I’m a millennial. Over the past few years, I’ve read numerous articles explaining that I love myself too much. According to the media, my narcissistic and self-centered peers and I gain our sense of self worth from the number of likes our dog’s pictures get on Instagram. To me, this is a big misunderstanding. Needing constant attention from the outside world to feel lovable—love contingent on external approval—is not the same thing as loving yourself. In fact, it’s precisely when we don’t love ourselves for who we are that we put so much energy into a public persona for others to fawn over.
Yes, we all got a lot of gold stars. But don’t confuse that with love. It was mostly a bunch of fake, narcissistic attention that made us super insecure. And when I say narcissistic, I am talking to you, mom and dad. Who, exactly, do you think all those trophies were for? Do you think 5-year-olds give half the shit that parents of 5-year-olds do about how many trophies they win?
It has become socially acceptable for parents to base their self worth not on their own inner qualities but on the lives their children choose to lead. This sets up a dynamic of contingent love and affection that is pervasive in our culture today. We have developed a societal environment that no longer takes the concept of unconditional love particularly seriously. Schools and college admission offices perpetuate the concept from a young age that we must prove our worth before we can gain approval or attention. We fail to teach people how to unconditionally love themselves, to appreciate the imperfections and failures that make us so utterly human. And without this kind of self-acceptance, we then fail in our relationships. Our partners become extensions of the persona we maintain to become worthy of love, instead of living breathing human beings that deserve the same kind of unconditional acceptance we should be giving ourselves.
Love cannot be contingent on expectation or achievement. This is where the power of love comes from, what makes it different from respect or admiration. On some level, absolutely unconditional love is an ideal, a state of being rarely realized in the entangled webs of human relationship. But we can at least aspire to it more directly, recognizing the problems of contingent love. Love based solely on contingencies and expectations is false and ultimately abusive. It makes demands from an inner lack, an attempt to create another in a particular image to nurse the wounds that remain when we fail to truly love ourselves.
Often, the abuser believes that if their partner acted in a certain way, they would no longer feel a certain way about themselves (i.e., as long as my partner is faithful to me, then I am lovable, or if my partner didn’t leave their socks on the floor, I wouldn’t feel so disorganized). These dynamics are just as present in friendships and families as they are in romantic relationships. When the partner doesn’t meet the expectation, the individual believes their reactions, however abusive, are warranted.
This is a kind of abuse I have subjected my partner to numerous times. Whenever I was feeling scared of becoming a failure or frustrated with my work in general, instead of asking for support from my partner, I would turn the tables on him. I believed that if he was more successful in his career, I would be happier and more satisfied with myself. If I noticed him struggling in any capacity, I would pick at him, blowing up if I felt like he was making even the slightest mistake at work. In these moments, my love for him was contingent on his success, just as my love for myself was. Because I couldn’t accept and appreciate my own accomplishments, I was unable to provide my partner with the support he needed. Of course, after the fight had run its course, I would just end up feeling worse about myself than when I started.
There’s a paradox here. Isn’t it contingent love to expect anything of a person, even if that expectation is that they will love you unconditionally? This contradiction belies an important complexity. We have to accept that absolutely unconditional love for another is usually impossible. The biggest hurdle to experiencing this love in our relationships is our own inability to unconditionally love ourselves. I contend the closest approximation in relationship is to support the person on their individual path of self-love.
So, when our partners desire to engage in behaviors that we perceive as self-destructive, I don’t think it is against the spirit of unconditional love to set your boundaries with that person. It is not contingent love to say I cannot be in relationship with you as long as you are harming others or putting your life at risk. Sometimes we have to stand for others in the place where their love for themselves should be. And sometimes standing in that place means looking in their eyes and telling them the honest truth about how their self-destructive behavior makes you feel. Trying to achieve unconditional love doesn’t mean everything should be peace and rainbows. Often it means fighting, hard, against all the aspects of our being and all the messages from the outside world that want to tell us we are not enough, that we still have to do more, work harder, or be somebody else to receive the love.
Of course, this can become a slippery slope. Just because you think a behavior is self-destructive for someone doesn’t mean it actually is or that they are in a place to agree. Striving for unconditional love continually asks us to be patient, deliberate, and forgiving with our own hearts and the hearts of the ones we love.
If I could have a superpower, it would be the ability to feel what it’s like to inhabit another person’s consciousness, their true essential experience. Ultimately, the precise way we see the world—even down to the physical level— is only ever truly known to us. It is because of those secrets we carry that we know there are multitudes of hidden worlds inside of others. Our heart longs both for glimpses of that unknown, and ultimately, to be fully seen by another. It is this hunger to know and to be known that fuels desire. It is precisely because people are so unpredictable and unknowable that they are so intriguing and lovable.
In this sense, even the most contingent forms of love still contain a hint of the unconditional—even with our expectations and contingencies we always know on some level we can never fully predict or control the other. And yet, we still love. Every time we take the risk to love the other, we do so with a little nod towards that mystery, with a little faith in its ability to transform—and there, right there, is where the magic can begin.
Kezia Kamenetz is a teacher, dreamworker, and writer living in New Orleans, LA. She is interested in the intersections of spirituality, science, and society as well as all the ways humanity could bring its dreams to life. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website, www.dreamitout.com.