October 18, 2019

The Obstacles to Unconditional Love

Part 7 of a series on Learning to Love Unconditionally


Clearly, there are impediments to loving unconditionally or we wouldn’t be struggling so hard to figure out how to do it. Here are some explanations for our difficulties.

  • We think unconditional love is for the saints. For many of us, unconditional love seems an unattainable goal. We give up before we even try. While not easy, unconditional love is very doable if we adopt the right frame of mind and understand that we’ve lacked instruction about what it means, how it is different from other forms of love, and how to do it. We’ll make mistakes, but that is part of what it means to be human
  • We also fail to recognize that unconditional love is happening every day. Police, firefighters, doctors, nurses and others routinely save the lives of very detestable people who may hate something about them or might, given the opportunity, injure them or take their life. They may not like the person, but they act out of unconditional love.
  • We associate justice with revenge, retribution and punishment. These responses to wrong-doing seem antithetical to unconditional love. Restorative justice offers a loving alternative that holds people accountable for their behavior, makes things right insofar as possible, and heals relationships
  • We perceive difference as a threat. History and culture have led us to emphasize difference rather than sameness, in part to create a strong sense of identification and connection with those who are like us. In addition, the amygdala, our instinctive brain that triggers the fight or flight instinct needed for survival, is overly active, especially in a society with high stress and fear levels, making us more likely to regard difference as a threat
  • Our brains are hooked on being right. According to Judith Glaser, a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, when we’re in situations of high stress, we tend to defend and fight for our positions, because our brains are flooded with adrenaline and dopamine, which make us feel good and even invincible. Since we like this feeling, we fight again and again and become addicted to being right. We regard those who disagree with us as adversaries or even enemies
  • We are afraid to make ourselves vulnerable. Loving others unconditionally means understanding our own frailties and weaknesses and opening our hearts to feel empathy and compassion for others. We acknowledge that we make mistakes so that we can accept that others also make mistakes. And we take risks in reaching out to others in unconditional love in a society that seems to favor distance and aloofness even at the price of alienation and loneliness. To love unconditionally, we need to remove some (but not all) of the protective armor around our hearts
  • We fear change. Our bodies are designed to maintain homeostasis, to operate within a relatively narrow range – for example, our temperature and blood-sugar level – and to return to equilibrium or “normal” when things move outside that range. Homeostasis, writes Scott Jeffrey, “doesn’t distinguish between ‘change for the better’ and ‘change for the worse.’ Homeostasis resists all change.” This is true in social and cultural environments, too, making us resistant to growth and to new ways of thinking and acting. If you’ve been a Democrat all your life, it’s a bit scary to become a Republican. You will lose the comfort of what was part of your identity and risk alienating your friends and colleagues
  • We don’t understand our emotions. We haven’t learned about the different emotions that are part of being human, what is behind them, what purposes they serve, and how to direct them to meet our needs. Without this knowledge, we cannot manage our emotions or control our responses to them. We come to believe that our anger and fear, which are part of being human, make it impossible to love unconditionally
  • We don’t recognize that our actions are often counter-productive. When we’re in a reactive mode, small disagreements quickly escalate, generating fear that hijacks our capacity to reason and to feel love. In close relationships, worry that the love we experience may be conditional creates separation anxiety. Paradoxically, our fight or flight reaction pushes us apart when we most need to come together. Fear and love cannot co-exist in the same moment.
    Next month we’ll look at some of the factors that help us to love unconditionally.

Carol Bragg
Seekonk, MA 02771


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