Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.  2001

Love is perhaps the most wonderful and treasured feeling we can have toward others and toward ourselves.  Our society is certainly preoccupied with love, or at least with what it calls love.  A majority of movies and books seem to attract people by dealing with love.  Most of us worry for some significant periods of our lives about whether we will “find somebody to love” or to love us.  The greatest fear and greatest pain of many people is being alone and without love.

In thinking about love in their lives, most people think of loving or being loved by someone else, but love for oneself (and consequently treating oneself well) is a key asset for living a satisfying and fulfilling life.  It is often said that we cannot love others if we cannot love ourselves, though this is probably better understood as saying that if one feels unloved or mistreated, then it is much harder to love others.  It would also be true that if one truly does feel love for others (sincerely, comfortably, fully), then one will be the kind of person who also can feel love for oneself.  Because of the importance of self-love, self-acceptance, and self-esteem for loving others, and because so many people do not love themselves, loving oneself and loving others will be presented in a parallel fashion here.

Because parents call us selfish and punish us for being good to ourselves but ignoring the needs of others, we are now fearful of loving ourselves.  However, feeling love for oneself (feeling warmly and positively toward ourselves, enjoying our awareness of ourselves, wanting to ensure the we are treated well and have our needs satisfied) does not at all preclude feeling the same way toward others, and it does not prevent us from doing good both for others and for ourselves at the same time.  Most people view love or good will as an either-or game (either I get the toy or the other child gets the toy), but adults can work toward getting toys for everyone.  A loving nature and attitude in life extends naturally to both others and oneself.


A useful working definition of love is “a positive, warm, affectionate feeling involving attachment feelings, identification with the loved one, desire to be close or closer with the loved one, the wish for good things for the loved one, and pleasure experienced in contact with or contemplation of the loved one.”  Love truly “makes our world go round,” and it provides most of us with our clearest reason for experiencing life as worthwhile.

It should be recognized that with love, as with all other feelings, we each have a somewhat different personal definition of this feeling, since we learn our concepts and definitions from how we observe that others define them and from our own experiences.  The definitions that we observe in those around us, as well as our personal experiences, are somewhat different for each of us.  Still, if we are to seriously think about love, we need to be “on the same page,” and the definition offered here will be useful for exploring how we love and how we have difficulties loving and being loved.

Love is a warm, positive (pleasant) feeling, as opposed to a neutral, cold, or negative feeling.  When we love someone we feel warmly toward him, and it feels good.  Similarly when we love ourselves, we feel warm toward ourselves, and it feels good.  We feel affection (tender attachment and fondness) for the loved one.  When we love ourselves, we feel tenderness and fondness for ourselves.

When we love, we want to attach to the loved one, to be connected.  We long to be with and even touching the loved one all the time.  We are convinced that the loved one is wonderful and lovable, and we readily ignore the loved one’s flaws and occasional failures.  When we love ourselves, we are firmly connected with ourselves, rather than keeping ourselves at arms length because we see ourselves as unworthy and undesirable to attach to. 

When we love, we identify with the loved one, as we do when we like someone.  We want to be like the loved one or identified with the loved one, since it feels good to be connected in this way or feels good to think of ourselves in terms of our similarities to the loved one.  In loving ourselves, we identify clearly with ourselves, knowing who we are and valuing and affirming who we are by identifying with ourselves.  We enjoy being connected with ourselves, because we are worth being with. In loving, we want to be close to the loved one.  Being near feels good and is comforting.  Closeness implies the possibility of interaction, but simply being close by is satisfying in its own right.  In loving ourselves, we enjoy being close with ourselves.  Since we enjoy ourselves and find ourselves valuable, it is enjoyable to be close with ourselves.

When we love someone, we want good things for them.  We want them to be happy and fortunate in life.  We want things to go well for them.  We feel pain empathically when a loved person is hurt.  Similarly when we love ourselves, we want good things for ourselves.  We know that we deserve all the good in life that is available, and our wishes for ourselves are unequivocally positive.

We take great pleasure in our contact with the loved one, and we often enjoy simply looking at or thinking about the loved person, even without interaction.  The loved person is a positive object for us which we value as a source of good feelings and pleasant experiences.  The loved person is interesting to us.  When we love ourselves, we enjoy being in contact with ourselves.  We enjoy being aware of ourselves, observing our actions and being aware of every feeling and thought inside.  (This is consistent with a definition of self-esteem as positive feelings in response to the awareness of ourselves.)  Pleasure in contemplation of self may go a little too close to our prejudices about narcissism to be a comfortable part of our analogy between loving others and loving ourselves, but it logically follows that if we are positive objects for ourselves, then being aware of ourselves will be a positive experience.

To demonstrate the mainstream nature of the above definition, compare it to the major definitional aspects of love in the current (11-2013) version of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties;  attraction based on sexual desire; affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests; warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion; unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.

It is instructive to reflect on the more differentiated view of love of the ancient Greeks.  “Eros” is generally what we think of as sexual desire or passion.  “Philia” is generally equivalent to friendship, seen with friends, family, colleagues, comrades in arms, etc.  Playful love, as between children or casual lovers, came to be called “ludus” in Latin.  “Pragma” referred to the deep connection and understanding possible between long-married spouses.  “Agape” or selfless love identified a general feeling of love for everyone, possibly extending to animals and the world itself.  “Philautia” referred to self-love.  As you will see, our working definition here focuses on all of these except eros, which our society has confused with the general concept of love due to the evolution over the last thousand years of the concept of a spousal relationship which is completely self-sufficient and needs nothing from outside.*



For contrast, let us look now at some of the things that love is not.  Because of our society’s current view that the only love that counts includes sex, we will focus on the many non-sexual aspects of love.  As you will note regarding the Merriam-Webster elements above, they can be divided into two major groups of definitional elements, one having to do with affection and other warm but non-sexual feelings toward others, and the other being sexual attraction or desire.  Love, as we are defining it, is not passion or desire.  Pleasurable sexual interaction does result in positive feelings for one another, but these positive feelings fade in a day or two and must then be renewed through further pleasurable sexual interaction.  (A significant and longer term sexual relationship may, however, result in permanent feelings of affection in some people.)  The term “lovemaking” suggests that sex is the same as love, but it is basically a more polite euphemism for “having sex.”  People having sex may also, of course, feel love for each other, but engaging in sex is not motivated by loving the other person but rather by desire.

Our society promotes this confusion throughout the media.  Perhaps the most frequent theme in books and movies about relationships is unfulfilled sexual desire for another person.  A loves B, but B loves C, and A goes through agony trying to get B to notice or to love him or her.  This is always referred to as love and is never called desire, even though it is clearly desire and involves A’s wish for getting love from B (perhaps both sexual and non-sexual), not A’s love for B.  If A loved B and that were really the theme, then A would feel warm and affectionate toward B, rather than agony, and would be looking for ways to enhance the happiness of B in all appropriate ways.  This might involve finding out whether B would really prefer C or A, and if B preferred C, then A would help B improve his/her relationship with C.  (It is possible, of course, that A both loves B and desires B, but this gets all mixed up in our language, because we never separate these issues.  We say that A hurts so much because he/she loves B, not that A is happy because he/she loves B but at the same time hurts so much because his/her desire for B is being frustrated.) Spanish is a bit more helpful in this regard, since the phrase “te quiero” means “I want you,” not “I love you.”

Another insight on this is available by looking at what happens when a “love relationship” is “over.”  Usually A and B part and either forget each other and have no contact or complain about and criticize each other to their friends.  Could this have been love?  It clearly was some desire or want which was not satisfied or which ceased being satisfied.  If it had been the warm, positive, affectionate feeling we are calling love, then that feeling could logically continue long after A and B were no longer spending all their time together (except for the disappointment that many feel when the desire has faded, which for them spoils the warm, positive feelings that were also there, if they were there at all).  We are so blind to this that those couples who do continue to feel love for each other, even though they are not primary love objects for each other, are a mystery to others.  We don’t even have a word to describe this condition.  They end up having to say that they are “still friends,” but this often does not do justice to their feelings, which are feelings of love and not just friendship.  This illustrates just how narrow-minded we are about “love,” acting as if love is worthwhile only if it resides in a primary relationship with one other person that involves sex.  We have trouble communicating, then, about the love we have for our children, since it is certainly not like the passionate desire which we are taught is the love that we should all be looking for.

More of the same confusion is illustrated in our statements of the type “I just love my job.”  We don’t mean that we feel affection or even desire or passion toward our job.  We really mean that we like it strongly, but in our vernacular, liking that gets stronger and stronger has nowhere to go descriptively except into “love.”

Our first experience of love, from our parents as they care for us as infants, certainly should not lead to the confusion between desire and love (even if both have roots in Freud’s “libido”).  Clearly parental love is not desire but is love as defined in our working definition for this essay.  Perhaps the confusion is based on identifying the strongest feeling we are capable of as love.  Whatever the reason for the confusion, though, it would be helpful if we all tried to use the right terms for what we are talking about, because the confusion leads to heartache and suffering.  It is an old and oft repeated story how the “loved one” takes “I love you” to mean something other than what the speaker really means.  Most usually in this everyday tragedy, the speaker means “I want you” or “I want something from you,” and the hearer wants it to mean and takes it to mean something more along the lines of affection and commitment.  Then when B deserts A, A wails, “But I thought you loved me!”  Be honest when you describe your feelings to others.  If you like them, say that.  If you want them or want something from them or with them, say that.  If you love them, say that.

This is not to say that there is not deception on both sides of this universal hunt for “love.”  It is another old story that men trade love for sex and women trade sex for love.  Many times, both “lovers” want to believe that desire and passion are the same as love and as long as they can maintain

their passion then their longings for love will be fulfilled.  Sadly, passion is not love, and the “in love” type of passion changes over time, leaving the relationship exposed to decay if there is not also love present, either all along or developing over time.

The difference between passion/desire and love is perhaps most clearly seen by noticing that passion is wanting something from the “loved one” (in addition to the tremendous feeling of connection or twinship that is often felt) while love is wanting something for the loved one.  When people who are “in love” give to each other, it is usually in terms of their over-identification with each other, so that it is like giving to oneself–seeing oneself as part of this fusion with the lover.  In love as we are using it here there is also identification with the loved one but not this kind of fusion into one being that we see in “being in love” or that we feel in sexual union.  Love as desire frequently ends up as a contest or battle, as we try to get the form of response we want from the other person.   Concerns about whether the other person loves you, or loves you enough, or who loves who more, or who has given more (or given up more) frequently arise and can only make life harder for both parties rather than enriching the life of both lover and loved one.  In contrast, love as affection is a response to the loved one as he or she is right now, without a requirement that the loved one change or give something back.  Love which says, “I will love you if you will…,” is obviously not love but bribery.  Similarly, any test of love in the form of “if you loved me, you would…” is a statement of blackmail, since the speaker is using a “guilt trip” in order to get the other person to perform as desired.

Parenthetically, this discussion is an example of a more far-reaching principle that any emotion we have which requires a response or a change in someone else is going to cause trouble, because getting someone else to respond or change is only going to happen in a small percentage of cases, leaving us either frustrated or holding on endlessly to efforts to get the other person to respond or change.  This applies to any emotion–love,

guilt, shame, loneliness, etc.  It works better to take responsibility for our own emotions, dealing with them ourselves, if possible, or perhaps seeking the desired response or change openly from someone else and then if it is not forthcoming, seeking what we need somewhere else or changing our own responses and interpretations of events instead of blaming the world.

Some part of the physiological response which we identify with love may well have to do with wanting to return to a state of being taken care of completely, as when we were babies.  There is a similarity between the feelings of both love and passion and the feeling of complete satisfaction of all needs, as in childhood, perhaps because of this connection.  But love is not simply being satisfied, since it also involves affection and other emotional and cognitive responses to the loved one.

The perceptive reader may have wondered why I have chosen to use the term “love” for “warm affection, etc.,” rather than for passion, since it is possible also to use “love” for passion and to invent another word for “warm affection, etc.”  The reason is that we can define “warm affection, etc.” to encompass all forms of love except for passion alone.  So “warm affection, etc.” includes parental love, love between friends, “warm affection alone,” and “warm affection plus passion,” leaving only passion alone in contrast.  So, it seems that defining love to include the most examples of what we think of as love would be the most appropriate thing to do.


