Loving our self unconditionally, frees us to love others in healthy ways!
Unconditional love: what is it, what does it look like and how can we give it without getting walked on?
Love, love everywhere and not a drop to drink.
Love is such a vast topic. Love is like water, we depend on it to survive and yet, if we ask ourselves what love is, we might be hard-pressed to put it into words.
Look, for example, at the variety of ways that we use the word love. We might tritely use it to describe our favorite sweater or sweet treat. “I love chocolate!” we might squeal.
We love a good glass of wine and the sunset. We love our pets and our families. We love our new car, the latest movie, and our iphones. Although we may love a lot of things, one thing seems certain: love is difficult to define.
There are many types of love: affection (storge), friendship (philia), romance (eros), unconditional love (agape), and the love of bananas (humor). This article will focus on the most rare, the most elusive and the most challenging type of love to fully give and receive: unconditional love.
What is unconditional love?
Wikipedia defines unconditional love as altruism. Altruism is defined as selflessness. And selflessness is defined as unselfish concern for, or devotion to the welfare of others.
And therein lies the hitch in our own giddy-up—unconditional love is currently centered around the welfare of others. The definition is exclusive—it provides selfless care and devotion to others’ welfare and excludes unselfish care and devotion to our own welfare.
By giving this type of unconditional love to others, while excluding ourselves, we have become welcome-mats-in-waiting. Giving 100% unconditional love to others, yet allowing them to treat us in any way they choose. We have not set any unconditionally-loving boundaries for ourselves, to assure that we can provide unselfish care for and devotion to our own welfare if we are treated in a less-than-loving way. We have placed ourselves in an “at risk” position to be “walked on”—to receive verbal, physical or emotional abuse. We have swept our symbolic stoop and invited others to trample in with muddy feet.
What do people who are Welcome Mats look like?
Let’s look at three examples: Bobby, Cindy, and George.
Bobby wants to express his unconditional love for his girlfriend. Even though he has absolutely no interest in the story that she is telling him, which could last anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes, he knows that she finds it helpful when he listens to her. So he listens with care and attention. (He has selflessly given unconditional love to his girlfriend.) After he has listened, she asks for his advice. He answers kindly and honestly. She chooses to get angry and throw things at him. (He is not receiving unconditional love from his girlfriend.) The frying pan she threw hit him in the head and he got 24 stitches. Bobby and his girlfriend repeat a similar anger and violence scenario every 4-6 weeks.
Here’s another example. Cindy wants to express her unconditional love for her husband, who has addictions. She patiently tolerates his drunken binges, middle-of-the-night-texting to who-knows-who, passive-aggressive outbursts, and weekend trips to the casinos, believing that his promises to change and his showering of gifts are signs of his willingness to get clean. She feels disgust for her life and what she is experiencing every day. Cindy is providing selfless, unconditional love for her husband. She is not providing unselfish unconditional love for herself—she feels miserable, neglected and abused. Cindy has been stuck in this cycle for years.”
And then there’s George. He wants to express his unconditional love for his 19-year-old son, who has been in and out of jail on drug charges. George sees his son’s car parked at a bar during a time when the son was scheduled to be at work. The son comes home later that evening, tells his father that he had a long day at work and asks to borrow $200 for the third time this month. The son also asks if he can move back home because he’s been kicked out of his apartment for not paying the rent. George, in his attempt to offer unconditional love to his son, gives his son $200 and allows him to move back home, knowing that his relationship with his wife will suffer, that his son will trash the house and create arguments. George is selflessly expressing unconditional love for his son, but he is not providing unselfish unconditional love to himself or his wife, since he knows that they will both suffer.
Each of these examples shows a lack of unconditionally loving personal boundaries. None of these people have boundaries which assure that they are being treated in an unconditionally loving way by others or themselves.
And, by providing selfless, unconditional love for others while allowing ourselves to be harmed and/or treated in less-than-loving ways, we also take on a parental role in the relationship. We allow the recipient of our love to behave in ways that a three-year-old might, even though the recipient may be 30, 60, or 80 years old.
To assure that we both give and receive love unconditionally, we need to define unconditional love differently. We need to choose a definition of love that is all-inclusive of others and ourselves.
A new, all-inclusive definition of unconditional love:
Our current definition of unconditional love has been altruism (selflessness). I propose a new, all-inclusive definition of unconditional love that will unite altruism and wisdom. Altruism, acknowledges the worth of others.
Wisdom acknowledges our own worth. By uniting altruism and wisdom, we create a selfless unconditional love for others and the self-care of unconditional love for ourselves. Both are equally important.
Wisdom draws us to the conclusion that we are just as worthy of unconditional love as others. If we accept that we are worthy of unconditional love, then we must revise our definition of unconditional love to include ourselves.
By accepting this new definition of unconditional love, filled with the wisdom of our own worth, we allow ourselves to be treated in new and more enjoyable ways.
Being unconditionally loving no longer means that we allow ourselves to be manipulated, a martyr, or a welcome mat. It means we unselfishly provide unconditional love to ourselves. It means we unselfishly provide ourselves the space we need to be healthy. It means we unselfishly maintain boundaries that protect and support us. It means we unselfishly provide and care for ourselves in the way that a mother and father would care for their own child. It means that we learn to parent ourselves. It means we love and cherish ourselves the way we would our own children. It means we want the very best for ourselves.
Instead of sacrificing ourselves to prove how much we love others, we love ourselves enough to manage our boundaries so we are not manipulated and do not suffer.
What do people who are NOT Welcome Mats look like?
Let’s take another look at Bobby, Cindy and George … as they act in ways that are unconditionally loving to others and also themselves.
Bobby wants to express his unconditional love for his girlfriend. Even though he has absolutely no interest in the story that she is telling him, which could last anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes, he knows that she finds it helpful when he listens to her. So he listens with care and attention. (He has given selfless and unconditional love to his girlfriend.) After he has listened, she asks for his advice. He answers kindly and honestly. She chooses to get angry and reaches toward a frying pan to throw at him. (He is not receiving unconditional love from his girlfriend.) He grasps her hand, looks into her eyes and says, “I cannot and will not allow you to harm me this way. If you continue this abusive behavior, I will end this relationship.”
Cindy wants to express her unconditional love for her husband, who has addictions. Although she has patiently tolerated his inappropriate behavior in the past, she puts a list of rules on the refrigerator of behaviors that she finds harmful to her—behaviors that she is no longer willing to tolerate. Next to that list is a list of consequences that she will implement if he chooses not respect her needs and comply with the new rules. She also begins counseling for her own co-dependency issues.
George wants to express his unconditional love for his 19-year-old son, who has been in and out of jail on drug charges. He sees his son’s car parked at a bar during a time when the son was scheduled to be at work. The son comes home later that evening, tells his father that he had a long day at work and asks to borrow $200 for the third time this month. He also asks if he can move back home since he’s about to get kicked out of his apartment for not paying the rent. George gives his son a list of chores that can be done to earn the $200. He tells his son that he and his wife need to live alone to work on healing their relationship—the struggles with raising children has taken its toll on their marriage. George suggests options for his son to consider to earn extra money–look for another job, sell his pool cue, etc.
In each of these examples, Bobby, Cindy, and George show unconditionally loving personal boundaries–which assure that they are being treated in an unconditionally loving way by other people and themselves. This newfound care and devotion that they now provide for themselves may not be well-received. But that’s another story. Choosing to accept and implement this unconditional self-love means allowing ourselves to be treated in ways in which our own emotional, mental and physical self is not compromised.