Unconditional love sounds like fun, right? You love someone despite their faults and they love you back despite yours. What can be wrong with that? Plenty, say YourTango experts Kerstin Waddell and Nancy Lee Bentley. We sat down with them to discuss the dark side behind the seemingly lovely feeling of unconditional love. We'll see why it happens and how you can overcome it.
First we'll begin with what unconditional love really means. Bentley notes the dictionary definition, which defines it as "Unqualified. Not limited by conditions or requirements, not dependent upon something else. Absolute." Bentley goes on to note that this type of love has been around since the beginning of time, but asks how possible is it to achieve nowadays? "Prophets like Jesus and others did it in Biblical times. But does that mean it's possible today? And can it ever have a down side? It's easy to love flowers and beautiful sunsets, not quite so easy to do the same when it involves people you love hurting from bad decisions they've made, or confronting you when their hair-brained plans conflict with yours."
Waddel agrees and adds that, as a female, she was raised to be an agreeable 'nice girl' but found that this can backfire quickly. "Like many of us, I was brought up to be a 'nice girl' who should act like a saint, spend all of my time and energy looking after other's needs and without expecting anything in return. Perhaps you can relate to this kind of upbringing, where selflessness was considered to be a desirable trait or virtue, particularly for women. I also thought this was an expression of unconditional love. But as the Buddha said, loving-kindness has to start with you. It is clear to me now, that without at least some degree of self-love, unconditional love can actually be harmful; harmful to yourself because you become a worn out, resentful doormat; and harmful to others because you take over and meddle in ways that are inappropriate."
In addition to feeling resentment, unconditional love can sometimes just not be a helpful emotion in dealing with the situation at hand. Bentley writes that "sometimes being unconditional means going against or beyond common sense or even what seems logical, such as when you have to stand up, draw a line, or allow someone like a child or loved one to be uncomfortable, even in pain, so they can 'get' the message or lesson, what's in their higher or best interest."
Indeed, some situations calls for conditional love, or rather, a more rational reaction to the circumstance. Waddel explains the phenomena of unconditional at these times: "This kind of other-centred 'unconditional love' reminds me of what the Buddhist monk Trungpa Rinpoche coined 'idiot compassion', and Chögyam Trungpa explains as '… compassion with neurosis, a slimy way of trying to fulfill your desire secretly. This is your aim, but you give the appearance of being generous and impersonal.' This I believe is also true for exclusively other-centred 'unconditional love' since it is also often driven by an unconscious, ego-related fear of not being good enough and a desire to be recognized as important and needed."
Are you guilty of 'idiot compassion' when you think you love unconditionally? Read on to see Waddel's list of six ways you can tell the difference and how you can adjust your mindset if you're engaging in the former.
Sign # 1: You tend to drop everything and rush to help someone in need, but the situation (their real or imagined drama) stays unchanged or gets worse despite/because of your involvement.
What's Really Going On: You are not in your business (as Byron Katie would say), only reinforcing our own little heroic drama, without first determining whether lending such advice or energy is appropriate.
Adjustment: Take time to reflect on the situation and the consequences of your involvement. You have a choice — take only wise and kind action.
Sign # 2: Your 'helping' role is becoming more and more important — without you, everything will fall apart.
What's Really Going On: You have become the main beneficiary, not those in need.
Adjustment: Hand over your role and step back. It's not about you. Ask those whom you wish to help what they need from you. Let them take the lead.
Sign #3: You can't bear to see others suffer and choose to do something about it.
What's Really Going On: Your actions are driven by your needs, not those of the ones you are trying to help. You may have even become an enabler, doing something that the person could and should be doing for themselves, or assisting them to do something non-beneficial for one's own purposes. This not only is an insult to the other's capabilities and dignity, it also prolongs suffering and leads to co-dependency.
Adjustment: Sit with your discomfort and examine your motivations honestly. What need are you currently not addressing within yourself?
Sign #4: You feel overwhelmed by the never-ending need that you cannot fill with your 'unconditional love'.
What's Really Going On: You have become attached to the outcome of your actions and are unable to accept the other person's actions or the situation as theirs to own and do as they like. Or, as Bryon Katie would say, you are unable unconditionally love 'what is'.
Adjustment: Accept that control is an illusion. 'This is happening for you and others rather than to you.'
Sign # 5: You accept the abusive language and rage directed at you, staying in the line of fire, while quietly wishing your attacker well.
What's Really Going On: Your unconditional love is imbalanced. You do not love yourself unconditionally.
Adjustment: Remember yourself and make choices that serve you and others. Protect yourself by wishing the person well as you say farewell.
Sign #6: You lash out at the ones you believe to love unconditionally.
What's Really Going On: You have become resentful because you are tired of being a doormat but you only know how to assert yourself aggressively.
Adjustment: Practice saying no with love, for yourself and others.
There is a thin line between helping and forgiving others and being a people pleaser who can't say no. It may be a difficult line not to cross but as Bentley reinforces, "The rough, challenging, sometimes excruciatingly painful times are precisely when we grow spiritually." With this in mind, go out and love!
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