Love is not selfish or self-centered, and self-love is not selfish or self-centered either.  As we have discussed the difference between desire and love, it is clear that desire is self-centered and gives to the loved one mainly to get back.  Love, however, with part of its definition being the impulse to give to the loved one in order to enhance the loved one’s well-being, cannot be called selfish or self-centered.  Usually this confusion between loving oneself and selfishness arises around selfish parents accusing the child of being selfish and self-centered, when he or she is loving toward himself or herself.  Often this is because parents want to be obeyed and use guilt-trips like this to bully the child into being more responsive to parents’ wishes, and sometimes parents say this because they want all the child’s love for themselves and do not wish the child to love anyone else, including himself.

We have discussed this point before, but it is so important that it bears repeating.  Everything we do is self-motivated, because we can only do what we choose to do.  (Think about it if you are unsure of this.  Try to do something you are not choosing to do.  You will not be able to do it.)  L. S. Barksdale makes this point very well in his books on self-esteem.  In this sense, everything is “selfish.”  Yet the concept of selfishness does have some meaningful value to us, and that meaning must be something like “actions are selfish when the person performing them could reasonably be expected to choose another action–one which would take better account of others’ interests in addition to his own.”  If a person takes her lunch to work and then eats it, we rarely call this selfish.  If a person takes her lunch to work and someone else there has forgotten his lunch, it is usually not considered selfish if she eats her lunch and does not share it.  If that someone else is sitting there watching her eat and talks about how much he needs to eat something and how vexed he is that he forgot his lunch,  she could be thought by some people to be selfish if she does not offer to share her lunch with him.  Other people would not see this as selfish, but would see the other person as appropriately getting the consequences of forgetting his lunch by not having any lunch.  As stated above, selfish is when someone could be reasonably expected to do something different than he does–something that would respond to others’ needs or feelings more than the originally chosen action.

The label of “selfish” is sometimes used as a weapon when someone wants to change someone else’s behavior.  Regardless of whether most people would see person A’s behavior as selfish, person B wants person A to do something for person B, so person B labels person A’s failure to do so as selfish, or labels person A as selfish, in an effort to get person A to change and do what person B wants.  This is called a “guilt-trip,” since it is intended to arouse guilt in person A, and it is assumed that this is what will motivate person A to change his behavior (the desire to get rid of the guilt or to not be seen by others as guilty).  Some people who use guilt-trips know exactly what they are doing, and some people who use guilt-trips have grown up in a family where everyone does it and no one thinks about or knows what they are actually doing.

The relevance of guilt-trips to self-esteem is that many people with poor self-esteem have poor self-esteem partly because they grew up with a parent or parents who used guilt-trips in an effort to control him or her.  If your normal behavior, with which you attempt to appropriately meet your needs and grow up is labeled by your parents as bad, then you will come to distrust and dislike yourself, because the “natural you” will do things which go against the teachings of your god-like parents.  (Sometimes parents appeal as well to church teachings to support their claims that your essentially normal behavior is bad.)  When you distrust and dislike your natural self, you have poor self-esteem, because your reactions to yourself will be negative. 

As we have noted before, parents do have to control many of the behaviors of children, and because of children’s lack of rational inner controls and abilities to take a different point of view, fear and punishment are inevitably used by parents for behavior control.  This usually turns out all right when those behaviors controlled are behaviors which we expect everyone to control.  We perform elimination functions in private in our society, for instance, and toilet training does not usually result in great harm to children.  However, when natural behavior which is used by a child in an effort to grow up or take care of himself or herself is defined as “bad,” then serious harm will come to that child’s self-esteem.  He sees that other children are permitted to express and take care of their needs and feelings, and he concludes that his own needs and feelings are somehow different and bad.  He comes to distrust and hate himself for being who he is, and that is what we call poor self-esteem.     

The conclusion here is that everyone has the right to exert his or her efforts and all his or her abilities toward taking care of his or her needs and feelings, as long as those efforts are not harming others.  Parents, teachers, ministers, or others who teach the contrary are damaging the self-esteem of children and adults every day.  Anyone who teaches that one should react with guilt or shame to his or her own natural thoughts, feelings, or needs is harming self-esteem.  In order to live together in society, behaviors must be controlled, and there are only certain allowable ways to express one’s feelings and thoughts and to attempt to meet one’s needs.  This is normal, and everyone must learn to conform, more or less, to these rules.  Making a person react to himself with shame or guilt is not necessary in order to accomplish this behavioral conformity, and it is terribly destructive as well.


Returning to our discussion of love, love is not self-sacrifice.  This is another source of confusion in our culture.  Very often we hear things to the effect that someone loves someone else a great deal as proved by the fact that the person sacrificed himself and his needs in some way for the loved one.  Our discussion just above puts the lie to this superficial

understanding of people.  Everything you do is what you have chosen to do, and if that is true, then what is sacrifice?  Giving to others is to be commended, but if we choose to give to others, then that is what we are choosing to do, so how can it be sacrifice?  If a mother saves all her money for her children’s education and as a consequence does not live in as nice a house or have clothes that are not as nice she could have had if she were not saving that money for her children, then she is making a choice of what to do with that money.  Her circumstances are changed by her choice, but the thing she has chosen to do–to save the money–she wants to do more than she wants to spend it on herself.  Is that sacrifice?  Once again, giving to her children is to be commended, and we can feel good seeing this kind of behavior by this woman, and we can praise the quality of her mothering and her giving to her children, but it seems inappropriate and unnecessary to talk about her sacrifice.  If she was responsible for her choice, then she did exactly what she wanted to do.  If she made that choice not just for her children but so that we would think her a good mother, then once again she is getting exactly what she wanted.  If she made that choice so that she would not feel guilty about spending the money on herself, then she is getting exactly what she wanted.   We respond to our own needs in every situation.

Parents do not love their children for the sake of the children, but because it is natural to do so.  They are motivated by their own needs and feelings to love the children.  (Of course, the sight and sound of children and their needs may play an important role in eliciting this natural response on the part of parents.)  Someone who sacrifices for the sake of someone else actually does so in his or her own best interest.  A person who gives by choice benefits by that giving, through feeling good about himself or herself, through enjoying the pleasure of the receiver, or through other self-satisfactions.  Love is not self-sacrifice, since everyone benefits from love.

The reason for emphasizing this point is that presumed self-sacrifice is frequently used as another source of guilt-trips aimed at controlling others.  If this mother tells her children how much she is giving up for them and wants them to love her for this, it can set up a problem for the children.  If gratitude and love are enough for them to give her, then things will be all right, but if the children identify their needs as bad because those needs cause their mother to suffer, then this will lead to guilt and poor self-esteem, and the mother is doing them no favor at all.  We cannot call this love if it leads to guilt and poor self-esteem for the “loved one,” since love seeks the best interest of the loved one.  This would be the sort of “love” that we can all do without.

Jesus’ death on the cross may come to mind as making others’ needs more important than one’s own.  Given the Christian understanding that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, we can empathize with the tremendous struggle Jesus felt in making that sacrifice.  If Jesus made this sacrifice on purpose, and if this sacrifice were consistent with the principles of good emotional health (he really believed that giving all human beings was more important than continuing to live himself), then he chose what he really wanted to do.  Fortunately for us, he has not used this for guilt-tripping purposes or to get anything back from us.

Sometimes this sort of “sacrifice” becomes a pattern and can be used as a weapon.  This role seems to be more often taken by women, perhaps because of our traditional expectation that women be caretakers and symbols of the love that we all want.  In this manipulation, the one who sacrifices uses his/her discomfort or living as leverage to control others.  The message is “look how much I love you–I did this and this and this, and you won’t even….”  This is a classic guilt manipulation, and it gives love a bad name.  “Love” which requires guilt or sacrifice in return is not love, but selfish desire.  Children with a mother like this grow up wary of love, because they know that “love” will always end up taking something from them.  Anything given in true love is freely given, and this giving feels good to the person doing it.

A mother who appears to sacrifice everything for her children may be making it look that way while her real motive is to bind the children to her as a source of love or caretaking for herself.  Political figures who seem to be putting the needs of the country or the citizens before their own are usually making it sound that way as a way of getting what they really want–the adulation or loyalty of the people, or perhaps undying fame.  If a person is in fact making his choices based on what he wants, then even though it is disguised as self-sacrifice, it is not actually self-sacrifice, and the person is getting exactly what he wanted.  The apparent self-sacrifice is simply the price for getting what he wants.  If, on the other hand, the person really does make choices on the basis of others’ needs rather than his own preferences, emotional problems are certain to result.

Another way to look at the problem with a sacrificial view of love is that if you really did make the loved one’s needs more important than your own, it would literally make you crazy.  As discussed above, it is unnatural to actually make one’s choices on any basis other than what one views as his best interest, and if this is done, it will result in depression or psychosis.  This, of course, assumes genuineness of motivation.  In most cases in which it appears that someone is putting the needs of others first, this is a pose, and he or she is not actually putting those others’ needs first.

If we make others’ needs more important than our own, then “love” hurts and diminishes us.  That sort of love is not in one’s own best interest, and it places people often in the position of having to or feeling they have to “prove” their love for someone by giving up something important to themselves.  Any time you hear the phrase, “If you loved me, then you would…,” you know that the person making the statement wants the other person to give up something he or she doesn’t want to give up.  This kind of love takes a scoreboard, with much concern about who has given more or given up more, and it usually ends in loss of love, because someone feels he or she has had to give up too much.

If making other’ needs more important than our own has bad emotional consequences for us, perhaps another possibility would be making others’ needs as important as our own, but not more important.  By doing this, we would certainly treat others with respect and consideration enough to make for a better society.  There is a lovely story that may help us analyze this.  The husband, who prized his antique watch, and the wife, who prized her beautiful long hair, were considering Christmas gifts

for each other.  They were relatively poor.  The husband wanted to enhance his wife’s pleasure in her beautiful hair, so he sold his watch in order to buy combs for her hair.  The wife wanted to enhance her husband’s enjoyment of his watch, so she cut off and sold her hair in order to buy him a gold chain for the watch.

As I said, this is a lovely story, but what was the outcome?  Neither person got what he or she wanted, except an evidence of the others’ love.  This may be what often happens when we try to make things totally equal.  Things become confusing, and we do not know which way to go.  If someone else’s needs are truly equally important, then do we do what will benefit us or what will benefit the other person?  We could take turns, but this doesn’t seem like a very satisfying solution.  Fritz Perls defined neurosis as basically the confusion between acting on our needs and acting on the basis of others’ needs.  Any system of ethics that is based on strict equality encourages keeping count of exactly how much everyone gets, and this overconcern about being shorted is quite the opposite of the generosity which we so appreciate in others.

Perhaps the best solution is to simply act on our feeling of love and to seek “win-win” actions, which benefit others as well as ourselves.  Acting on our feelings of love makes giving natural and satisfying, rather than the result of some score-keeping process.  Finding solutions or actions that benefit everyone is not always possible, but it is a good practice, and it keeps us mindful of others’ needs and rights.  If people could accept love and expressions of love when they are naturally available and not feel deprived when they are not, this whole problem would disappear.  Having good self-esteem goes a long, long way toward making this kind of maturity possible.  With good self-esteem, we are relatively self-sufficient and can allow others to be themselves, even when that sometimes means that they are not doing exactly what we might like at that moment.  To have to keep score and to be upset when others are getting a little more than we are usually comes from childhood feelings of jealousy or envy (of love or of material benefits) with respect to siblings or others in our families.  Hopefully as we mature we can relax somewhat about this and accept what is given and available to us with good grace, at least as long as things are basically fair.


