Is Your Ability to Receive Love Affecting the Love You Give?

Young child and mother touch noses in dim room, gazing at each other affectionatelyRecently, 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.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alicia Munoz, LPC, therapist in Falls Church, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • angie d.

    angie d.

    January 16th, 2017 at 7:00 AM

    what a great article!

  • Mary

    Mary

    January 16th, 2017 at 2:05 PM

    I was never shown too much love growing up so I have a hard time giving and receiving as a result.
    I know that I feel that love and I love it when any of my kids or my husband gives it to me, but it is still hard to grasp sometimes, like why am I worthy of this?

  • Saylor

    Saylor

    January 17th, 2017 at 8:11 AM

    When I first met my husband’s family it was hard because they are all a bunch of huggers and I have never known quite that much affection in life!

  • perry

    perry

    January 17th, 2017 at 11:52 AM

    You don’t think too much about how you were raised and how that then impacts pretty much every other relationship that you will ever have in your life.

  • Mike

    Mike

    January 18th, 2017 at 11:17 AM

    If you don’t allow yourself to receive, then how can you ever give back in return?

  • Melody

    Melody

    January 19th, 2017 at 11:05 AM

    I grew up in a very tumultuous household to say the very least so the idea of loving another and freely giving that love does indeed make me feel vulnerable. Loving requires that you have to completely let down your guard and keeping my guard up is something that I have learned to do quite well after a lifetime of growing up and being hurt. I can’t say that it ever gets any easier for me to give love sadly because I am always thinking about how this person could in the end hurt me again. On the other hand I know that I am giving up so much in my life if I don’t allow myself to receive and to give as well. It is not right to only be a taker.

  • luCas

    luCas

    January 20th, 2017 at 1:45 PM

    Sometimes I really hate it that my parents were not better models for me in terms of what it is like to give love freely and to then receive it with no strings attached. With them everything always felt so conditional, like it was all contingent of behaving the way that they wanted me to or even did the things that they approved of. It was never a supportive relationship where I felt at ease with being myself. It was more like I have always felt that for them to love me that I had to live up to these unrealistic expectations that they had, and if I didn’t then guess what? I had failed them as a son and no more love for me.

  • ashley

    ashley

    January 23rd, 2017 at 11:32 AM

    Freely receive, freely give… a great lesson to remember in many different aspects of our lives

  • Rob

    Rob

    January 24th, 2017 at 4:07 PM

    I try to open up a little more, but it makes me feel so vulnerable that I know I close up like a clam shell

  • POOJA P

    POOJA P

    May 19th, 2018 at 1:18 AM

    Lovely…I esp. liked the Goldilocks and the Three Bears analogy and the para on what happens when the tables are turned!!!
    :)

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