Recently, when I put my 6-year-old son to bed, he reminded me of something I can sometimes lose sight of, particularly when I’m anxious or worried. As I kissed him on the forehead, he said, “No fair.”
“What’s no fair?” I asked.
“You kiss me more than I kiss you,” he said.
“Well, and isn’t that good? When I give you a kiss, doesn’t that raise your love meter?”
My son rolled his eyes in the greenish glow of his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles night-light.
“Your love meter gets higher from giving love,” he said.
This idea—that love is something we get more of by giving it away—is a radical one, though it’s nothing new. Folks as varied as St. Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. have encouraged people to cultivate true wealth and freedom through conscious unconditional loving, for their own and the world’s sake.
For many of us, though, living from this principle is easier said than done. The experience of feeling vulnerable and threatened triggers our fight-or-flight response, and it becomes hard to remain aware of ourselves and of our options as we relate to others. Usually, we default to our habitual defensive positions—blame, avoidance, projection, rationalization, just to name a few. And yet, being able to tap into our capacity to give love—even when we’re scared—may be an urgent necessity if we want to preserve our sense of agency and balance in the aftermath of one of the most anxiety-provoking transfers of power in American history.
For one thing, our agendas and ulterior motives have a way of creeping into our words and actions, influencing how the love we try to give those around us is experienced. Sometimes, it’s not attuned to what the recipient needs, like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It’s too hot or too cold, too much or too little. Sometimes, the love we offer reaches its recipient contaminated by our concerns and preoccupations, and we feel hurt when it’s shrugged off, minimized, or ignored.
Defenses against receiving love, or giving it, aren’t necessarily good or bad. We learn to defend ourselves against taking in the very things we deeply want for important reasons, including our own psychic survival.
When the tables are turned and we’re on the receiving end, we get to experience firsthand how hard it is to take love in: whether it’s in the form of a goodnight kiss, a hug from our partner, or a stranger’s compliment, opening our hearts requires something from us we’re not always willing to give: trust, surrender, vulnerability, emotional availability, or even self-love. If you feel unworthy of it yourself, how can you accept it from another?
Defenses against receiving love, or giving it, aren’t necessarily good or bad. We learn to defend ourselves against taking in the very things we deeply want for important reasons, including our own psychic survival. Even if we can’t remember having ever truly trusted another human being to love us selflessly, for exactly who we are, we’ve all counted on someone’s appreciation or approval only to experience it withheld or withdrawn. We’ve all opened to another’s concern and felt it suddenly morph into something suspect, a projection or judgment, a form of control. As sensitive beings imprinted with these types of experiences, it’s not unusual to grow up wary about receiving the emotional gifts others offer us, lest they turn out to be Trojan horses or a version of Narcissus using us for a mirror.
As therapists, one of our jobs is helping people understand what gets in the way of taking in the love that’s already in their lives, even when circumstances are difficult. The more people can access and metabolize the love they’ve been disregarding or ignoring, the more it can nourish them and help them love others. In accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP), the way in which people take in others’ emotional offerings—referred to as our “receptive affective capacity”—becomes rich ground within the therapeutic relationship for exploring, understanding, and expanding this ability well beyond the therapy session.
The relationship between giving and receiving love can seem like a riddle worthy of a sphinx—a human conundrum we begin grappling with early in our lives, as my 6-year-old son reminded me with his take on the true metrics of love. However you frame it, being able to receive love from another seems to be inextricably linked with our own desire and ability to give it. Finding ways to expand our own and others’ capacity to take in and produce love locally, rather than seeking it elsewhere, has the potential to create a more stable and sustainable psychic economy.
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