For most people, the circle of loved ones is limited to family and a very few others.  Most relationships in our society are too limited or too adversarial to permit the development of the sorts of familiarity and closeness which are usually associated with the development of love.  In a pure sense, however, love does not require safety or familiarity, only the willingness to love.  There are those who seem able to love practically everyone, even those who oppose or harm them, but it is so rare that we are amazed to observe it.  We, too, could almost certainly expand our ability to love in this same direction.  We will not be “in love” with all those other people (because that comes with passion), but we will feel loving toward them.  We will feel warmly and positively toward them, affectionate toward them, and identify and empathize with them.  We will feel attachment and will enjoy being close to them.  We will wish good things for them.  Expanding our abilities to love would produce wonderful changes in our world.  Even more important and significant than that, though, is the wonderful change in society that this would bring about.


Not “Deserving” Love

Let us review next some of the barriers to loving and being loved.  Self-rejection and non-acceptance are at the top of the list.  If you reject yourself and do not accept yourself, then you will have difficulty accepting love from others (or from yourself) because you do not “deserve” it and are therefore no lovable.  One is not good enough or does not have enough of some quality to deserve love.

Assuming that you have not in the immediate past done something for which you feel quite bad and therefore temporarily unlovable, the culprit here is usually in your history.  You have received treatment and messages from others that you have interpreted as meaning that you did not deserve love, and you still believe it.  Usually this comes from parents, but it may certainly be added to by peers, other authority figures, and “significant others.”  If they treat us poorly, instead of seeing the situation realistically (as adults), we interpret it (as children) to mean that we must not be lovable or we do not deserve love.  This follows immediately from our tendency to see rewards as having to be earned or at least merited.  If mother feeds me, it must mean that I deserve food at that moment, since sometimes if I am particularly difficult about eating, she stops feeding me.  Therefore my behavior or my being must create deservingness at all points in time.  It would be more realistic to say that “I deserve food all the time, but sometimes my behavior makes it too difficult for mother to feed me,” just as one could say “I deserve love all the time, but sometimes my behavior makes it difficult for others to love me.” 

This proof, that one doesn’t receive, therefore one must not have deserved, is our attempt to explain what happened.  It is not a direct description of what has happened, because it is not based on the actual feelings or perceptions of the other person as well as on his or her behavior toward us.  This type of error in interpretation stems from another human characteristic–that we would rather have an explanation than live without one, even if that means that we live with great pain as a consequence of our incorrect explanation.  This is because of our tremendous need to feel that we are in control and that we can control our circumstances.  Being in control in this situation is having an explanation, even though there is not anything that one can do about it directly.  The control that the child has is that he or she “knows” that he or she would be treated better, loved and accepted, if he or she were the way he or she was supposed to be.  Theoretically, then, the child could work on being more the way he or she is supposed to be, and therefore be in control.

In reality, in most of those situations, no matter what the child did, no matter how the child was, the treatment or response would not be any better from the adults who are there, but it feels better to the child to “know” what would make things better and to be able to try, than it does to have no explanation and be totally helpless.  Many people go through their lives without love and with poor self-esteem, feeling awful much of the time, because they cannot escape the consequences of this choice to distort reality by believing that they were undeserving and need to be different somehow before they can be deserving.  The price paid is enormous.

Fear of Love

This difficulty changing long held assumptions about oneself brings us to another barrier to feeling loved.  Sometimes being as hurt and disappointed about lack of love as many of us are can lead to a fear of love.  We either become convinced that every experience of love will end up hurting us or being taken away from us and so avoid it like the plague, or we believe that to feel loved now will be so painful, because of all we have been through, that we can’t stand it (since it reminds us of the all that pain of not being loved).  These avoidances are again understandable but must be changed.  There is no god or keeper of your fate that watches to see when you get something good so that it can then be taken away from you.  It might have seemed like this to you as a very young child, but it is not in fact true.  Look around you, and reality will convince you.  You are not different from others.  No one is taking happiness away from them, and no one takes happiness away from you.  If some real people in your life were so cruel that they regularly destroyed your happiness, then that was their fault and their problem.  If you do not let those people or others like them be close to you and control your life now, then you can prevent this sort of thing from continuing.     

Insisting on Love From Specific Others

Another barrier to love is insisting on getting it from particular others or only in certain ways.  An example might be insisting that one will not feel loved or accepted unless her mother provides that love and acceptance.  Oftentimes this someone is the  person who created the problem in the first place, and the child (now adult) is insisting on going back and starting over from where things went wrong originally. This sort of insistence is understandable but not productive.  It may be impossible to get that love from that person, living or dead.  It may also lead to a deadlock in which by setting such a condition, you never get what you really want.  It also ignores the fact that love is just as wonderful wherever it comes from.  What people like this refuse to face is that mother (or whoever) can actually “get away with it” and never give what she should have given.  If you keep insisting on getting it from mother, you have the illusion that the wrong is going to be righted, whereas in reality it may never be put right.  You may simply have to accept that you can’t get what you should have gotten, that even though it was not your fault, you are helpless to change what happened, and it is not going to be made up to you.  That is a lot to face sometimes, but the pain must be faced.

Refusing Love from Oneself

A related barrier is insisting on love from others rather than from oneself.  Anger and resentment often play a strong part in this.  You may feel angrily that someone else is responsible for the mess you are in, and you are insisting that they clean it up by giving you what they should have given in the first place.  This allows you not to feel responsible, and it allows you not to do the hard work you would have to do if you were to clean up the mess, but it is very unlikely to get you anywhere.  It almost never happens that someone makes up for something like this to anyone at a later time.  You will simply go to your grave angry and unloved.

Sometimes people don’t want their own love and insist that it must come from others or from certain other people because they don’t value themselves enough.  Clearly, if they valued themselves more, they would be more willing to accept and value their own love for themselves.  People like this will say that since they are garbage themselves, their love is worthless to them or to anyone else.  Actually this is the kind of self-put-down which is begging for someone else to contradict it and to say, “Oh, no, that’s not true–your love is valuable.”  People always have deep within themselves a voice which still hopes and still believes in their value, so statements like this are an expression of surface games, either with oneself or with others around one.  The problem here is the person’s reluctance to feel the pain and the goodness which come from really facing oneself honestly.  When there are no more games and no more deceptions, there is both pain and solidness–the pain of accepting reality and the solidness of one’s real self instead of the insubstantiality of an unreal identity or sense of oneself.  Your own love is just as valuable (and a lot more trustworthy) than the love of others, wonderful as that love from others can be.  Work on accepting it and enjoying it.

Sometimes the reluctance to accept one’s own love is based in feelings of helplessness.  You may feel that since you have never been loved in a healthy way by someone else, you can’t feel loved because you don’t know what it feels like, and you can’t love yourself because you have never observed anyone else do it.  These are genuine barriers, but they can be overcome.  They seem “logical” at first, but they are not really that strong. 

If you are one of those who insist on first getting love from others before you will consider loving yourself, take careful stock of yourself in regard to feeling loved.  Be sure that your complaint that no one ever loves you is accurate, or whether in fact love has been available to you but you have, out of fear, been unable to accept it.  In a more positive vein, remember that the most effective way to elicit treatment that we want from others is to treat ourselves that way.  If you want love from others, the best way is to treat yourself lovingly.  If you love yourself, then love will come from outside as well.

Definitional Restrictions

In addition to insisting on first getting love from others rather than oneself, there are other restrictions often placed on love.  A trivial sort of example might be someone who will not believe in another’s love unless that person sends roses.  Roses are seen as the true symbol of love, and this is used as a test for whether love is “real.”  A more insidious example is a person who insists that love means that you will do what he or she wants, so that if you believe that a relationship is a two-way street, this person will never believe that you love him or her, because sometimes you will not do exactly what he or she wants.

Infants sometimes have this illusion about how their parents love them and accept them with no consequences to them no matter what they do (completely unconditional love), and it is a wonderful feeling, but it was an illusion in the first place.  If these infants do not become able to accept necessary standards for their behavior in the world, then they will be perpetual misfits.  As an adult it is very difficult to fool yourself into believing this illusion.  If you as an adult are insisting that you will not feel loved unless you are loved while being exactly who you are at all times and being allowed to do whatever you want to do, then you are going to wait forever.  It’s better to accept a more realistic view of love and the genuine benefits of it than to grieve your life away because you can’t have what you want.

Another way in which people put an impossible restriction on love is the insistence that love be endless and that the person who loves never leave.  This is like saying “I don’t want to ever be disappointed, so if you are ever going to leave me, I won’t accept love from you.”  Since everyone will eventually leave, through death if for no other reason, this person will never accept love from anyone.  Whether you consider it sad or just reality, nothing in life is guaranteed or perfect.  It is better to experience and get beyond one’s sadness and disappointment about this than not to really live–that is, never to try or risk or love or proceed with something not knowing how it is going to turn out.

We see more subtly this unrealistic expectation that love never end is seen in the common statement after the end of a love relationship, “Well, I guess it wasn’t love.”  The assumption is that if it had been love, then the two people would have continued to love each other and stayed together.  It is likely, of course, in many of these situations, that the two people did feel love for each other (in addition to passion), at least to some extent and at some times.  The love they felt was evidently not enough to keep them together (and there are often economic, cultural, and other factors which are even more responsible than love for the ending of relationships).  This is no reason to devalue it by saying that it wasn’t love at all.  Love is valuable, from whatever source, and whenever it is available.

If you can feel loved only while feeling passion or desire, then you are set up to feel unloved much of the time.  If passion disappears from a relationship, it doesn’t mean that there had been no love or that love is gone as well, but this obviously is dependent on perceiving love as different from desire and as being more enduring.

If you recognize love only in people trying to manipulate you with guilt or self-sacrifice, then of course you are going to shy away from love because it is so painful.  The confusions of love with desire and self-sacrifice are the main contents of the soap operas which take up hours on television each day, so you can be sure that many, many people suffer from these confusions and struggles.

People who have been significantly abused can confuse love and pain.  (This is the origin of masochistic tendencies, as well.)  These people may feel they are being loved later in life when they are actually being abused, and we can understand how they might also shy away from love because of their belief that love hurts and hurts very badly.  It would obviously not be desirable to promote being loved and loving if that were guaranteed to increase pain, guilt, self-sacrifice, or the lonely longing of unrequited romantic desire.

It is easier to accept redefinition, of course, if you can say that your mother really did love you along with doing other things to you.  It is harder to accept if when you take a fresh look at things you find that she really didn’t love you at all.  If your mother didn’t love you at all, and all you got were

manipulations, then you as a child would naturally cling to any way of feeling loved that you could, even if you had to deceive yourself to achieve this.  I believe, though, that as an adult, it is now better to see the truth and be freed from your false beliefs, even though that may be painful, so that you can go on to find genuine love in your life.


Even after you have made progress with your definitional difficulties, it may still be hard to feel love or to feel loved.  The most common barrier here is being gun-shy about the hurt that has been experienced along with love and therefore being afraid to risk feeling loved and feeling love without guarantees.  Unfortunately life does not permit those kinds of guarantees.  What life gives is opportunity, endless opportunity.  There are so many people to love and who may love us that it is like a starving person walking by a restaurant with a sign offering free food without going in because he is afraid he’ll have to wait too long for the meal to be served or because he is afraid they won’t have the things he likes best on the menu for that day.  Such a person is losing out on what is available.

If this were a rational matter, we could simply tell people about what they are missing, and they would change their ways.  The fact that they don’t change indicates that the fears go very deep.  Some people have been so hurt in relationships in which they should have been loved better, particularly with parents, that even to feel love would bring up so much pain that they just don’t want to do it.  There is no easy answer for this.  You have to get started somehow, and getting started means clearing up all that pain from the past, so you can live in present reality without being controlled by the past.  You must experience and get through that pain, whether you can do it yourself or you need the help of another.

Keep in mind that the pain itself is not going to kill you.  Your reaction to the pain and your interpretation of the pain are the problems.  Reacting to the pain with “this hurts so much that no one should have to bear this, so I won’t bear it either” leaves you stuck getting nowhere.  If you let yourself experience and endure the pain, it will pass, and you will get better.  Interpreting the pain as indicating that you are an unlovable and undeserving person (since that was your conclusion earlier in your life when you first felt that pain) simply keeps you mired in your pain and poor self-esteem. 

