Love is Supposed to be Unconditional, But You Feel Unsettled by It?

It’s a tough question: “How would you describe your relationship with your parents, growing up?”

I have asked many clients this question. And in some of my quieter moments, the question also sits with me.

Our relationship with our parents will stay with us

John Lennon was wrong: “Love is NOT all you need…”  As if love is somehow magic and it can heal everything. Love can be healing, and it will work wonders. But we each have to find our own path to love, and sometimes through love.

Our early relationship with our own parents creates the foundation for the rest of our lives. Regardless of how old you are, who you are today is a reflection of your childhood relationship with your parents.

Positive childhood experiences with parents can help us to feel more stable in our relationships, to more easily connect and open up. Challenging, or negative childhood experiences with caregivers can create an opposite experience. Adult relationships can feel challenging and we may find it difficult to trust others. We may internalize feelings of:

  • Rejection
  • A lack of self-control or trust in our abilities
  • Unworthiness

As a result, even unconditional love, can feel risky.

We thrive when we have relationships where we feel understood and cared for. This does not mean that those relationships come easily or will feel close and supportive all of the time. Every relationship, especially the rewarding relationships, will have challenging experiences.

Not feeling love as a child, and as an adult, can hurt. But as we grow and become more open to love, we may be surprised that having love and support does not make everything feel better.

Unconditional love can, at times, feel unsettling

Unconditional love reveals the conditions under which we were unloved in the past. Some individuals, especially those with a history of childhood abuse or neglect, are fearful of compassion because it activates grief associated with feelings of wanting, but not receiving, affection and care from significant others in childhood.” Warren, Smeets & Neff, p. 26.

When we open up to love, we may feel that a shadow lurks nearby. We may feel afraid. And fear can trigger us to shut down and protect ourselves.

But fear can also bring something else, something healing. Fear is information, it is a reminder that our needs and our safety is important. Growing up we may not have experienced an ideal childhood. We may have experienced abuse or trauma.

Love brings an opportunity for healing, for building healthier ways of relating to ourselves. But love can also remind us of what we did not get from our parents, or what we did not experience as a child.

Sometimes we need reminders

Feeling unsettled by love, anxious about opening ourselves is a reminder that we still need to practice. And practice can look a lot like work: Choosing to open up rather than retreat, choosing boundaries rather than giving in, valuing ourselves rather than ignoring our bodies.

Reminders come in all shapes: emotions like anxiety or feeling unsettled; fearing conflict or disagreeing with others; feeling bored or triggered; feeling irritated all of time; or feeling plagued by inadequacy. Rather than being a confirmation of our unworthiness, they are reminders of the power of choice:

  • To practice courage, and become open, and aware of what we feel or how we are experiencing something
  • To do the hard thing rather than escape through familiar ways of coping
  • To sit with something that we wish could just be over, face it rather than fix or fixate

Sorry, John Lennon was wrong: “Love is NOT all you need…”

Our culture has an idealistic view of love. As if love is somehow magic and it can heal everything. Love can be healing, and it will work wonders. But we each have to find our own path to love, and sometimes through love.

We may not be in a romantic, or loving relationship. We may be single. But that does not mean we cannot find love.

Oftentimes, love is not in the profound… but in the found. It is finding time, and space for:
  • Taking one step at a time.
  • Taking small risks to feel. Then to risk listening to others as they open up. Then to risk talking and sharing. And to risk trusting.
  • Acknowledging that real love has benefits and it also has costs. At times, love can feel very difficult but at the same time very alive.
  • Being willing to first love ourselves. Through respecting our bodies, our boundaries, our beliefs.
  • Treating ourselves with the same compassion that we give to others that we care for.

I found love late in life

I was so used to trying to change myself, trying to become a better (and different) human being, and continually setting new goals. Really, I was searching for self-acceptance. I found the love that I craved, but first I needed to learn to love myself.

No, I didn’t get divorced… nor did I have an affair.

As a man, it feels a little strange to say this. I was so used to trying to change myself, trying to become a better (and different) human being, and continually setting new goals. Really, I was searching for self-acceptance. I found the love that I craved, but first I needed to learn to love myself. In reality, I didn’t ‘find’ love. Love was already nearby. What I needed to do was learn how to open up to the love that is inside of me, in my relationships, and in the world around me.

Learning to slow down and accept who I am was difficult at first. I still have goals, but I take more time to think about what I need, rather than whether or not something ‘should’ get done. I can still be hard on myself. But I catch it. And I know that I matter too much to dwell on self-pity, or lose myself in anger, or hating myself.

And I have learned to see that sometimes depression and anxiety are familiar places that I go to feel numb. But underneath, I feel afraid, unsettled by how real love (and life) can be sometimes.

One of the greatest gifts of love is that it will teach you that it is never too late to wake up. 

[Citation source: Ricks, W., Smeets, E., & Neff, K. (2016). Self-criticism and self-compassion: Risk and resilience. Current Psychiatry. 15(12). P. 18-33.]

• • •

For a related article about love and fear:

Love Will Change Your Relationship With Fear

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Keep it Real

Photos by Jez Timms, Ian Chen and Elvin Ruiz on Unsplash


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