Love is an interesting thing. We all want to be accepted, and we all want to be accepted for “who we are”.
In fact, by definition unconditional love means is that someone is not putting conditions on their love for us. They are accepting ALL of us, the good and the bad. In fact, part of the concept of self-love is being able to look at yourself and say “I am enough”.
Being able to love yourself, and being loved unconditionally are two things we should all strive towards. And in my opinion they probably the most important building blocks to happiness, and healthy relationships.
One place people seem to get confused though is in the belief that unconditional love and accepting yourself as you are means you are a finished product. It means you can’t change, and you can’t improve.
Patterns of Behavior
It doesn’t matter who we are, we can always improve. And sometimes we really should.
I know a guy who never seems to be able to hold a job for long. He would spend a few months here, a years or so there. In all cases he would leave the job and I would hear about how awful it was at the company. Usually it was an issue with management, how terrible they were and how they treated the employees poorly. Although it must have been hard on his family, his wife was very supportive of him. She seemed to admire the fact that he was willing to stand up for himself and what he felt was “right”.
Then one day I got a job at one of the places he used to work and I met some of the managers. When I met them, I had a hard time reconciling the stories I had heard with the people I had met. That’s when it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t the places or the management.
Maybe it was just him.
But when he spoke about how terrible these places were, he genuinely seemed to believe it.
A few years ago I read a book by Anne Sheffield about how depression impacts relationships. She had grown up in a household with a mother who suffered from depression, and as an adult she had a few failed marriages.
All her marriages ended because of similar issues, and after the second or third (I can’t remember) she realized that maybe the problems didn’t lie with her partners. Maybe the commonality was her. It was at that point that she started to realize she also had depression, and it had been affecting her ability to maintain a relationship.
Reading that story made me think of the guy who couldn’t hold a job for long.
Each time he left or lost a job, he had a reason. And taken individually each of those reasons seemed valid and defensible. But when you look at them as a pattern of behavior, the one common item was him.
Through the Looking Glass
I’ve talked about my buddy Gandalf, who spent much of his adult life without fulfilling relationships before. He ended up seeing a psychologist and related to me some of his experience:
Early in my therapy my psychologist had me list out what I thought was the perfect partner. After going through that list with him he said one word that I’ll never forget. It was “selfish”.
My mindset at the time was that I wanted and needed loving, but I didn’t think that I needed to give any love back. It never even occurred to me that I should even give any love back. To me, my thinking was that it was their duty to give me love and that I didn’t have to return anything back because just the act of loving me should be enough for them.
There was no empathy for anybody else. My mind only focused on me. It is known as the Narcissus Paradox, where it appears that I would be thinking of others, but really, my mindset was only focused on me and my needs. I was nice only to the point of where I could get other people to show me affection. My thinking was only on how to get other people to show me love, and not on how to love other people.
This leads to passive aggressive behavior and giving people the silent treatment because I didn’t understand how to deal with conflict or how to get what I wanted from other people.
I now realize that this is not only very selfish, but childish and immature. There are several factors that contributed to me having this mindset, but lack of being loved as a child is a significant factor in this. If you don’t grow up in a loving environment (both between the parents and the parents to the child) then you grow up without knowing and understanding what love is and the empathy required for a loving relationship. I am now in the process of learning this, but it takes time. However, as my friends have told me, it’s better late than never.
He had people around him who loved him, and accepted him for who he was, flaws and all. But I’m sure the people who cared about him (myself included) wanted and hoped for him to change.
Change is a difficult concept. We’ve probably all seen people who have relationships where there are parts of their partner that they don’t like, and they try to change those parts. For anyone who has seen that, you know that it never works out well. People generally don’t change.
I have children, and one of my most important roles as a parent (in my opinion) is to try and shape their behaviors in a way that they can interact with the world in a healthy fashion. When I do that, am I not trying to change them? I am the parent, and part of being a parent is teaching.
A big part of teaching as a parent is around helping your children understand their emotions and their feelings, and allow them to cope in a healthy fashion. Is that changing them? Yes, I am the parent and they are the child, so part of my role is teaching. But am I only trying to teach them because I am the parent? No, it’s because I love them and want the best for them.
Don’t we want the best for all the people we care about? We aren’t responsible for others, but isn’t it normal to want to help those who seem to need it?
It’s a fine line between wanting someone to change to better suit what YOU want from them, and wanting them to change for THEM. And the distinction between those two things is blurred, because often the types of changes that benefit the individual also benefit the people who care about them.
What makes you “You”?
The idea of change often scares the hell out of people. Even when people know their behaviors and actions are damaging and destructive, they often defend them by saying “this is just who I am”. To change would mean you are changing who you are, and by extension that would mean you are no longer “you”.
This is scary. But really, what are you? We are a collection of habits and behaviors, some good and some bad.
What if some of your habits or behaviors are broken? What if something is wrong with the current version of you?
Thinking of my buddy Gandalf story above, he recognized that there WAS something wrong with the old version of him. And although it was hurting the people around him, the main person it was hurting was himself.
This is a difficult situation, because generally we are told that people should be able to accept us as we are. We shouldn’t have to change in order to be accepted, and we should be able to be happy with who we are. So the idea that he should have to change somehow seemed wrong.
But here’s the thing, he wasn’t happy with who he was. In fact, he didn’t really like himself at all. Interestingly the people around him generally did accept him. But he didn’t see that, and he didn’t accept himself.
It was only later when he found himself chronically unhappy and falling into clinical depression that he started to realize and understand exactly how broken this thinking was. And he needed to change, because the way he approached the world was not a situation under which love or true intimacy can thrive.
Should he have had to change?
But not doing so would have kept him in the same negative cycles he had been in for years.
Were there benefits to him for making changes?
Definitely. Both for him, and for those around him.
Although he saw that, he was terrified to change. Because the way he was, and the way he coped with life, was the only way he knew.
I think back to the guy who moved from job to job. He didn’t have to change. Although it probably put tremendous pressure on them, his family accepted him as he was.
He didn’t see a need to change, because in his mind he was never the problem.
People often deny they have a problem. Or they accept it, but say “it’s just the way I am”.
But when you deny a problem, blame others, or minimize it and fail to see how it impacts both you and those around you, you give up the power to change.