It is critical to convince yourself that the fact that some particular person, even your parent, did not love you or did not love you well does not at all mean that you are unlovable or undeserving.  If you thought that as a child, as many children do, then you must take charge of that thought and change it.  It is irrational and unjust.  If you really believe it after carefully thinking it through, then there is something wrong with your thinking.  You are putting a condition on love, like “in order to be lovable, you have to be loved by your parents,” or “if your parents can’t love you, then who can?” or “obviously you must be perfect in order to be loved, and I wasn’t perfect.”  You might have wished with all your might to be loved well by your parents, but if they couldn’t do it, then they simply couldn’t do it, and that is not your fault, and it doesn’t say anything about your lovability in the rest of the world and the rest of your life.  You must work on this until you get it straight.

Loyalty to Significant Others

The last barrier to love that we will consider is loyalty to significant others, usually parents and family.  When parents have loved a child inadequately, occasionally the child feels so fiercely loyal to the parents that he or she insists that nothing better is available because what he or she got must have

been OK.  The child refuses to acknowledge the inadequacies of the parents and prefers not to be loved better rather than admitting that the parents did not do a good job.  By doing this reframe, the child thereby refuses to feel the pain of being loved poorly by refusing to admit even to himself or herself that there was anything wrong.  This also has the “benefit” that the person can avoid whatever anger he or she might feel about the poor parenting.  Again the answer here is to become willing to feel the pain, so that one can move on from there and find better things for oneself in life.

Our loyalties to the past sometimes serve us well and sometimes do not.  It is nice to feel secure in one’s traditions and network of relationships, but sometimes these loyalties are a trap that keeps us in a pattern of feeling unloved (unconsciously) and bad  about ourselves (usually consciously).  You must take a look at how loyalties to parents or family or friends or other parts of the past or present are keeping you from feeling your full and true feelings.  Once you understand this, then you can consider how you could change or reframe those loyalties so that you are free to be a different person and to feel better about yourself. 

For example, if your mother used “love” as a means of inducing guilt in you and getting her own way, and she represented loving yourself as selfish and wrong (because that would make you more independent of her and less responsive to her guilt manipulations), then you may have grown up suspicious of love and unable to love yourself, because of your experience with her as well as your loyalty to her.  Recognizing this, you could decide that you want to be able to love yourself and that you are willing to change your relationship with your mother in order to gain this ability to love yourself.  This does not mean that you must change your mother, although this is the approach most commonly tried.  It is more productive and more responsible to change your own way of looking at things and dealing with things.

You could change your view of love to recognize that when your mother uses “love” to gain leverage, she is not loving you but is using you instead.  You could decide therefore not to be manipulated in this way, realizing that you have no obligation to pay back love (which is always given freely) and therefore need not feel guilty about not being controlled by your mother.  You could seek more loving relationships with other people, and you could discuss the issue with your mother if you wanted to try to establish a more loving relationship between the two of you.  If she continued to use the same maneuvers as before, you could simply stop responding to them with guilt and compliance.  Instead you could do what you felt like doing for her, out of love or respect, but do nothing out of guilt.  Your mother might be upset about not being able to control you like she could before, but you could let her be responsible for her feeling in that regard, just as you are taking responsibility for your guilt and poor self-esteem and are doing something about them.  You must believe that everyone is responsible for his or her own feelings and be willing to let your mother be responsible in that regard (and be upset for a while if that is what she does).

Above, I said that you must be willing to face the pain of change.  In this example, you would have to be willing to face the risk of the pain of becoming more distant from your mother and opposing her in her way of controlling you.  If she could change, too, then the distance between you would not continue forever, but if she did not, then your determination to be your own person (and therefore not be controlled by another) would inevitably make you feel more distant from her.  The separateness itself may feel strange to you, even lonely for a while, but you will get used to this as you develop sources of true love and nurturance for yourself, including that which you learn to give yourself.  You would probably also have to deal directly with the pain of guilt when you first begin to insist on taking control of your own feelings.  There is no way to pre-change those feeling reactions.  We cannot do some magic in the head before we first make a behavioral change so that we immediately feel comfortable with the change.  Knowing this, however, you can accept this as the natural sequence of events, and know that as you change behaviors, you will have to work at the same time to change your feeling reactions.

If we follow this particular pain back in time (the pain of not doing what your mother wants), we will find your fear of punishment when you didn’t do what your mother wanted and your terror at being rejected by her (and therefore dying from not being fed and taken care of).  Children react to these emotions by learning (forcing themselves) to conform to expectations and rules and to keep authority figures happy by not resisting or disobeying.  To go against these conditioned responses in yourself, you must recognize where the present emotion you are feeling is coming from (from those experiences of childhood fear and terror), recognize the inappropriateness of those previous feelings to your present situation, and consciously act in different ways in the present than you would “naturally” have done (go against your mother’s expectations rather than conform in order to avoid the feelings of fear and terror).  It is also very helpful to allow yourself to fully experience those early feelings of fear and terror and let yourself express yourself naturally in response to those feelings, whether that is by crying or screaming or crouching on the floor, because going through this natural expression (instead of avoiding the feelings by automatically conforming) helps you to experience that you have met those feelings (and by implication, the situation which involved those feelings) and survived.  You must know that you will survive the feelings and the current situation, in order for you to take the risk of a new and different behavior.  (The theory and the mechanics of this type of emotional expression based on past experiences has been highly developed by Dr. Ed Edelhofer in his Integrative Affective Therapy.)


In this section, methods of learning to love and to be loved are elaborated in more detail.  It’s not reasonable to expect yourself to do away with all of the barriers you may have to loving and being loved before you start trying to love others and yourself and to accept love from others.  The process, then, has several sides.  You acknowledge what you want and get in mind what you are going to try.  You try it and you find that you are blocking yourself or you encounter some old pain which seems insurmountable.  You pause to work on your self-blocking or to get through some of the old pain, and then you try something else in the present.  You see some results, but you again come up against your fear or other blocks or more old pain.  You repeat the process.  This is the only way, but it can be discouraging.  Know, however, from the beginning, that you can get through it to being able to love yourself and others and being able to accept love gladly from others.  You can do it.

The False Belief That You Did Not Deserve Love

You must overcome this most fundamental of false beliefs–that you did not deserve love because there was something wrong with you or your behavior.  Every child deserves love, and that includes you.  There was nothing wrong with you or with what you did for which you should have paid so high a price.  Amazingly, though understandably, many people in this painful situation resist changing their minds about themselves even though it would feel better if they could.  After years of being convinced that you are undeserving, it is often quite difficult to accept a change.  Being undeserving can become a part of your identity, and it then feels strange to change that and to be deserving.  I guarantee you that it will feel a lot better to feel deserving, but no one can change your mind for you.  You can benefit from paying attention to reality–to the fact that regardless of how you are stuck in the mire of self-criticism, there are a number of people around you who think well of you. If you are the one out of a hundred who has in fact no one who thinks well of him, you will need to change your situation so that there will be a few people around who think well of you, but usually the problem is that you are too stuck in your own perceptions to see and accept that there are others who think well of you (since it contradicts your chosen explanation of being undeserving) or to take advantage of it.  Pay attention to reality, and use what is there to feel better about yourself or at least to start questioning your long-term assumptions about yourself.

Thinking That You Know Nothing About Love

If you are interested in feeling love, then you have some yearning or imagination deep down of what it might feel like, for without some sort of image of a goal, we cannot even be interested in it.  The next step is to get more in touch with that image, by letting yourself meditate on it.  Slow down, relax yourself (lying down is probably best), and travel down to those images and feelings.  They may be somewhat painful, because of the unfulfilled nature of your longing, but you will survive.  In addition, you have observed others whom you thought were feeling loved, and observed those who were loving them, so you have empathic ideas and feelings about what it is like to feel loved and what it is like to love.  Encourage and develop those ideas and feelings.  Sometimes there are unrealistic elements in such longings, and it will help to sort that out with a friend or a trusted dvisor, but it is a start, and it is a chance for you to identify more clearly what it is that you want in terms of love.  The problem here is more likely to be that you don’t want to feel foolish or disappointed than that your lack of experience makes the whole thing impossible.

Fearing That Love Would Be Too Painful

The problem of feeling that love would be too painful can be overcome simply by letting yourself feel the pain.  It is that simple.  You think that you can’t stand the pain, but you can, as long as you have any shred of hope in the back of your mind that things could be better.  If you let yourself experience the pain, it will run its course and decline, like a river that temporarily floods but goes back to its previous size.  The pain is not going to drive you crazy or make you do things you don’t want to do, and it is not going to kill you.  Like all other emotional pain, it must be accepted and borne until it goes away or until we learn new ways of handling it in our brains.  (Dr. Ed Edelhofer has done some inspiring work in helping people with this fear and avoidance.)

If you are sitting on a lot of anger at someone, then experiencing the pain might put you so in touch with your anger that you express it to that someone.  Expressing it doesn’t necessarily mean hurting the other person physically or emotionally.  How you choose to express your emotions is up to you.  It is in your control, and you are responsible for what you do, just as everyone else should be, too.  (People who have experienced severe abuse may fear that feeling their anger would lead them to harm others.  For those people, it may be best to undergo this process with a competent therapist.)

Insisting On Love From A Specific Other Person

If you are holding out for your first evidence of love from a certain person, take a look at what you are missing out on.  Life is passing by, and you have set a condition that you won’t feel good or feel loved until this particular person loves you.  That person’s love may mean a great deal to you, but as we have already discussed, trying to get someone else or the world to change so we can feel better is usually a losing proposition.  You are probably dooming yourself to living without love for much of your life by taking such a position.  It is often quite painful to give up on such a hope, but for your own sake, that is what you need to do.  Take a hard look at your requirement for love, and decide whether it is likely to come about.  If not, then consider giving it up and focusing on the love that you can give yourself and the love that you can get from the rest of the world.  You will have to accept the pain of giving up your hope.  Share your grief with friends or your therapist and let yourself mourn and let go.  It looks hard, but it is better for you in the long run.

These objections–it will only feel good if I get it from the person I want it from; I don’t know how to do it; etc., can be overcome, with the proper focus.  Do you really want to develop your capacity to love and learn how to accept love from others (and from yourself), or do you want past wrongs to be righted and others to take care of this very difficult problem instead of having to do it yourself?  Many times accepting that you must do it yourself brings up significant anger, because it doesn’t seem fair.  Others have done you wrong, so if you fix the problem, then they will have gotten away with it and won’t get punished or won’t have to acknowledge their wrongdoing.

Rejecting Your Own Love For Yourself

Self-esteem is originally built partly using the love that others offer to us.  We associate positive outcomes, such as being fed and basking in the love that we get, with ourselves, and this promotes self-esteem.  If we insist on receiving love only in certain, special ways and only from certain people, then we cut off many sources of genuinely nourishing love which we need to build our self-esteem.  Accepting our own love for ourselves—appreciating and enjoying the good and loving things that we do for ourselves—may be critical to building or repairing our self-concept and self-esteem and may be critical to having loving relationships in the future.

Many people reject their own love because they don’t trust themselves and expect to feel disappointed and to reject themselves if they fail themselves at any time.  Forgiveness is important here.  No doubt you are going to make some mistakes, and you may let yourself down sometimes.  You may fail to act lovingly toward yourself sometimes.  You cannot let this stop you from living.  In order to accept ourselves as human and to grow, we must have compassion for our frailties and accept our occasional mistakes.  (If your mistakes are more than occasional, you can reduce your mistake rate by learning more about how to handle life.  You may also be defining mistakes too broadly.)

Confusing Passion and Love

If you have a confused or harmful definition of love, you will need to work on changing your definition, so that you see love in a healthier way.  No matter what other people have told you was love, you can know the truth.  If you have thought that desire was love, then you have probably not felt love or paid attention to it in your mad dash for passion and desire.  Separate them in your mind, and think purposely about this distinction whenever you see examples of passion or love.  Face the fact that gaining passion may allow you to feel for a time that you are loved, but you are misinterpreting, and sooner or later you will be disappointed–“Oh, I guess it wasn’t really love.”  This doesn’t mean that you must stop enjoying passion–not at all.  It does suggest, though, that you see it for what it is, and use your abilities and time to cultivate love separately.  If passion and love happen to come together in the same relationship, be grateful, but don’t think that passion guarantees or is love, because it doesn’t and it isn’t.  It is the conventional wisdom (but happens to be true) that over time passion declines to some extent in almost every relationship.  Once again, in the long run, we are better off facing reality rather than constructing ways to fool ourselves about the truth.

