Achieving some form of unconditional love for yourself and others is certainly a difficult task but one that I think can be achieved, like many other things, through practice and experience.
The battle between conditional and unconditional love is something that I have been mulling over for quite a while now and I thought that it was finally time to pull them apart and dissect what each one means and how we can move from the shackled, conditional love to the freedom of unconditional love.
It’s not an easy process because we have been raised and lived in a conditional love environment practically all of our lives. Therefore mastering unconditional love will not only set you apart from the rest of the pack but also allow you to live more fully and more freely.
What is conditional love?
The first thing we need to do is define conditional love. This is the type of love that most of us both receive and give for most of our lives. It comes from the deadly duo of ego and expectations. Conditional love is all about fitting in and conforming to expectations. To act in ways that fit some paradigm or model that we invented for ourselves or for other people.
Conditional love works a bit like a transaction. You do this or think like this, and in return, you will get love. If someone acts within the expectations, then they get love and approval. If they do not, then they don’t receive the love and approval. It can be that simple.
When conditional love is taken to the extremes, it can play out as some form of hatred. For example, when someone acts completely out of character or falls way out of line with our expectations, not only is love often retracted, but it is often replaced with resentment.
Conditional love is a tick-box system that allows you to give or receive love so long as certain criteria are met.
What is unconditional love?
With unconditional love, the clue is in the name. There are no conditions attached to the love. It is in abundance and is neutral. Neutral in the sense that it isn’t influenced by externalities or petty things. It just is.
The most common example of unconditional love is that of a mother’s unconditional love for their child. The mother doesn’t withdraw her love as soon as the baby starts waking her up in the middle of every night and doesn’t withdraw when the child forgets to take the chicken out of the freezer, or when they come home with a lower grade on the test than they might have hoped for.
An important thing to remember with unconditional love is that it is not an external phenomenon like conditional love. Unconditional love comes from within. It manifests itself whenever you allow it to manifest itself. While conditional love is the searching, unconditional love is the being.
Unconditional love is also key to seeing the truth in any situation – free from the emotional responses that come with conditional love. Loving unconditionally doesn’t smooth problems or difficult situations over. Instead, it is where most of the free-will, consciousness and agency lies for us to be able to make the choices that we want to make. When acting from unconditional love, we are not blinded as we are in a state of conditional love.
How we have learned to love conditionally
It is perhaps unsurprising that we have learned to love conditionally. This all began with the role of our parents or whoever raised us and their complicated dual role of lover and teacher. On the one hand, they (hopefully) want us to know that they love us no matter what we do, think or say – unconditional love. On the other hand, they set the first guidelines for what is right and wrong – a form of conditional love. Tidy your room, get a reward. Draw on the wall, get punished. Although it is just temporary, some of our actions receive love whereas others lead to love being withdrawn.
In essence, this means that most of us learned conditional love, acceptance and approval from an early age. It becomes a part of our identity. Love became an entity that you had to earn and wasn’t just given to you no matter what you did.
In fact, I think it is fair and necessary to have some form of conditional love growing up and throughout life. It keeps you in check. As a side consequence of this though, you learn to condition your behaviour to appease other people’s emotions, beliefs and to receive that all-nourishing love. Or you learn to try and make them happy in order to avoid the emptiness of having that love withdrawn. Either of these two forces could be the more powerful and dominant in your life, or perhaps they both play big parts. Either way, they will in one way or another have reinforced the idea of conditional love.
You condition yourself to please them as a means of gaining a feeling of self-worth, happiness, and love.
Leaving the house
This continues throughout life but as soon as you reach the ripe old age of 4 years old, there is the small factor of school to contend with. Parents may always resort back to unconditional love, but little Johnny in your class won’t if you steal his pencils. In fact, little Johnny will only give love if you do something for him. Little Johnny doesn’t forgive or forget. This is the case throughout early childhood where we adjust our behaviour to try and be cool and accepted. Throughout this stage and into later years, we want approval and we fear rejection.
Then as we grow older, there are other factors that reinforce the idea of conditional love. Family and friends continue to play big factors in this. Then there are other things like our jobs, our relationships, sports and now social media too that are flooded with the ideas of conditional love. Withdrawing your love for someone because they forgot to take out the bins this week. Not receiving the love from your coach when you lost, even though you played well. Not receiving as many likes on your Instagram post of your face as opposed to when you post a picture of your butt.
Conditional love is all around us and it is dictated by other people’s expectations of us, things that we can’t control, as well as our own desire to be loved.
With all of the conditional love in the world from a huge amount of external factors, it is probably very unsurprising that we end up apply conditional love to ourselves most of the time too.
Ever looked in the mirror and withdrawn your love when you saw that you looked worse than you thought you did?
Ever withdrawn your love for yourself after you had a bad day and didn’t get nearly as much work done as you did yesterday?
Ever withdrawn your love for yourself after you don’t meet your own exceptionally high expectations? Often the same expectations that you would never hold for anyone else?
I know I do all of those things and many more. I bargain my love as a token with myself and with others. ‘I should only give myself love when this criterion is met.’ ‘I should only give others love when they meet these criteria that I have.’ Of course, this is no way to negotiate with ourselves, or with other people for that matter, yet we find ourselves doing it all of the time anyway.
How we can start to love unconditionally
While I do think it is very difficult to start loving unconditionally, I do think it is possible. I also believe it to be a very worthwhile thing to try and achieve.
The path to loving unconditionally may be as simple and as complicated as this: stop attaching conditions and expectations to your love. Love no matter what.
This may sound a bit woo-woo but it has some basis to it. When you accept yourself and others whether they surpass or fall short of expectations, then you not only free them but you free yourself. Take things for what they are, not what you hoped or expected them to be.
This is especially true for results-driven people like me who often only give out love when some sort of quota is met. That’s a shitty value system to have because when you use these types of conditions, you are retracting your love and acceptance when you or others need it the most. It’s getting the idea of Love completely wrong which is infinite and in abundance – not some sort of prize for meeting some sort of expectation.
This means implementing some radical acceptance and radical forgiveness into your life. Forgiving yourself for your next screw-up before you even know what that screw up is going to be. Letting go of judgement or expectation of what salary you should be on according to a Buzzfeed quiz or what your partner should be doing for you on your birthday.
Giving love all of the time under any and all of the circumstances, like a mother with her newborn child, has to be one of the keys to a happy and fulfilled life.