When I was in the 7th grade, Ms. Comely introduced herself to me as the 9th grade Chemistry teacher. I will never forget that visceral naivety that flooded my system. Completely dumbfounded and awe-stricken, I looked her in the eye and said, "You mean... You get to teach about love?" Flushed with embarrassment by the tender laughter that followed, I quickly realized the error I had made. However, thinking back, I see that it served as a monumental moment in which a seed was planted, foreshadowing the blossoming of a life led by my curious heart.
While attending Harvard grad school, I was on a research team called Young People and Romantic Relationships, which was aimed at understanding how adults can better prepare teens and young adults to develop healthy, ethical, romantic and sexual relationships. And yet, even then, immersing myself in the literature, writing papers and investigating the different variables that attribute to this thing called Love, I was still missing something critical. I remember reading a paper called "Love and Adulthood in American Culture." In it, the author, Ann Swidler, writes about the traditional love ideology in the 1800s, which denoted that the highest form of love was sacrificing the self for the other's well-being (Swidler, 1980)... Had I been born in the wrong century? I really wondered as most of my relationships up until that point corroborated this ancient concept.
Love is the language of our souls. It's the common foundation upon which we construct our lives. Without love, we wouldn't be here. And yet, the experience of loving another leaves so many of us feeling challenged, confused, desperate, resentful, pained and broken.
We fall apart when it's over; we retaliate, we manipulate, we blame, we beg, we grieve, we wallow, we shut down, we armor up, and we vow never again.
But is this authentic love?
Helen Fisher talks about romantic love in her work and how it affects our brain's chemistry. In her 2008 TED Talk she talks about love as a drug, as research shows that the activity found in a particular region of the brain that is associated with falling in love is the same as when one is experiencing the rush of cocaine. Love becomes an addiction; the dopamine released in the body, which attributes to feelings of elation, reinforces a belief that in order to have this pleasurable experience, we must hold on to the variable (i.e., the other) that correlates with the release of this chemical.
But what if that variable wasn't the sole determinant of this feeling? What if we could feel the pleasure of love without having to rely on that external factor?
A worthy inquiry, as we grow up in a culture in which we are overwhelmed by stimuli that support the notion that our happiness is embedded in our ability to be loved by others. To further clarify, many of us take on the perspective that our worth depends upon someone else's capacity to love us.
We often lose ourselves in relationships when we see life through this lens, putting an immense amount of pressure on ourselves and on the other; all to maintain something that is built on a faulty premise.
This is one of the biggest illusions we buy into, this is what had me identifying with the 1800s love ideology and this led to me to the something that I was missing in grad school.
I believe that there's a major distinction to be made between authentic love and emotional love and I suspect that Helen Fisher's work, as well as many of our personal experiences, coincide with the latter of the two.
When love is bound by time and space, when it is tied up in expectations, when it becomes something we can give and then take back, to me, that's not authentic love.
When loving another is fueled by our own need to feel safe, to feel seen, to feel loved, to feel whole, our ability to love another without conditions is compromised. And love becomes emotional.
This kind of love is erratic and unpredictable; in one moment we are all in, in the next we are out. This kind of love can be withheld as a form of punishment, it can be used as a way to manipulate, it can be squandered and it can lead to us feeling completely debilitated. This kind of love can turn to obsession, it can become addictive, and it can weaken our stability. This kind of love breeds insecurity, fuels fear, leads to victimization and perpetuates blame. This kind of love can cause us to hold on when we are meant to let go, say yes when we really mean no, and choose the other at the expense of ourselves. This kind of love has us oscillating between the highest highs and the lowest low -- it's an emotional rollercoaster that is founded in delusion.
The delusion being that we believe that without the other we are incomplete.
In the past, I bought into this belief, thus I was entrenched in the experiences of emotional love.
I stayed in relationships that were no longer serving me because I believed that without them I wouldn't be enough. I maintained relationships that were no longer supportive because I didn't want to hurt the person I loved. I projected my anger onto others, blaming and condemning those I associated with my pain because I wasn't willing to face myself and take responsibility. And I was overcome by fear when I was in a loving relationship, unable to appreciate the moment and be present because I was already worrying about being left. I gave love, really, to receive love, to keep love and to be loved. It was conditional, it was inauthentic, and each experience I had, good or bad, was colored by this flawed formula.
And even still, I would not change an experience of my past, as I don't believe we are meant to dismiss those painful moments; they serve as the most important stepping-stones in the unfolding of our lives and the new directions that we take. Mike Dooley puts it perfectly in his book, Infinite Possibilities (Dooley, 2001).
Pain is par for the course when there are misunderstandings, but it gives birth to new insights. Allowing it into your life is just as important as allowing it move on. And when pain does show up, even if you don't yet feel enlightened for your suffering, you will be further along than you realize. You will be better prepared for even greater happiness in the future, and you'll have closed a gap to understanding the mysteries of your heart.
The closing of the gap to understanding the mysteries of my heart revealed the missing piece for which I had been searching.
We've all heard the saying that we can only love another when we love ourselves. Like many people, I understood it on some surface level, but the potency behind these words was the something I had been skimming over in grad school. Once I dropped into my heart, began to witness my internal dialogue, became aware of all the judgments I was carrying and started a daily practice of self-love, self-forgiveness, and gratitude, that I realized the profundity of this cliché. That is when my paradigm began to shift.
Authentic love can only be experienced when we recognize and own our worth. In order to love someone wholeheartedly, our hearts must be whole to begin with. And the overlooked truth is that they are, it's just a matter of us acknowledging that. This realization, in turn, collapses any theory that supports us giving our power away. When we recognize our value, when we connect to our whole heart when we experience our lovability independent of whether or not another reciprocates, that is when we can love wholeheartedly; that is when we can love unconditionally; that is when we can love authentically. When we fall in love with who we are, we can experience the effects of dopamine irrespective of an external variable's presence. Authentic love is our birthright and the only thing that stands in the way of us being able to fully experience it is ourselves.
Originally Published by House Of Citrine
Image by Laurent Levy Photography