Confusing Love and Self-sacrifice

If your confusion has been between love and self-sacrifice,  then the challenge is look back and redefine or see clearly what has happened to you in life.  Identify the love as love, and be willing to identify the self-sacrifice and manipulation that you experienced as just that.  Separate them in your mind.  What makes this especially difficult is that the same person can have some genuine love for you and also do a lot of self-sacrifice and guilt manipulations with you (because basically they don’t feel lovable themselves!).  Think about our definitional aspects of love, and identify what was love in the relationship under consideration.  Then see clearly the remainder, which was not love but something else.

It’s OK to see the flaws in those we love.  Perhaps your mother loved you but because of her own insecurities, obscured that love with lots of guilt manipulation.  That doesn’t make her a terrible person, and it doesn’t invalidate her actual love for you.  Your task is to separate in your mind the love from the manipulation, so that you won’t look for manipulation as an indication of the presence of love and won’t feel that unless you pay the price of enduring the guilt and the manipulation, you won’t get or deserve the bits of love that are really there.  These are the destructive results of the confusion, and if you work on it now, in the future you will be able to see things clearly and effortlessly.

A key tool to use in this process of redefining your experience is your feelings.  Love feels wonderful; it is not a mixed feeling of some positive and some negative feelings.  You can sort out your past experiences by remembering what they felt like.  If things you called love felt mixed, then there was more going on than love, and you can then observe those events from your present perspective to identify what else was going on (such as love concurrently with manipulation, erratic care or abuse).

Confusing Love and Abuse

If your confusion is around abuse, then, as above, you must try to separate in your mind the love from the abuse which you have experienced.  This is often quite difficult, yet that stark contrast between love and pain is an ally and will enable you in the end to succeed.  As with all these efforts, you must be ruthless in pursuit of the truth.


There is an identifiable and understandable process that you can follow to learn to feel love, to accept love from others, and to accept your own love for yourself.  This process depends on the fact that you have been around in this life for a while.  You have experienced a lot and observed a lot, and this experience can be put to work for you.  In the case of love, almost all of us have been loved or felt loved at some time and to some degree.  It may not have been all we wanted, it may be hard to remember, and it may not have lasted long enough to become a permanent part of our subjective reality, but it usually has happened.

The steps to learning to comfortably love and feel loved are (1) identify love correctly so that you can recognize it and distinguish it from other feelings; (2) feel loved, from love that is dependable and stable enough that feeling loved can be a clearly positive experience; (3) associate received love with yourself and feel to some extent that you “caused” it by being yourself and being what we would call “lovable;” and (4) as empathy and imitation skills permit, imagine or intuit what it feels like to love, from observing others, and imitate that feeling yourself, turning it toward yourself and toward others.

Identifying Love Correctly

The first step of our bootstrap operation, then, is to properlyidentify the feeling of being loved.  We have usually experienced it at some time, and we can now concentrate on identifying it more carefully than before.  Feeling loved involves a warm, positive, affectionate sort of feeling, which can lead to attachment with another, identification with that other, wanting to be closer or to move closer to the loving person, wishing good things for the loving person, and feeling pleasure in contact with or contemplation of the loving person.  If any of these elements are missing for you, try to figure out why and what needs to be fixed, because what is missing will show you how your image of love leads you to avoid it.

Viewing Love as Sufficiently Reliable and Dependable

The second condition for learning to love and be loved is that love has to be dependable and reliable enough for you to identify it as clearly positive and desirable.  This is where many people encounter a serious stumbling block. Their experience of love has been so unreliable that wanting love now arouses also the fear of being disappointed and being hurt.  This tends to make love seem like a mixed feeling, which it should not be.  Don’t let this mixed experience blind you to the realistic possibilities in the world around you.  It would be a good bet that even if you did not receive it yourself, you saw others get the kind of consistent, reliable love that you needed.  If they could get it, then you can, too.  If they deserved it, then you did (and do), too!

If you choose to experiment by trying to experience love from another person, it is important that you do that with a person whose love will be reliable and dependable, or else your experiment will be a self-fulfilling prophecy!  Given that the love in “falling in love” is serving evolutionary purposes of making reproduction likely, and given that it is predictably passionate and brief, doing your experiment in that context is very risky, unless from the overall experience you got used to the unpredictability of that state of love and could conclude that love was worthwhile to pursue even though it hadn’t lasted a lifetime.

Even more important than the fact that you can find love in the world is the fact that your own love for yourself can be almost totally consistent and reliable.  You can do for yourself what no one has done for you yet.  Of course, we all stumble occasionally and wind up wishing we had done better by ourselves, but those occasions can be infrequent, and forgiveness must be employed to allow us to keep faith with ourselves at those points.

Many of us have to overcome fears based on our experience of unstable and undependable love in our pasts.  Love involves wishing to attach to and be close to the loved one.  If you do not wish to attach or be close to anyone, it suggests that receiving love in the past was not clearly positive for you.  It may have even resulted in associating love with harm or pain.   Once again, having these experiences of love promotes ambivalence, making you unsure whether you even want love or not, and it actually makes “love” seem to you like a mixed good and bad experience.  You may have to take it on faith at the moment, but this is a distortion.  Love itself is entirely positive, but it can be mixed with other things–hurt, fear, guilt-induction, etc.–which make it seem mixed.  These distortions of a healthy image of love need to be clarified and incorporated into your understanding. 

You can use therapy or therapeutic approaches to get more in touch with the reasons for those distortions, experience the stored up emotions attached to those experiences, and let go of the past in this guise.  You can acknowledge that you got a bum steer regarding love originally and be willing to move ahead and accept a new definition of love for yourself in the present, one that gives you more chance to gain love and self-love for the rest of your life.  This letting go of the past and being willing to accept new definitions and experiences in the present is very difficult for many people.  If you can accomplish this, then the battle to become loved and loving is more than half won.

Associate Received Love with Yourself

The third requirement for learning to love is that you must associate received love with yourself and feel to some extent that you “caused” it by being yourself and being what we would call “lovable” (if you haven’t done these things already).  It is essential to feeling comfortable with love and loving that you feel “deserving” of love yourself.  Most of us understand “deserving” as meaning not that we are owed love in some sense, but that we are “lovable”—i.e., that who we are presents no significant barriers to being loved by at least some others.  It is also important to go beyond “deserving” to believing that some of our personal qualities have generated love in others for us—i.e., that by being who we are, we have “caused” others to love us.  Believing this is an important source of then “feeling good” about ourselves, which with sufficient repetition enables us to have reliable self-esteem.  Feeling unlovable and undeserving of love is the primary source of poor self-esteem in the world (the other primary source being feeling that we do not and are incapable of taking good care of ourselves).

Most people who have had reasonably adequate parenting develop sufficient beliefs in being lovable and deserving love, but if caretaking has been erratic and has contained significant negative experiences (being denigrated, attacked, or abused by caretakers), then those unfortunate individuals doubt whether they are lovable and they often blame themselves, feeling that they do not deserve love because of who they are.  These people must work to change those beliefs before they can be comfortable with loving and being loved.

One of the basic principles of self-esteem is that we all deserve all the good things in life that are available to us, as long as we are not harming others in getting those good things.  The purpose of this principle is to challenge the common, negative view of those with poor self-esteem that they do not deserve good things–that there is something wrong with them or with their behavior which makes it appropriate according to someone else or “the rules” that they do not get an equal share with others. 

The same principle applies to love.  You “deserve” love just as much as anyone else, and no one should be able to define you (unattractive, Asian, dark-skinned, stupid, etc.) in any way that implies to them that you do not deserve love.  Even more strongly, we should support that every child deserves love.  There is nothing wrong with you or with your behavior which should, according to any acceptably humane rules, keep you from being loved.  No one has the right to cut off your access to love because of their feelings about you or their judgments about you or about your behavior.

This principle is particularly important since it applies to the general tendency in human beings to label or define certain persons as less than others or as less acceptable than others.  This must be radically opposed, whether it is based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or any other essentially meaningless “us vs. them” (“we’re better than they are”) definition.  Society and parents do have the right to control certain behaviors in children and adults.  What they do not have the right to do is to decide on the basis of their emotional (like, dislike, etc.) or definitional (age, race, sex, etc.) responses to you that you are unlovable or do not deserve love.

Let us note here in passing that for many people the source of their not having love in their lives is the self-rejection of believing, themselves, that they do not deserve love.  In order to love yourself, you must accept yourself as lovable and deserving of love.  Self-rejection usually starts with rejection by someone else, but it is carried on by us, and the way we make sure that we do not have love is by rejecting ourselves–continuing daily to find ourselves undeserving according to impossible and inhumane rules or for no reason at all, continuing to criticize everything we do, and continuing to feel shame and/or guilt because someone else doesn’t react to us in loving ways or in ways that would support more positive self-esteem.

Practicing With Love Received From Another

Many of us have people around us who are willing to love us if we are willing to accept it.  If you doubt your lovability and deservingness, then it will be a challenge to overcome your fear of the risk that accepting love seems to you to be.  Even if someone seems to have loving feelings toward you, you will most likely fear that if you try to believe in that love and allow yourself to feel loved, it will be yanked away or you will spoil it as they get to know you better, and this fear of loss and disappointment is so great that you may well not take that risk.

The realistic element in your fear is that hopes of now getting the parental form of love that you did not get are likely to be disappointed.  Same-age adults do not love each other unconditionally in the same way that parents love a child, so you are not likely to be able as an adult to re-do this aspect of your earlier life, no matter how nice the person it.  There is some possibility of recouping some of that parental love if you somehow connect with an older person who likes you and is motivated to be supportive, since that sort of relationship can sometimes grow into a parent-like love for you.  It will not be actual parental love, since our infant selves evoke that love in others much more strongly than we can possibly do as adults, but it may be enough for you to be able to experience what it is like and to gain some confidence that you are in fact lovable.  Being helpful to that older person may provide the opportunity for that “substitute parent” love to occur. 


You will, however, have to move past your fear and accept the risk in order to let yourself feel that love from another, if it should develop.  It is normal to feel that fear, but you can put the fear to the side if you allow yourself to hope for the love that you want.  You must be somewhat selective, though, regarding when you allow yourself to have that hope.  Not every such connection between you and an older person will result in the love that you want, so stay in touch with the reality of the situation at the same time that part of you wants to hope for that love.

Even if you did not get adequate love and parenting as a child, it is possible to gain feelings of deservingness and lovability in same-age adult relationships.  Some of these will be friendships and some will have a romantic aspect.  Friendships work better in this regard for most people, since they are not subject to the vagaries of romance (including the fact that many do not last long), but if you can accept in advance that a romantic attachment may not last long and not lose sight of that during the relationship, then you may at least be able to experience what love and loving feel like and hold onto that even if the romantic relationship ends.

The love between yourself and your children can also be a source of solidifying your feelings of lovability and deservingness.  If you are able to take good care of your children and if there are not problematic temperamental differences between you and the children, then your children will probably love you convincingly no matter who you are.  Children have little self-control, though, and you must accept that there will be times (relatively few, hopefully) when they are angry and unloving toward you and show it in ways that will hurt.

Practicing With Love Received From Yourself

A final option is to learn to love and be comfortable with love by loving yourself.  This option brings up the most objections, since self-love is so stigmatized in our society and since what we really want is to be loved by someone else, but it can lead to positive change for us.  Again, the biggest question is whether we are open to it and open to change.

You will need to get past the prohibition that many people are taught against loving oneself.  We must now change that prohibition to a positive instruction–do love yourself!  It is normal and natural, and it is not selfish, anti-family, or un-American.  Try it.  Enjoy it.  You must be clear, of course, that it is love that you are practicing and not desire.  There is no point in turning desire for someone else onto yourself.

