Life’s Most Worthwhile Lesson: Learning to Love and Be Loved

hand heart shape love sunsetBeing in relationships is a natural and necessary part of life. Human beings are designed to form bonds with each other. In fact, a lack of healthy bonds with other people can cause a variety of symptoms, including depression, anxiety, addictive behaviors, and so on.

But if it’s so natural, why is it so difficult for many people to form healthy attachments? The relationship lessons that they have received in life may be at fault.

If you watch most small children, you will see that they are natural-born relationship seekers. On the playground, they will spot other children, rush up to them, stare them in the eyes, maybe even take their hands, and begin to play together. If they’re very small, they’ll just sit near each other, playing separately in the sand, separate but together.

It’s similar to dogs. Dogs are also social animals. When they see another dog, they want to engage. “Hello, you’re a dog. I’m a dog, too. Let’s get to know each other.” We can learn a lot from dogs.

Infants seek out the eyes of everyone around them. Sometimes it feels like you’re being pulled in by powerful magnets, the intensity of their stare is so strong. “I see you. Do you see me?”

But then children grow up and stop being so unabashed about their desire to connect. Many adults still long for connection but have learned to hide their wanting.

Most of the knowledge that we’ve received about how to be in relationships comes from the ways in which our immediate families interacted. As children, we experienced how our families related to us—attentive, dismissive, or unpredictable. We observed how family members related to each other. We learned which emotions can be expressed and which are seemingly better off repressed. We learned strategies to get the love, attention, and connection we needed, or we learned to give up on getting those needs met.

Most of the knowledge that we’ve received about how to be in relationships comes from the ways in which our immediate families interacted.

If you want connection but avoid it; if there’s always a wedge between yourself and others because you’ve learned to hide your true feelings; if you repeat behaviors that result in people distancing themselves from you, it might just mean that you have more to learn. You may have had lousy teachers, a poor lesson plan, or come to the wrong conclusions about the meanings of the lessons.

Here is an example of a common misunderstanding:

Lesson: A person doesn’t love you.

Wrong answer No. 1: You are unworthy of his or her love.

Wrong answer No. 2: He or she is a bad person.

Possible correct answer No. 1: That person does not love you for reasons you may not be able to understand, and it may have nothing to do with you. It doesn’t mean he or she is a bad person.

Possible correct answer No. 2: You may have behaviors that cause others to distance themselves from you. It could be beneficial to learn about those behaviors so you can have more control over them. Those behaviors don’t mean you’re unworthy of love.

The lesson here is that it’s in our nature for people to love and be loved, but it can be a complicated one to learn. The first step is to forgive ourselves for our difficulties. The second step is to seek out new teachers and reexamine old conclusions. We may never be able to return to the open-eyed trust of our infancy, but we may be able to restore some of our natural ability to form relationships.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, CGP, therapist in Encino, California

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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  • Garrison

    Garrison

    April 7th, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    You would expect that one of the easiest things in the world would be to love others and to receive love right back, but for many of us that is one of the most difficult things that we can be asked to do. If we are not shown how to give and how to receive from a very early age, then it is almost impossible to know how to give of that love freely and how to be gracious in its acceptance.

  • griffin

    griffin

    April 7th, 2015 at 1:43 PM

    One of the most difficult things for me to learn over the years is that just because I love someone and let’s say they don’t return that love, that has nothing o do with me.
    They will have their own reasons for loving and not loving other people, and it is not my job to make them love me.
    If they love me, then that’s great- maybe this is someone that I can have a relationship with.
    But if they don’t? Then that is their issue to resolve, and even though I may be affected by that decision, it doe snot mean that it has to reflect negatively on me.

  • Mary J.

    Mary J.

    April 10th, 2015 at 6:25 PM

    That’s a great way to look at it. But what if you are in a committed,25 years. And the person is emotional checked out of the relationship for years. You can say to yourself ” not my problem ” but the pain that it causes us immeasurable. What do you do then?

