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 appearthat our love is conditional. However, I would argue we are confusing consistentwith 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 judgementgets, 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 conditionalnature 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…
I recently saw a news program from the UK about “Dancing Man” that drew attention to cyber-bullying. This man was an overweight, average guy dancing in a club who was photographed and heckled by a group of people (mixed gender) via social media. There is a before picture of him happily dancing and an after photo, where he realized what the group has done and looks ashamed. A group of women in the States caught site of this post and banded together to undo the damage, by hosting a dance party for “Dancing Man.” At the end of the day, the cyber-bullies gave him the opportunity to meet a ton of famous and beautiful women in parties all over the trendiest clubs of Los Angeles; something I doubt they do on a regular basis. The “Dancing Man” is a rare exception to the norm. Most people who are victims of this type of bullying do not have the world come to their rescue. Some may not even be aware that they have been bullied. I’m coining the term “instabullies” as the popular social media site Instagram has become a playground for both insidious and overt bullying. And don’t think for a second that your bullies are just preteens and young adults. The age range creeps well into middle adulthood.
Most of us have an image of what a bully is in mind, either from the media or our own elementary through high school experiences. Outside of getting one’s ass kicked, there are other forms of bullying. Relational aggression is the worst kind of bullying. It’s below the belt, hits you where you are weakest and can have far reaching psychological repercussions. Its hallmark is social manipulation achieved with a number of tactics that include group exclusion, spreading rumors, public embarrassment, breaking confidences, backstabbing and getting others to dislike another person. Popularity (i.e. sociometric status) is a huge determining factor in bullying. Research indicates that relational aggression is more effective for maintaining the popularity status of a group among other groups, as well specific relationship and status dynamics inside a group. Now this seems to apply to the younger, school age population, but bare in mind that group membership and status present themselves at all stages in life. Take, for example, the workplace. Its social organization can mirror high school quite a bit – cliques form of so called popular people who go to happy hours, events and other activities together and only together. The rest of the population either wants to join them, despises them and could care less about their exclusiveness or both despises and wants to join them. It relates back to self esteem – the higher it is, the less sociometric status factors into feelings of one’s worth. Relational aggression is sometimes referred to as the Mean GirlsPhenomenonborrowing from the film title that put this form of bullying on the map for millennials. While the mention of Girlsmay make it seem that it is gender specific, both men and women engage in this form of aggression as we saw with “Dancing Man.” However, it is true that women have a tendency toward the use of relational over physical aggression.
There are many reasons for the above; some obvious and some not. The obvious ones are jealousy, feelings of insecurity and need for control/power. The not so obvious – boredom and social modeling. The former just blows my mind considering how many other activities one could “busy” themselves with over ridiculing others. The latter I have been witness to and fully agree. Just the other day I watched a grown adult take a photo of a morbidly obese woman sitting across from her on the subway and then tell her daughter how she was going to do something funny. Her furious typing indicated to me she was either posting the image with commentary somewhere or sending it via text/chat to her contact(s). That little girl observing this behavior is absolutely likely to copy it if major interventions in school or in her community do not intercede to prevent the cycle from continuing. Recall what I noted earlier about the age range for cyber bullying starting at preteen all the way into middle age – that’s at least two if not three generations all engaging in the same social offense. What does that say about the future of our society?
I often think about how bullying evolved in our human history. When did it become necessary to intimidate and abuse others through physical and psychological means? According to an article on the origins of bullying in Scientific America, it seems to be a universal feature in human society; “…a species-typical human behavior that has little to do with the cultures people live in. Bullying, it seems is part of our normal behavioral repertoire, it is part of the human condition.” (Sherrow) Preliminary research indicates that universal behaviors often have deep evolutionary origins, even stemming from our previous human ancestors – primates. Behavioral studies of animals, including primates, indicate that they engage in bullying. This behavioral pattern was assessed by determining if the behavior was meant to intimidate another. Frequent use of intimidation and aggression to manipulate the behaviors of others and to acquire resources was seen in the female baboon population. In chimps, the author noted that his studies of adolescent males strongly indicated a pattern of bullying as the smaller adolescent chimp attempted to enter the adult male hierarchy. So, essentially we’ve been tearing each other down before we evolved into upright Homo Sapiens, but for a good reason – survival.
The primordial behavior we inherited from our primate cousins has changed dramatically thanks to natural selection. It was modified by our ability to mentalize i.e. our awareness of ourselves and others’ mental states that guide our actions. If you better understand the desires and feelings of others, you have a more effective gateway into manipulating them. Think about any country with a history of coercion and conformity. Bullying is a daily occurrence to maintain social order and control. It’s not the culture that created the bullying. Instead it supports and promotes the use of this behavior pattern. Indeed, bullying can be employed in many different ways and for a variety of outcomes across societies, ages and genders. And with technology making it so much easier to engage in this behavior, bullying could evolve even further into a pastime no different than Candy Crush. Yes, it’s in our DNA; however, it doesn’t have to become our default. A little empathy goes a long way. I’m cautiously optimistic…cautiously.