You may be reluctant to try to feel love within yourself because you think that you have never been loved and never loved anyone else.  This is a difficulty, of course, but human empathy capacities being what they are, there is a way out.  Even if you have never felt loved, you have probably watched scenes involving love in movies or on TV or in plays or just watching others, and you have probably participated empathically in those scenes, feeling “by osmosis” or “by radar” what was going on.  Take those warm, positive feelings and develop them, using the elements of loving defined here.  Watching others some more and practicing allowing these feelings in yourself, you will come up with an approximation quite good enough to begin development of your love skills.  The problem is usually not in the capacities of the human being to learn but in the willingness to experience love when it has been largely absent from one’s life and therefore seems dangerous.  (If you need more assistance with feeling love for yourself, use the two exercises in this section and see the next section on “Feeling Love From Another or From Yourself.”)

If you have never participated even empathically in other’s loving, then it is probably necessary to go back to the needs and feelings you had as a baby and start from there.  Each of us had the same needs for nurturance (attention to our basic physical needs), for being in a positive emotional state (being “happy” so we can associate happiness with ourselves and with our caretakers), and for assistance in managing our emotions (keeping frustration and terror within manageable limits).  Parents are usually the ones we expect to do these things.  The important point here is that if those needs were not met very well, you can back up and go through that stage in the present.

Your basic physical needs were met, or you would not be here, and your emotional needs had to have been met to some degree, or you would have very serious mental problems now, but you have been left with scars and great fear about love and about getting close to others.  Starting over in this respect is difficult to do without professional help (though probably not impossible), but it is certainly much easier with the help of a competent therapist, and I recommend that you seriously consider getting that help if you need work on things at this basic level.  You must understand that there is no shame in needing to do this. You are taking a tremendous step forward just to recognize the need to do it and to be willing to start working on it.

Practicing With Received Love That You Remember or Imitate

Another process which will be valuable to use as you practice loving yourself is alternating between the roles of loving parent and loved child.  This alternation between the one who loves and the one who is loved is inherent in the phrase “loving yourself,” since that implies taking both of those roles.  If we assume that one does not do both simultaneously, then it follows that we go back and forth between the roles.  When we feel love for ourselves we are the one who loves, and when we feel loved we are the one who is loved.  The relationship in which most of us have our first experience of being loved is with our parents, so it is natural to consider those roles as models for loving oneself and feeling loved.  It is not necessary, of course, to use the parental relationship in order to feel loved, but is may be useful.  If it is not useful at all for you, because of your particular parental relationship, then use others who have been in some sense substitute parents for you.  If parent figures do not provide this extra source of empathic love with which to strengthen your own love as a parent for yourself, you can use the love that you have felt from others.  You might think of a favorite grandmother or uncle who seemed to love you more truly and unselfishly than anyone else.  Imagine receiving this love from them, and realize that you are lovable and that they loved you because of who you were to them.

To take the parental role, or the role of the one who loves, imagine yourself as a parent attending to a baby or young child.  If your parental relationship contained any love at all, you can probably get in touch with the natural “instinct” of adult human beings to care for a baby or young child.  This “instinct” has all of the elements in our definition of love, so feeling this way toward yourself as that baby or young child is a way of loving yourself.  Imagine yourself as the parent feeling love toward the child (which is you in much smaller form).  Feel the love of the parent for the child–the warmth and affection and the desire to nurture and to make things good for this child, who is the most wonderful, special thing in the whole world to you.  Then, as soon as this feeling is clear and strong, focus on the feeling of the child and feel the goodness of being loved–the positive, warm glow of pleasure and security and relaxation that comes from feeling loved.  Go back and forth several times between these feelings.  Enjoy them.  It feels good to love, and it also feels good to feel loved.  You can use this format as your morning, afternoon, and evening practice for expressing love for yourself

Remember that this step in learning to love is to feel lovable and worthwhile, as if being who you are elicited love from others.  Even if you must yourself provide that feeling of being loved for you, just focus on how good it feels and on your lovability.

This parent format will be useful for most people, but for those who have been seriously abused or harmed by their parents, it may cause more pain than it is worth, since the connection between love and pain is too strong.  This is certainly not a connection we would wish to reinforce now by asking those people to pretend that their parents loved them in a healthy way.  If you are one of those people, it may be better to focus on the roles of the one who loves and the one who feels loved, in a general sense, rather than particularizing it in the parental relationship. 

The question here is whether you can feel like a loving parent toward yourself, or whether every time you try to feel like a parent toward yourself, you end up feeling that you are like your actual parent who hurt you so much.  If you can feel like you are being a parent in your own way and that it is you now feeling love for yourself in your own way, then it will be OK.  If you get mixed up with feeling like your actual abusive parent when you try to parent yourself, then you would need to further differentiate your identity from that parent.  The reality is that you are not that parent, and you need to get very clear about that, so that you can be yourself rather than continuing to include in yourself the harmful parts of your actual parent.  In this exercise it is not necessary to pretend to be your actual parent loving you (although if your parent loved you in a healthy way, then taking the role of that parent now as you love yourself will work just fine).  All that is needed is that you feel like a parent yourself (yourself as a parent), feeling love for yourself as the child.

There is another particular group of people who have suffered from not having felt loved by their parents (and may have occasionally been badly treated by their parents) but who can improve their benefit from this parent-role exercise by coming to a fresh understanding of reality, and these are the people who did not know that they were loved by their parents but whose parents did in fact feel love for them.  If you are one of these people, you will have a sense as you read this that it could be true for you.  In these cases, usually the parent had a hard time expressing positive emotions, so the child (you) only saw clearly the negative ones.  Usually these parents provide reasonably well for the children, except for those expressed positive emotions, or even when they cannot provide well, their attitude makes it clear to the child that they want to provide.  These children may never have thought about the possibility that the parent felt love for them but couldn’t show it (or even hid it on purpose out of embarrassment or other reasons).  You as that former child now have a chance to consider whether that might have been true, and if it was, to acknowledge now that your parent actually felt love for you but simply couldn’t show it in ways that you could realize it until now. 

It can be an earthshaking experience to realize this.  Let yourself savor and really experience the full impact of this revelation, if it feels true for you.  On the other hand, don’t try to use this to fool yourself or to pretend that you had something that you never did have, because tempting as this may be, if you do pretend, you will inevitably reinforce the distorted view of love which you already have or distort your understanding of love even more by pretending that what was not love really was.  This will make it even harder for you to gain genuine love for yourself.  Reality is more important here than having a loving parent.

Feeling Love For Another

The next step is to feel love for someone, either another person or yourself.  Usually the prelude to this is that we observe others loving, appreciate empathically what is happening, imagine or intuit what it feels like to love, and imitate that feeling ourselves, turning it toward ourselves and toward others.  You can practice first in imagination and then do it in the presence of others.

If you want to practice using another person as your focus, choose a person whom you perceive to be lovable.  Get into a quiet, comfortable position and imagine that other person.  Concentrate on all of the senses that work for you—imagining seeing that person, hearing that person, etc.  Then allow yourself to feel warm, positive feelings about that person.  Allow those feelings to warm you inside.  (If you are unable to feel these warm feelings, you are probably blocking them within yourself due to one or more of the barriers described above, so review those barriers and find some help from others if you need it.)

While you feel those warm, positive feelings, imagine yourself moving closer to that person and being close to and close with that person.  Let yourself get used to that and enjoy it.  Fears that come up here will usually dissipate if you persist and allow yourself to be open to exploring new territory.  (If fears come up, after you stop this exercise, think seriously about the source of these fears and decide whether they should still prevent you from loving.)

Feel some identification with that person (form an emotional alliance, usually through felt similarity).  Imagine wanting good things for that person, so that he or she will feel good or feel better.  Enjoy focusing on and being in contact with that person. 

Let yourself have an unhurried several minutes to keep your focus on your feeling of love for that other person.  If you feel uncomfortable focusing like this on loving another person, you can practice first on loving yourself.

Feeling Love For Yourself

Imagine loving yourself.  Make time and a comfortable, quiet space for practicing feeling warm, positive, affectionate feelings toward yourself.  Again, if it helps, bring up those feelings toward someone you love by focusing on that person, and then feeling those same feelings while turning your focus onto yourself.  If when you do this, you find the feeling fading away when you try to focus it on yourself, keep trying, and at the same time begin to consider why it would be difficult to feel love toward yourself.  Do you still consider yourself unlovable or undeserving of love?  If so, you must change this conception of yourself.  Work on this until you can view yourself positively as basically worthwhile.  Are you afraid to go against a prohibition against loving yourself that you learned from someone else?  If so, you must consciously decide to challenge and overturn this prohibition, and you must prepare yourself to pay whatever price you anticipate for doing so.  (Actually, in most cases, there turns out to be very little or no price at all, despite the fear you feel in anticipation, but you must nevertheless be prepared to pay in order to take the risks as you see them.)  Review what we have learned about the destructive effects of self-criticism and self-rejection, and eliminate those behaviors.  Notice and remove all unnecessary negative feelings and thoughts toward yourself.   

In working on warmth and positivity toward yourself, you should know that there is a source within you of warmth and warm feelings, for the world and for yourself, and you can find this source and let its glow warm you and those around you.  For most people the bodily location of this source is in the chest (heart) or stomach (center of the body) areas.  Focus on the warmth in those areas.  Work on relaxing and allowing the warmth to build, at least with yourself if you are not ready to let others see it.  Let yourself feel affection for yourself, including tenderness, fondness, and compassion for yourself.  Once again you will have to allow yourself to see yourself as lovable and as deserving of love in order to readily feel affection for yourself.

You will have difficulty loving yourself if you do not accept yourself fully.  “Acceptance” means to let yourself be, without judging or harming yourself.  Many people are divided within themselves and reject parts of themselves or can only allow themselves to recognize or experience certain aspects of themselves but not others.  In order to love yourself truly and comfortably, it is important to reclaim those alien, rejected, and disowned parts of you (including memories of things you have done that you feel bad about).  Every part of you is meaningful in terms of your history, values, and feelings.  You may think that you are better off avoiding the shame or guilt of being in touch with parts of you which you don’t like, but you are the loser in the long run, since this self-rejection maintains or intensifies your self-love and self-esteem problems. 

You know that there are parts of you which you label as unacceptable, no matter how hard you try to hide them from yourself and the world.  You suffer in proportion to the amount of yourself you reject.  You may wish to modify the feelings connected with some of these parts, especially the ones that have a lot of hurt or rage associated with them.  Acknowledging, accepting, and modifying them is the healthy approach, since it allows you the possibility of ending up with complete self-acceptance (and therefore, able to love yourself and have dependable self-esteem).  This may involve some hurt and grief as you forgive and heal old wounds within yourself, but it will be well worth it.  Compassion and love are always preferable to hate and rejection.

Acceptance does not require that you like every aspect or part of yourself, just that you view all of yourself with equanimity and do not judge or punish yourself for them.  Accepting an aspect of yourself does not mean that it is “perfectly OK” with you, particularly since we cannot change what we did in the past, but you can accept yourself even while you work on changing certain things about you or on being a better person.  This self-acceptance should not be conditional (“I’ll accept myself as long as I don’t….”).  Be compassionate toward yourself, knowing that being human we will make mistakes in the future that we do not like.  (For more on acceptance, see the item on acceptance on

In loving yourself, you will attach to yourself.  It might seem that being with ourselves all the time, we could not avoid being attached to ourselves, but we can separate and withdraw from ourselves when we dislike or hate parts of ourselves and keep them at arms length all the time (not accepting ourselves).  This is like knowing something about ourselves that we are ashamed of and try to hide even from ourselves.  This causes us to detach from ourselves, and this sort of negative emotional reaction to ourselves is our very definition of negative self-esteem.  As we have said so often, acceptance is the key here.  You must look at those rejected parts of yourself, square in the face, and make them true and complete parts of yourself again.  You will need to accept, forgive, and adjust your identity to include some things which you may not be happy with even after you have done all you can to adjust.  But you are still OK.  Having parts or aspects of yourself that you do not like is very common, and you are better off nurturing and loving those parts than rejecting and hiding them.  It is childish to distort and hide from reality; it is adult to deal fully and honestly with reality.