  • Laurie

    Laurie

    April 11th, 2015 at 6:05 AM

    My experience is that you try to make it work and then at some point (28 years married, 8 trying and failed) you “see the door for the door” and pull up your big girl panties and make the move. I have no regrets. It’s not easy but you are worth it! Get back to you. Heal yourself and do some soul searching. I suggest getting out there doing things that make you happy. I love hiking in meet up groups. No pressure, meeting new people (not looking for romantic relationships) who have similar interests. Worst case scenario is you don’t meet anyone but you still did something you liked to do and got out there! I am probably in the most transitional, yet most positive and excited time of my life! The world is my oyster!

  • Jennifer D

    Jennifer D

    April 7th, 2015 at 5:34 PM

    I have borderline personality disorder, which have resulted in me not having friends, and trying to be too friendly with people I just met. I want to become good friends, and they get scared. Therefore I drop into deep depression, anxiety, I hide my feelings, my thoughts. I become a recluse.. I have thought about ending my life, but I just want to be loved, yet all I get is pushed away.. I don’t know what to do anymore but remain quiet..

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 8th, 2015 at 10:16 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Jennifer. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Richard

    Richard

    July 24th, 2017 at 5:48 AM

    Hi Jennifer, I know how you feel. The same has happened to me. The trick to friendship is having things in common with others. Since buying a motorbike I have made a lot of connections in the “bike” world. What interests you? Maybe badminton, hiking, triathlons etc? Avoid all solo activities for the time being and concentrate on group activities. I started doing cross fit but didn’t feel comfortable there. Felt like I was being judged. You see, you’re either in or out of society. When you are in, you feel great, you’re joyful and because of that people are attracted to you, you don’t say stupid things/negative things and all is well. Having a good job is key to being in the club. People always ask… “So what do you do?” If you have a great answer then you’ll be approved which will make you feel good and before you know it you’ll be accepted into society. Marketing and advertising companies know this all to well and use it against us to sell more of their stuff. What I would suggest is finding activities that you like doing that makes you feel good. I enjoy getting into nature. I find nature heals and recharges me with positivity. I walk every day and I try to get to a park. Hope something I’ve said helps. Something will change and everything will work out.

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    April 7th, 2015 at 8:19 PM

    On this topic of possibly “having come to the wrong conclusion about the meaning of childhood lessons…” what lessons might a, say, 12-month-old learn by something like Sleep Training? Might the child not ‘learn’ that he/she has suddenly & unaccountably been abandoned by Mom & Dad? Rather than learning ‘to self sooth and sleep thru the night’ as intended? Opinions of other professionals would be greatly appreciated.

  • Tia O.

    Tia O.

    April 8th, 2015 at 10:11 AM

    We might never return to that innocence of when you are young, but it can happen to some extent if you can learn to accept that love from others once again. You have to get past the part that you have been hurt before, we all have, but you also have to be willing to open up your life again to something new and good again.
    I am not saying that this will be easy, but it is something that will be good for you.

  • Rena P.

    Rena P.

    April 8th, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    Amanda,

    As a parent you’re doing your best to raise a happy, healthy child. You cannot always prevent the negative interpretations that they may make about life and themselves. Ideally, you will create an open space for your child to share their thoughts and feelings so that you can help them make sense of the world in ways that have a positive impact on their lives.

    A child could think that not being allowed to gorge themselves on chocolate means that their parents don’t love them when, in fact, an overly permissive parent may be less caring. Parents have to do a lot of things that children might not like or understand, such as helping them to learn how to fall asleep on their own, expecting them to do their homework, or taking them to get shots at the doctor’s office.

  • PROF H M K

    PROF H M K

    April 12th, 2015 at 6:24 AM

    first & foremost thinking shall be about own self , and baby ,or anybody else is-about being unique character and human being,as a person we need to assess uniqueness of others’ motivational interests,likes/dislikes, you may create interests gradually to develop interests in other things by making them feel it suits to them. one does not know one self strength & weakness . counselling skills to analyze and synthesize comes in to play for best results. each one is capable to care best for ownself, but realization and how to attempt – needs counselling help from the professionals.

