When Love is Scarce: How do We Find Value in Our Relationships When Love is Finite

It’s no secret that I grew up in a household that confused love and belonging with how we were seen by others. There were undercurrents, okay maybe tidal waves of insecure self-image that ran through my family. Starting with weight, and extending to the clothing we wore, to how clean our house was, there was always the feeling of being judged for who we were. And who we were was written all over us by the things we did and owned, and how we looked doing them.

This was a very cold environment to grow up in, or rather I imagine it would feel cold if I had the ability to feel anything at all. There was always a numb, heavy feeling. As though the air were ripe with criticism and it was only the work of a moment for someone to descend and dispense with whatever it was that I was doing wrong. There’s a line in a song by Peter, Bjorn and John’s, “The Chills” that sums up this feeling, “your tongue is sharp, but I miss the taste of it.”

And that’s how it felt. There was the maddening search for approval from someone who constantly held it just out of reach. And feeling approved of was a precursor to feeling loved and belonging. And the game was rigged. I would never meet my caregivers impossible standards because they in turn never met the impossible standards set by their caregivers. You can’t give what you don’t have, i.e. approval for reaching a standard they themselves never reached nor felt approved of.

Looking back now, I’m able to see with some clarity as to how this has played out from generation to generation, and the sheer amount of emotional manipulation my family has endured and doled out simultaneously has help me to piece together that, we all probably feel a little like frauds when it comes to feeling love and belonging. That’s for sure how I felt for a long time.

The feeling still pops up from time to time, which I’ve come to expect. You don’t experience years of neglect and abuse and then suddenly expect those feelings of inadequacy to go away overnight. It takes years of self-care, and reparenting to even begin to feel again, in some cases. Then you’d better buckle your seatbelts because all those feelings come crashing in like the aforementioned emotional tidal-wave, taking with it just about everything.

So if we’ve only really experienced critical judgement from caregivers, and the moments of care, love and tenderness were fleeting if present at all, then how do we chose love, something we haven’t had any practice or experience with? From my experience, it helps to practice the pieces that add up to love. The patience, with self and others, keeping a non-judgemental state of mind, or at least not getting carried away with the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re doing wrong or how somebody else is not adding up to our expectations.

And none of this is easy. So another aspect of practicing love is being forgiving, of ourselves and others when we’ve stumbled. It’s inevitable that we will fall back to our old ways of being. By either judging someone for making a mistake instead of asking if they’re experiencing stress in their lives that may be impacting them here and now. Or beating ourselves up for overlooking a task we should have gotten to instead of appreciating how much we’re able to accomplish in the day.

So if patience and understanding are the pieces, forgiveness is the glue that binds these pieces together. But also, along the way, don’t forget to be open to the feelings and experiences we have that follow when we practice patience, or being accepting of and listening to others. Because those are the spaces where we change, when we “be the change you want to see in the world” or ourselves.

And of course, like anything worth the while, this all takes time. Another way to practice patients with yourself. When I started noticing how often I was judging others, it took some time before I could look at someone and not automatically deem them as overweight, or unattractive (two main areas of focus in my family). And it still happens. The difference now is, that I can recognize the thoughts that come to mind, and let them be, without judging myself for having them.

Tara Brach said something that really hit home with me in one of her dharma talks. To paraphrase, she said that you don’t have thoughts, your mind secretes them, saying you’re having a thought is like saying you’re circulating your blood, they just happen and the mind has no shame. And from my experience, I can get pretty worked up over the thoughts that are popping up. Especially if you’ve experienced any sort of verbal abuse or emotional manipulation from those closest to you. Self-doubt, fear and frustration are only a few of the emotions that come to pay a visit. So it’s nice to know that the thoughts that run through your mind aren’t a reflection of who you are.

Once we begin to cultivate these traits in ourselves, and by extension with others, we then can begin to experience the caring and ease in our current relationships that we may not have had modeled for us in our youth. It may not be easy, but it’s worth the while to foster these aspects of our relationships to feel a deeper connection and maybe more fulfilling overall. So stay the course! It’ll be difficult at times, but it gets easier with practice. Peace, and thanks for reading :]

Image Credits: “Scarce blood enough in all their sickly veins” by harold.lloyd is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0