Most of us learn to reject parts of ourselves through what our parents teach us about how to act and what to feel.  In growing up and being “socialized” we find out that many parts of ourselves are not acceptable in the world, and we often adopt a hostile attitude toward those parts, imitating the rejection of those parts that we observe from our parents.  We hope that if we take this negative attitude, it will help us not to do those unacceptable things (and then be disliked or punished by our parents), but we suffer then from our own rejection.  As adults we can learn other ways of controlling our behavior, most importantly by deciding whether we will benefit or not from controlling certain behaviors.  If we truly believe that it is in our best interest (more gain than loss) to refrain from a certain action, then we will do it relatively gladly, because in controlling ourselves, we are benefiting ourselves.  (For more on this concept, see Ebbe—How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Key Steps to Positive Self-Esteem.)

Attachment to others may have seemed to be dangerous in your experience, but this should make attachment to yourself a positive pleasure.  You above all others should be good to yourself and want and strive for good things for yourself.  You above all others should be trustworthy to yourself.  You may have been treating yourself as you thought you were supposed to be treated, according to what you have experienced from and been taught by others in the past, but you can and should treat yourself well, according to the new, positive, forgiving, accepting view of yourself that you are now developing.

In order to love yourself, identify with yourself.  We identify with others whom we like and value and wish to keep close.  We identify with ourselves if we like and value ourselves and feel good being close to ourselves.  To identify with yourself involves acknowledging and recognizing clearly  all  of  yourself, and then joyfully, with reverence and with awe, claiming all of you as being you, not hiding or holding back parts from the world but involving all of yourself in the process of living completely.

Get close to yourself and enjoy it.  You are delightful and wonderful, in all of the things you can do and in your creativity–your own unique way of doing things and perceiving things.  Embrace being who you are, and honor all the parts of yourself.  Change your assumption and attitude from a fearful hiding of self from a critical world to a joyful exposure and use of self in the world, with your own benefit being the final criterion rather than the likes and dislikes of others.  The more nice things you do for yourself, the more you will feel good about being close to yourself.

You may fear that showing all of yourself will lose you the grudging, partial acceptance of those who cannot love all of you (the only acceptance you have had up to now), but painful as if may be to give this up, you will be happier in life in the long run having your own love and acceptance (which will empower you to seek and enjoy the love of others).  Once again, you may be distant from yourself right now, partly because you have not been very good to yourself in the past, but you are the one who should be the nicest to yourself of anyone in the world, and you can learn to treat yourself well and to trust your treatment of yourself.

Wish good things for yourself.  You are your own best friend and lover, supporter and advocate.  You of all people can know what you think is best for and good for yourself, and proceed to try to get that for yourself.  Obviously if you love yourself, you will want yourself to feel good and to have good things in life, just as you want this for others whom you love.  In order to do this, you will need to clear away old guilts or habits or early family patterns that still tell you that you don’t deserve anything good or that you deserve to be punished further by not having what you want.  These habits are often scary to change, since usually we have established such beliefs in order to give ourselves some justification for holding onto what little we have had.  We have accepted that we don’t deserve more because we fear that if we demand more, then even more would be taken away from us.  So, to begin to believe that it is all right to have more can be frightening as well as unfamiliar. 

Keep in mind that no one has the right to deny you the freedom to want good things in life and to use all your abilities and energy to get them.  If an important person in your life would actually reject you for wanting or getting more of what you need and enjoy (without hurting anyone else), then you must question whether that person really has your best interests at heart.  Certainly that person does not love you, since part of our definition of love includes wanting good things for the loved one.  You will have to deal with whether it is worth it to you to accept how you are now in order not to threaten that relationship, or whether you might be willing to let that relationship go (or challenge it to change) in order to grow up and become your own person.

It can feel really strange to do or seek nice things for yourself if you have not allowed yourself to do so in the past.  You may feel paralyzed when you try to think of doing something nice for yourself, as if you can’t even get your mind to think of such a thing.  Try thinking of something nice that someone else might do for themselves or something nice that you might naturally do for someone else, and then turn that back to yourself, and do it for yourself.  Even if you can think of something nice to do, you may drag your feet in doing it.  You might say to yourself that you will do it tomorrow, or you will do it when you feel like it, or you will find other reasons to put it off.  In this situation, you must persevere.  You must recognize your avoidance and act anyway.

This brings up again the fear and terror that we may have at the thought of going against our parents.  You are avoiding doing something nice for yourself because of the feelings that you anticipate feeling if you do it, such as guilt and fear.  The anticipation of these feelings is enough to cause you to avoid doing something nice for yourself.  If you have believed that you did not deserve nice things, then experiencing nice things will elicit guilt, because that would be going against what is “right,” and you will fear punishment for going against what is “right.”  These feelings are usually not obvious, because the whole purpose of your various habits is to avoid feeling them, so what typically happens is you think to yourself or report to others that you don’t know why you don’t do nice things for yourself, you just don’t.  You are so effective at avoiding that anticipated guilt and fear that you don’t even know that they are what you are avoiding!  You can usually find out what you are avoiding by going ahead and doing the avoided behavior, because then you will usually feel the feelings you were avoiding. 

The key to change here is to find out what feeling you are avoiding, so you can change your mind about it; feel it and express it fully; believe that it is OK to go ahead with being nice to yourself, despite the old habitual feelings and avoidances; and choose to go ahead with doing nice things for yourself, so you can have the benefits of that and so you can gradually change your habitual feeling reaction to one of love and encouragement for yourself.

Take pleasure in contact with and contemplation of the loved one—yourself!  Just as you would feel pleasure in being with or thinking about someone you love, part of loving yourself is feeling pleasure at being with yourself and being aware of yourself.  This relates back directly to the basic definition of self-esteem–feeling good in response to yourself because of your association of positive outcomes with yourself and your actions.  Naturally you would tend to feel good in the presence of someone who accepted you and treated you well, and naturally someone who loved you would accept you and treat you well.  So, if you love yourself, you will accept yourself and treat yourself well, and you will then naturally feel pleasure in response to yourself.  You would love yourself for loving yourself!  Every time you noticed yourself, it would stimulate feelings of love.  In addition, you would feel pleasure simply for being yourself.  Seeing yourself as wonderful and amazing, you would enjoy being aware of everything you do–feeling your feelings, carrying out actions to benefit yourself and others, thinking, solving a problem–all of the things you do.  Being good company for yourself (by loving, accepting, and appreciating yourself), you would enjoy being with yourself.

Exercises For Loving Yourself

Here are two exercises that will help you to love yourself more and be more comfortable with love in general.  If you practice them and persist in doing so until they become an effortless part of you, then you will have won the battle and be well on your way to good self-esteem.  If you do not carry them out but instead get hung up on your resistances or do not even try, then you are going to stay exactly as you are right now with respect to love and with respect to your self-esteem. 

The first task is to plan and carry out doing one nice thing for yourself every day.  This may sound simple, but if you have hated yourself or had poor self-esteem, this will not be asy to do.  Nevertheless, armed with your desire for love and what you have learned about the importance of self-esteem, you can make progress.  The task itself is actually simple.  Dealing with your resistances to doing it is not so simple, but we have already said quite a bit about perceiving your avoidances and resistances and then going ahead anyway, on purpose.  This approach to change is a habit itself, which hopefully you have already begun to cultivate.

Choosing something nice to do for yourself each day should be a pleasure.  It can be anything you like or enjoy or would feel gratified about.  You might fix something you like for supper, or treat yourself to lunch some place a little special.  You might give yourself permission to take a break at work, when you usually would just work straight through.  You might get up a few minutes earlier than usual to have a bite of breakfast before starting on your way.  You might get a movie which you will enjoy watching.  You might treat yourself to more sleep then usual, or let yourself call in sick when you are ill when your usual pattern would be to force yourself to go to work anyway.  You might call a friend you don’t talk to much but with whom you enjoy talking.  You might spend the evening reading, or go to the gym, or go to a meeting, or go for a walk.  You might spend time gardening or cooking, if you like those things.  The list is almost endless; the only requirement is that you enjoy whatever it is.

Bear in mind that this must be something you enjoy or like, rather than something you “should” do.  Doing something you should do can also feel good sometimes, but we are concentrating here on being nice to yourself.  The point of doing this is that you come to be seen by yourself as a nice and loving person in relation to yourself.  This is necessary because viewing yourself as not deserving love and not being lovable practically guarantees that you will put yourself down, criticize yourself frequently, largely dislike yourself, see yourself as inferior, and even punish yourself by withholding good things from yourself because you are undeserving.  If you withhold pleasure and enjoyment from yourself, then you see yourself as a mean (and unloving) person with respect to yourself and your welfare.  In order to love yourself and be comfortable with love, you must associate yourself with positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes.  Loving yourself is the most natural way to change this image you have of yourself.

You may have difficulty even knowing what would feel good to you, but do it anyway.  Don’t let this stop you.  Use your imagination, or try to remember what you used to enjoy, or take your cue from what others enjoy if you must in order to get started. 

If you pick something nice to do for yourself and overcome your resistance and actually do it, the next difficulty may be that you find it hard to let yourself enjoy it.  Keep thinking to yourself that you do deserve the enjoyment, try to feel the pleasure, and allow yourself to also feel sad feelings if doing nice things for yourself brings up sad feelings (sadness for all the times you wanted nice things and good feelings for yourself but didn’t get them). Most importantly, let yourself feel loved and cared for.  You are doing nice things for yourself because you love yourself (or at least because you are trying to love yourself), so feel it.  The sad feelings will fade as you come to trust that you are going to be good to yourself.  If you can let yourself enjoy the nice things that you do for yourself, and if you can allow yourself to feel loved and cared for by yourself, then you will achieve your goal of positive self-esteem.

The second exercise is to feel your love for yourself at least once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening.  If you can put yourself on a more frequent schedule, that would be even more helpful, but three times a day will be a very positive shot in the arm.  You can do this by thinking to yourself “I love myself” or “I love me” and then feeling it.  (You must let yourself feel it, not just say it.)  Another approach is to use an image of yourself, like seeing yourself in a mirror or a picture or image that represents you and saying “I love you” to it.  Repeat this several times when you do it, and enjoy feeling loved. 

The difficulties of doing this are similar to all the other resistances we have discussed.  You may feel sad when you start doing it, but let yourself feel that, too.  You may shrink from feeling loved, but you must force yourself to try.  Work on enjoying feeling loved, and don’t give up.  Saying the words may bring up other statements that seem natural to you given how you have felt about yourself, like “I hate myself” or “I don’t deserve anything good,” but go on saying “I love myself” anyway, and don’t give up.  Think afterward about whether you really believe any more that you are bad or should be hated or that you don’t deserve anything good.  Use what you have learned here to challenge these negative, hurtful, and pointless ideas.

You may feel silly telling yourself that you love yourself.  It is not something people commonly do, but that is only because those who do love themselves don’t need to.  They treat themselves lovingly every day, so they don’t need to say it.  They are living it.  Once you really do love yourself and are secure in that, you won’t need to say it morning, noon, and night, either (but it will still feel good if you do!).


What love is and how to love others and yourself has been discussed in detail, but there are many pitfalls in actually loving.

Trying To Make Someone Love You

Due to the vagaries of our attractions (partly from evolution and inbred), people are often in the situation of wanting love from someone who doesn’t reciprocate.  Often we try to “make” the other person love us, by convincing that person that we love him or her or by taking actions that would illustrate the degree of our love for him or her (messages in skywriting, proposing at a public event, composing a poem, etc.).  It seems almost inevitable that in their first few love experiences, people will try this, but the sooner you can accept that it doesn’t work or will lead to unhappiness, the sooner you can find a “right” person who can love you.  When we are strongly attracted to someone, it may seem impossible to let go and stop trying, but it is the wise course of action.  Continuing to batter the person with your entreaties or attempts to convince are also disrespectful to the person, since you do not accept his/her attempts to do what is best for himself or herself (i.e., to pull back from you). 