  • yana

    yana

    April 13th, 2015 at 6:14 AM

    It IS the most worthwhile lesson to be learned, to know that you are deserving of love, no matter what happens

  • John

    John

    May 15th, 2015 at 11:34 PM

    Working now with a helpful therapist who is teaching me how to love, accept and forgive myself. At 60, I have internalized a lot of personal shame and self-hatred. Working with her, I am willing to make these changes to help myself succeed $$$$$ and have some positive friendships in my life; however Rena, while I agree with you intellectually, in my heart I have given up on love and do not believe that anyone would ever love the real me. I lived in SoCal for 32 years and tried therapy (unsuccessful) to deal with my issues and while I agree with possible answer #2 for me, I have given up on love as I would have too much to learn in my remaining years. For me, my family, church, previous therapists and many other people had a chance to show me a better way and all too often rejected me, hence I have no desire to connect in a loving bond with anyone.

  • Sun badger

    Sun badger

    May 25th, 2015 at 9:30 AM

    John I read your post and related information a big way. I too have attempted to escape the trap of loneliness. I am 60 too, & have been in treatments since I was five. At preschool my MSN and tells her supervisor Dr Z (a concentration camp survivor, who showed his in ed arm many times) who saw my Mom & prescribed Dec drive;large doses, also Valium. It worked great “Speed” was my Mom’s drug of course. I’m sure the lack of love in childhood. It was very easy to use e to the fringe of family, I was not family, I was diseased, something that was best hidden in shame, terrorized as all family problems were my fault. Easily remembered is the statement “have you taken your meds you are acting out. My life continued like that in other relationships. Always the same intense at first, and then problems I needed to correct. Punished physically and emotionally, maybe sexual being forced to wear girls clothing and my mother telling me about sex with my father. Women I dated were like mom, albeit becoming progressively worse. One (rich) denied me access to my son. Constantly criticism, and knowing I was a bad widget, everyone said so.
    Feverishly looking; I knew that if ( ) I changed she would love me, I just had to find the right things or things. Made fun of in front of friends. My current has been this beautiful women, I could save her. Also she was mentally ill. A perfect fit! Lost were my career, respect, worse of all was that I NEVER saw my son again? Knowing she had injected a vitriolic vaccine against any anything about me that was positive. Always being used by a master user,just like mom. Cold, mean, critical, physically abusive, UNLOVED, I was a loser,source of money, lacking any self esteem. Sex I had a couple of times at the beginning. That soon ended quickly and I waited for that to become a part of the relationship to resume. It never did not even cuddling. Mean while my “friends” ripped me off especially my drugs (pain meds from Vietnam)for the world of pain that inhabited. I was always running short. Not having lived in VA in 20 years! I knew no one, excel childhood friend. I have gotten so sick of being lied too, waited for a very late survival, if at all, being told how , messed up I was, worse of all was being taken for 10 plus over 5 years period. Abused, bounced checks, never loved. I am smart, attractive, my own house, a BMW spots convertible, non controlling, non violent. An excellent catch. Always the cheerleader. Just do not understand how social stuff worked… a generous, loving, fool. I locked the doors and have no friends. I wonder what it is like to be loved, too late to find out, and no trust. My opposite must be too unusual to find. I just know how to give, receiving scares the help out of me not worthy of caring. What would it to be loved.

  • Rena Pollak

    Rena Pollak

    May 18th, 2015 at 4:21 PM

    John, I appreciate your comment and thought about it for awhile. I think it’s very important to acknowledge when you don’t feel like fighting for something anymore. Sometimes you have to let go to appreciate what you’ve got. It sounds like you have positive friendships and a much more positive relationship with yourself than you used to have. This may sound self-centered, but aren’t we truly the most important person in our lives? Keep up the good work of nurturing that relationship.

  • john

    john

    May 18th, 2015 at 10:31 PM

    Rena, thank you for your encouragement. Yes, my therapist encourages me to love myself first in a healthy way. Unfortunately, I learned many of the opposite lessons such as – Don’t think too highly of yourself, You are not that important, etc. She recommends that I begin a regular practice of keeping a daily gratitude journal. Yes, I am beginning to like myself more and more. Thanks

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