ask myself something similar these days. I try not to quantify my attempts to be loving as good or bad, but instead ask myself if I was effective in how I showed up to love? When I do this I create space. There is still room to falter, and still room to grow without falling into a shame spiral during the times I’m less effective in my attempts to move towards love. That in itself is a choice to move towards loving myself and fostering my own spiritual growth. I also recognize that as some of us step towards real love, we are likely to trigger guilt or shame in others who have not yet made the choice to step fully into love. I’ve decided within myself that I’m okay with that. For those willing to walk towards love with me, I am willing to sit with them in the darkness of their guilt and shame, and offer my compassion. For those unwilling, I simply must choose self-love, and part ways, knowing there is nothing I can do or say that will cause them to turn their attention inward on their guilt or shame. I know that it is only through their own rising discomfort that there will be incentive to change.
Choosing love is an every day, moment to moment process. It is an action, not a feeling. We cannot plan ahead to love, we cannot change the ways we have been unloving in the past. Love is an action that can only happen in the present moment, and it must be chosen.
In order to choose love fully, we must turn from fear, hatred, and from the discomfort of breaking free from a culture based in non-love. In order to choose love we must be willing to sit with everything which makes us turn from love and close down.
Love is like a flower, delicately it unfolds, petal by petal. The older outer petals fall to the outside, and new fresh petals are revealed within.
To open, a flower requires nourishment – sun, rain and soil. The unfolding cannot be rushed. No amount of yelling or demanding at a flower will cause it to open.
When the flower is finished opening it wilts and dies and goes back into the soil to provide the nutrients for the next flower. As we unfold from our egos we do the same. When we choose to act in love in every moment, as best we are able, we unfold our own petals. When we open into the fullness of love we dissolve our egos. Outmoded ways of being, dissolve into new ways of being, and provide the nourishment needed to continue our forward evolution.
Everyone benefits when we address our own difficult emotions. It is through this work that we dissolve our own egos. As we dissolve, the collective soil is rejuvenated.
May we all bloom in love.