If people don’t see you as attractive, then it is unlikely that you can change that perception, and if they do change their minds, it will probably have been because they came to see the concrete advantages to them of pretending to love you, such as your money, rather than actually coming to love you, so if you want someone to love you instead of just choose to be with you, it’s better to bow to the natural order and accept others’ natural attraction to you or lack of it.  The only exception to this might be in the case of a loved one who is initially afraid to even acknowledge her reciprocal feelings, where your persistence could allow her fear to melt enough for her to feel love.  In a case like this, though, attempts to reason or extravagant actions may just make the problem worse, as the person then must fight both your manipulations and her own fear.  In that kind of case, the course of action most likely to be effective is simply to “be there” consistently, over time, without pressuring the other person.  Any pressuring of the other person simply communicates to her that you are acting to get something you want and not to do what is best for her.  Also, with that kind of loved one, you must be prepared for the fact that she is unlikely to ever “explode in love,” as you probably wish, because of that person’s natural, reticent style (which will be how she will be throughout your time together).

If you can do the wise thing and let go, allow yourself to be disappointed and to grieve the loss of what you hoped for.  Comfort yourself with the concept that by withdrawing you are doing something good for yourself and making it more possible for you to find satisfying love sooner.

Trying To Change Someone So That He/She Will Love You

A variant on the above is thinking that you see “why” someone doesn’t return your feelings of love and setting out to change him so that he can love you.  It’s best to face the fact that people rarely change personality traits and tendencies, and if they do, it’s because they see for themselves that it is advantageous to change, not because someone shows them what they “need to do.”  Again, it is disrespectful to try to change someone against his will.  Women seem to attempt this more often than men, perhaps because of their better grasp of the dynamics of personality, but men sometimes try it, too.

Suppressing Your Real Self So That Someone Will Love You

Another approach to getting someone to love you (who doesn’t) is to try to be the kind of person the loved one wants to love.  If this means simply integrating your likes and dislikes with those of the other person, then if there are already similar likes and dislikes, this can be workable, but if it involves hiding parts of yourself that the loved one seems not to like and pretending to be someone other than who you “really“ are, it is probably not going to work.  To hide or suppress parts of yourself that you value is uncomfortable for you and deceptive to them (unless they easily see through your efforts).  Unfortunately, as noted above, people rarely change their personalities or fundamental traits, so it is likely that the parts that you are hiding will come out at some point in the future, most likely when your resentment about not being loved as you are surfaces and you accuse the other person of being a “bad” person for rejecting parts of you.  This kind of effort to suppress rarely succeeds, and it is wiser of you not to try it in the first place but rather to accept that you will be better off moving on.

Pretending To Love When You Don’t

The strategy of pretending to love another when one actually doesn’t may be adopted as a temporizing action, giving oneself more time to find out if one can love the other, or it may be used simply in order to get the benefits of a purportedly loving relationship without admitting to not loving the other person.  In either case it is a lie, and this kind of lying will almost always lead to pain.  If you want a love relationship, it will be more productive to keep looking until you find someone that you clearly love.

Not Accepting The Love That You Have

Sometimes people refuse to accept love that is freely offered.  If this is because that love or that loving person is truly not right for you, then the refusal is appropriate, but if your refusal is due to fear of being loved or some other personal issue, expectation, or desire that would apply no matter who loved you, then you will miss out on worthwhile relationships if you do not work to overcome your fear or your obstructive expectations.  (See the various sections above concerning Barriers to Loving.)


You will have achieved one of the best and most important things in life when you are able to love others and yourself.  Here is a summary of the important ideas we have explored about love.

Love–is a positive, warm, affectionate feeling

it involves attachment to the loved one

it involves identification with the loved one

it involves the desire to be close to or move closer to  loved one

      it involves a wish for good things for the loved one

it involves pleasure in contact with the loved and
contemplationthe loved one

Passion and desire are not love but are very commonly confused with love.

Requiring that someone else change and love us or love us only in a certain way is asking for trouble and usually ends up in frustration.

Love is not selfish, and love for oneself is not selfishness.

Love is not self-centeredness, and loving oneself is not self-centered but rather leads to being better able to give  love to others.

Love is not pain, and that which is painful is not love, although some of us have other feelings about our experiences of love in the past (such as disappointment, fear, or anger) and therefore confuse love with pain.

Love feels wonderful and is not a mixed positive and negative experience.  That which is negative is not love.

Everything we do is self-motivated, yet this does not in itself make our actions selfish.

“Selfish” means that we expect someone to do something that does not appropriately take into account the needs and interests of others.

Being called selfish by someone often means that that person is trying to get us to act differently, in a way more like what they want.

Guilt trips are low down and dirty and should be resisted and either exposed or ignored.

Any effort to make a person feel bad about his/her natural emotions or efforts to meet his/her needs is reprehensible and should be resisted vigorously.

Love is not self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice is not love.

What is presented by a person to others as self-sacrifice is usually in truth a method that person is using to get what he/she wants.

No sacrifices are required in order to love yourself.

If someone says to you, “Look how much I love you…,” it is probably leading to a guilt trip or blackmail.

If someone says, “If you loved me, you would…,” it is probably a guilt trip.

If someone says, “I will love you if you…,” that person is offering to love a person that you could pretend to be, but not to love you for yourself.  You will end up feeling empty because you will know that the real you is not being loved.

If someone says, “Unless you …, I won’t love you any more,”  you are being blackmailed.

Seek the maturity and good self-esteem that enable us to still be comfortable and OK even when someone isn’t showing us the love we want every minute.

Love can be a general attitude rather than existing only in specific relationships.  This makes for a much more rewarding and comfortable world.  This general attitude of love starts with love for oneself.

Self-rejection and non-acceptance of self are the primary barriers to loving others and to loving oneself, often embodied in the belief that one is not “good enough” to be loved and does not “deserve” to be loved.

Everyone deserves any love that is available in the world.  This includes you.  You must come to believe this.

You must be willing to give up your comfortable identity as unlovable, so that you can risk loving and loving yourself.

Fear of love is a difficult barrier to loving and being loved, when love is associated with pain or because it is feared that love will be lost.

You must accept that anything in life can be lost at any moment, so that you can allow yourself to take advantage of what is actually available now.  You must broaden your view from those who may have cruelly or uncaringly taken things from you in the past, in order to see that the larger world has no interest in taking things from you.  You must accept and live through the pain of loving again if you are to become healthy.  The feelings that you encounter around love are not going to damage you or harm you, as long as you have reasonable control of their expression in the world.

Everything changes, and nothing lasts forever.  If you insist that love from  a certain source or person be unending, then you are always eventually going to be disappointed.  Your disappointment is not actually with love, however, but with life itself.

It is unproductive to insist that you will only accept love from a certain person or in a certain form.  You may have to face the fact that no one is going to make right the wrongs that were done to you which have damaged you so badly.

Giving up your insistence that someone else love you first (before you are willing to love yourself) doesn’t mean that you are admitting that it was OK for significant others not to have loved you as they should have in the past.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that certain symbols of love (gifts, flowers, etc.) are more valuable or more secure than love itself.  They are only made meaningful by love.  Don’t cut yourself off from love by being too picky.

Being in touch firmly with reality, even if it is painful and even if you have been avoiding it for years, will feel more solid and hopeful than trying to live on pretenses or dreams.

If you feel that there is no love in the world, take a hard look at whether you are willing to accept the love that is there and whether you are putting impossible conditions on what you will accept.  It is better to suffer the loss of hope for exactly what you want and to accept what is there than to go forever with nothing.

Re-evaluate your experiences regarding love, seeing clearly now what was love and what was something else.  Accept each feeling and relationship now for exactly what it was.  Use this clearer understanding to seek love for yourself and to love yourself better now.

Separate in your mind love from the other positive or negative feelings which may have become associated with love because of your particular experience (such as desire, fear, hurt, sadness, etc.).  Seek and enjoy love by finding it in ways that do not create confusion or include negative feelings in the same ways.

Don’t try to change others in order to get their love.  It works much better to accept what is available (as long as it is really love).

Experiencing the current pain that you still have about not being loved in the past will free you to go forward in the present.

There is a source of warmth and warm feelings for yourself and the rest of the world within you.

There are no rules which say that you should get less than others or that you should not have good things in life.  Everyone “deserves” all the good things in life that are available.  There is no legitimacy to resource distribution rules based on age, gender, race, religion, handicap, national origin, personality, or on who likes or dislikes you.  Any such rules must be opposed.  No one should be defined as inferior on these bases, and any such attitudes must be opposed.

You may long for the love of someone else, but you should not devalue your own love for yourself.  Whether or not you have felt loved before, you are lovable, and you do deserve love.  Your own love can be the best love there is.

Don’t try to love yourself for being what someone else wants or for not being your own true self.  You are lovable just as you are.

Your love for yourself can only be for your true self.

Your own love for yourself is not worthless because you feel worthless yourself.  This is your way of devaluing everything about yourself.  You are valuable, and it is your own view of yourself as worthless that is incorrect!  If you are willing to work on seeing yourself as worthwhile, then you also can see yourself as worthy of love and can see your own love as valuable.

There is a voice in you which believes that you are valuable and worthwhile.  Nurture and pay attention to it.

The best way to elicit love from others is to love yourself.

Accepting yourself and forgiving yourself are essential for truly loving yourself.

Loving yourself is the most reliable, dependable, consistent love you can have.  Whether your parents loved you cannot be allowed to define your lovability.  If your parents couldn’t or didn’t love you, chances are that it had little to do with you.  You must accept your innate lovability.

Don’t let loyalty to those who couldn’t or didn’t love you keep you a prisoner of unrealistic definitions of love or of unrealistic views of your own lovability.  You will be happier loving yourself than holding onto an unsatisfactory past.

Turn your prohibition against loving yourself into a positive instruction.  Do love yourself.  It’s a good thing.

You are lovable, just as you are.  You must believe this to be emotionally healthy.

Practice feeling the love you feel for someone else and then while you feel that love, turn its focus onto yourself so that you are the loved object.

The greatest enemies of loving yourself are self-criticism and self-rejection.

Compassion and love for yourself are always preferable to hate and rejection.  Continuing to reject parts of yourself means continuing your hatred and rejection of yourself.

Attach to yourself as a positive person to be close to.

Identify with yourself.  Be glad about and proud of yourself as a total person, not excluding or hiding anything about yourself.

Get close to yourself and enjoy it.

Embrace being who you are, and honor all the parts of yourself.

Want and seek good things for yourself in life.

No one can deny your right to good things in life and your right to use all of your abilities to seek those good things.  You must fight any such denial.

You will have far more joy and happiness in life by accepting all of yourself and giving up worrying about being accepted by others than you will  by continuing to deny parts of yourself in order to be acceptable to others.

You can be your own best friend, lover, supporter and advocate.  You are the person who should treat yourself better than anyone else treats you.  You should be more honest, more dependable, and more trustworthy with yourself than anyone else is to you.

et yourself the task and the goal of doing one nice thing for yourself every day, and carry it out no matter what.  Overcome your fears or other resistances to doing this, and make it a new habit.  You will be glad you did.

Let in touch with your love for yourself at least three times a day and affirm it to yourself.  Tell yourself that you love yourself, and feel the warmth and good feeling that love gives.

We are masters at avoiding unpleasant feelings.  If you avoid treating yourself better, it is probably because you think that if you treated yourself better, then you would have to feel other painful emotions which you have been carefully avoiding.  There is no other way to change than to face those feelings you have been avoiding, but it will be worth it.


To get comfortable with love and loving, practice playing both the role of the one who loves and the one who is loved, alternating back and forth between these roles, so that you love yourself and in response to that you feel loved.  If it is helpful for you to feel like your own actual parent loving yourself when you are in the role of the one who loves you, do it.  If you find nothing positive in feeling toward yourself like you believe your parents felt toward you, then it will work just fine to feel like you are being a parent to yourself in your own positive ways now.

If you did not feel loved by your parents, reconsider whether your parents might have felt love for you but were completely unable to acknowledge it or show it directly.  If this does not ring a bell with you, ignore the idea.

Enjoy being with yourself and being aware of yourself.  You are amazing and wonderful in many, many ways, just as you are.  You can do all sorts of wonderful things, including being your own best source of love and your own best friend.  To be aware of such a wonderful and important person (certainly a very important person to you) would naturally bring up feelings of positivity and love!


*The information about the Greek views of love was taken from Roman Krznaric’s book How Should We Live? (BlueBridge, 2011).


Atari 13 part 2; PB se16




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