Redefining unconditional love

When most of us think of unconditional love, we think of love without conditions or limitations (e.g. I love you, no matter what!!) Humanistic psychology adds to this definition by associating it with true altruism – an act of sacrifice, helping or sharing purely for the benefit of the other, not the self. The best example given of this kind of love is that which parents have for their children. Their love is consistent no matter what the child does or doesn’t do. They are willing to throw themselves head on into danger or plunge themselves into debt to protect and provide for their offspring. When it comes to our other relationships in life, this absolute definition is not so easy to apply. Certain situations and circumstances require us to make adjustments to the way we love and as a result, it may appear that our love is conditional. However, I would argue we are confusing consistent with conditional.

Our relationships help us to develop both psychologically and socially. Our interactions with friends, lovers, playmates, teachers, bosses and so on all play a part in allowing us to learn the lessons necessary to understand who we are. Part of our personal development involves understanding how to love those closest to us even when they do things that are hurtful or that we don’t agree with. For all the flack that judgement gets, sometimes we do have to call out the truth when it’s staring at our loved one in the face and they refuse to see it. We also have to do this with ourselves or be willing to hear it from others. Unconditional love is not about allowing your face to be clawed off, having your psyche attacked or attacking others and expecting them to “take it” or “get over it”. It’s about loving that person enough to tell them the truth and be able to walk away if their behavior or reaction is toxic.

There is no worse break up, in my opinion, then the fallout of a close friendship. Even when faced with a verbal attack or some other form of relational aggression, you can still love the person behind all the abuse, even when distancing yourself from the abuse itself. This is the misconception that most people have about unconditional love. They see the distance taken as an example of the conditional nature of your love; that you are abandoning, rejecting or (there’s that word again) judging the person. However, going back to the psychological definition, true unconditional love involves sacrifice and actions done for the benefit of another person, not yourself. Does it benefit that friend for you to accept their abuse? Does it benefit that friend to keep silent about how they are hurting themselves and others? Even worse, does it benefit that friend to allow their behavior to continue unchecked, so that it affects other areas of their life? No. I would argue that calling out the behavior, even if it means sacrificing the friendship, is the most unconditional act of love there is.

Love is a powerful motivator and mediator in life. Instead of love without conditions, I would redefine it as altruistic love without limitations. Things happen. Life happens. Sometimes the most solid person in our lives becomes the most unstable. Don’t limit your heart. Keep the love you have for them outside of the instability in there. It bridges the distance you’ve taken and it’s palpable…

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Massage for a Broken Heart

This too shall pass…

One out of every three clients I encountered this past month was in the midst of a break up. Although February is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate love, thanks in part to the mass market holiday that Valentine’s has become, it seems that more and more people choose to end their relationships during this time. Break ups apply to all kinds of human connections like friendships, romantic partners, marriages or family members and illicit the same range of emotions one would encounter within the grieving process. Rather than swimming in the vortex of loss alone, these clients sought out massage as comfort. How is it that heartbreak “hurts” so much? The physical reaction to emotional loss can be explained through medical science.

When emotional stress is experienced, especially loss, our brains signal the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and certain proteins that constrict blood flow causing part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged and incapable of pumping well. The rest of the heart has to compensate by contracting more forcefully. The pain felt in one’s chest resembles that of a heart attack; however without the permanent damage associated with it. The heart is described as being temporarily stunned or rendered “helpless” which is an interesting choice of words given the sufferer’s mental state. This condition is known medically as stress cardiomyopathy (formerly takotsubo cardiomyopathy) but many doctors refer to it as Broken Heart Syndrome.

Pain is the brain’s primal way of responding to trouble. That trouble can be caused by stimuli both inside and outside of the physical body. Sensory receptors known as nociceptors register these stimuli and in milliseconds return the signal of pain. When we are in a state of emotional distress, the brain’s blood supply is altered, sending more blood to the area responsible for regulating physical pain. This excess flow has been found in people with depression making them more peaked to pain. The emotions felt during a break up enact this physiological response, registering an ache or hollow feeling often felt within the organs of our core; not just in the heart. The state of pain also kicks in the sympathetic nervous system to respond, known as our state of “fight or flight.” The hormones and proteins released inhibit appetite which can lead to anorexic behavior, keep us over alert which translates into insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns, constricts blood vessels causing headaches, stops digestive juices from being released causing tummy troubles and for some, their overabundance can lead to panic attacks and adrenal fatigue.

Brain and pain rhyme for a reason, kids.

One of the main things massage can do is kick into gear the parasympathetic (i.e. “rest and digest”) response. This is why it is so effective in stress management. Massage counters a lot of the physiological affects of a broken heart by switching off the sympathetic release of hormones and proteins related to emotional stress. In addition, it counters any muscular and postural imbalances that could develop from protective patterns of movement or the general feeling of wanting to cocoon into oneself. It also prevents the isolation and loneliness that creeps in after the shock, denial, guilt, anger and bargaining stages of the grieving process pass because it allows for touch from another that is warm, therapeutic and outside of any emotional attachment or expectation. It is a safe place to let go of emotions and come back into the body.  Some of us put names on slips of paper in the freezer, bury all the things ever given as gifts, move out of the apartment whose walls are saturated with the memory of YOU and THEM, cut or dye hair in all kinds of ways to deal with a break up. But giving yourself the love you once had for another person, which in the case of my clients was in the form of therapeutic massage, will have the most beneficial overall effect for all parties involved. Acceptance is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to HURT as much.