Love is Blind—And Rare?
December 13, 2017 12:38 AM   Subscribe

In therapy I realized I have a core assumption that love and positive attention are very scarce resources. Love and attention aren't exactly analogous to money or market goods, but they are a finite resource in some sense. Reflecting on my past choices, I see social-emotional equivalents of investing in get rich quick schemes, taking a lousy job because it was better than unemployment, and being so stingy that I missed opportunities for growth—all stemming from the assumption of scarcity. How does one learn to identify and build relationships and environments where love and support are more abundant?

(It's pretty clear to me why I came to have that assumption but I don't think the details are that interesting for this discussion.)

As children, we don't get a choice about starting in a rich or poor environment. We also see from behavioral economics that resource scarcity affects perception and decision-making. However, much of the discourse—here and elsewhere—about recovering from emotional abuse and neglect centers almost entirely on the individual's self-regard and self-perception. I often see people advised that they should strive towards fostering a sense of being deserving of love and entitled to good treatment, and once they have achieved that, everything else will fall into place more or less automatically. This advice has never resonated with me. The idea that you have to love yourself before people can love you, that people will naturally be positive and caring towards you if you have high self-esteem, that people in abusive or dysfunctional relationships are there because they actively (if sub-consciously) seek out dysfunction and abuse... that has always seemed like ill-founded victim-blaming to me. So much is due to luck of the draw in family of origin and the community around you.

Do I believe that I deserve love and good supportive relationships? Sure. Does that mean love and positive attention will magically become abundant? Of course not—not any more than thinking you deserve a high-paying job lowers the unemployment rate in your area. Put another way, "if wishes were horses then beggars would ride". You have to change your environment, change the way you interact with your environment, or find a new environment altogether. In the context of employment and income you do things like seek further education to build skills, learn about budgeting and ways to save money, and move to a different area if the job market is bad in your locale. What are some of the equivalent behaviors in the social-emotional context?

My therapist asked me if I personally knew any "rags to riches" stories about love and social support, and I couldn't think of any. I am interested in hearing stories from people who have had that experience, or seen it. And if you have always viewed love as abundant, why is that? I'm also interested in resources and narratives that focus less on self-perception and more on skills related to identifying and executing positive changes in behavior and environment.
posted by 4rtemis to Human Relations (20 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I often see people advised that they should strive towards fostering a sense of being deserving of love and entitled to good treatment, and once they have achieved that, everything else will fall into place more or less automatically.

I don't think you should develop a sense of being deserving of love in order to alter a mystical love-bringing force in the universe. You should feel that you deserve love because you do. I know that you do without ever having met you. I hope you feel that I, an internet stranger, am also deserving of love.

Recognizing your own deservingness won't bring you love. Of course it won't. But it will foster your emotional resilience and help you walk away from those who treat you with anything other than respect and consideration (aka love).
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 1:14 AM on December 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

Re: In the context of employment and income you do things like seek further education to build skills, learn about budgeting and ways to save money, and move to a different area if the job market is bad in your locale. What are some of the equivalent behaviors in the social-emotional context?

1. Decide how much love is worth to you. What is the opportunity cost of love (e.g. how much of your time and effort would you spend, and how much discomfort and disappointment would you endure to find love).

2. Find markets where what you seek is available. Are you in a small town with no appealing prospects? How much time/effort/discomfort are you willing to endure to move to a city with better prospects. Would you consider a remote-working arrangement (e.g. long distance relationships)?

3. Determine your position in the market. Are there things you could change about your marketing that would make you more appealing to the type of customers you would like to attract? Or are you a very niche product waiting for the perfect customer to come along, no matter how long the wait, in which case you need to focus on cash flow (e.g. emotional resilience) for the long term.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 1:41 AM on December 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

There's a whole genre of these "rags to riches" stories in the form of [auto]biographies of abused children who grew up to lead pretty normal healthy lives. "A child called it" is a very well known one.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:48 AM on December 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am lucky that I came from a "wealthy" family re: love. I was the first child and only girl and grew up knowing that I was loved and lovable and not only loved by my parents but by all of my grandparents and my 15 aunts and uncles plus their spouses.

Also I was terribly shy and had a very hard time making friends. In a very real sense the central work of my life has been figuring out how to get over my shyness and get people to like me. I didn't even have THAT hard of a time making friends as a child and teenager, but self-consciousness and anxiety made the small deficits that I had FEEL monumental. By the end of my freshman year of college I was truly depressed and felt like the only thing that mattered to me was connecting with people so I was doomed to sadness forever because I was incapable of doing that.

I'm 48 now and have a large circle of friends and feel that my default setting is "likable" and generally find it easy to meet new people and make friends of them. Also I'm happily married.

I don't feel that learning to love myself or feel deserving of love or friendship was my task. I needed to master social skills. I've read countless books and websites about making friends, making conversation, being charming, being charismatic, being likable. The "you can do it!" motivational speaker, super enthusiastic style of most of these resources....well I don't love it.... but generally over the years they have been very helpful.

The most helpful actions for me have been:

Learn to make conversation. Talk to people. It doesn't matter what you talk about. Starting a conversation is the hardest part, do not disdain "small talk"

Be enthusiastic, happy, merry, fun

Take social risks, do not wait to be invited, be the inviter, learn to tolerate rejection

Be interested in other people. Make them feel like you like them.

Join clubs, groups, churches, assemblies, etc. This is where people looking to make connections are.

It's not a quick fix, such skills take time to learn, practice, and master. Relationships and communities take time to start, grow and deepen. Good luck to you!
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 2:01 AM on December 13, 2017 [17 favorites]

I think I'm somewhat like you. I see love and warmth, in general, as finite resources that I have to struggle to get crumbs of. However, there have been times when I had several friends who were very loving and warm and the experience of being around warm and loving people made me relax a little and see the world as a place where love is always possible.

Recently I've begun to realize that some of my personality quirks play into this - I tend to withdraw in large groups, or become business-like because I'm trying to deal with my overwhelm at all the noise and bodies. I've also been - surprise! - trying to use large groups to meet new friends. Shockingly, this has not worked. So. I can work on being more chill and friendly in large groups, or I can focus on small groups and 1:1 connection, or I can do both. I've also realized that I'm wanting other people to do for me what I am not doing for them - initiate conversation, make invitations, make a phone call or send a text, show warmth and interest. So I'm trying to do more of those things. And I'm also trying to not discount the people in my life who love me and show it in a variety of ways.

As far as rags-to-riches stories ... I do know someone with that story. I probably know several, but I know one person well-enough to be certain of enough details to paint a picture. She grew up with a mother who was distant and was mentally ill, and a father who was abusive, who would hit his children and tell them they were worthless. She had some difficult, unhealthy relationships earlier in adulthood and spent some time in therapy. But then she met someone and they adored each other and many years later, when she tells me about her marriage, she tells me how glad she is that she met him and married him and how happy she is to be with him.
posted by bunderful at 5:28 AM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think this is a super valuable observation about yourself. I have someone in my life that I had a difficult time dealing with until I decided that their worldview is that of "love is a finite resource to be jealously hoarded." (To be honest, I still have a difficult time dealing with them, but with that framing, I can choose to not take their unlovingness as personally now.) Having spent some time considering life with this worldview, I have a lot of sympathy towards it; it sounds like torture.

A thing I see in your question is the equating of love and kind treatment, which I'd push back on a little bit. If someone does a kindness to you, that doesn't mean they love you, and likewise, someone who loves you very dearly can treat you very poorly indeed. Kindness is a near-infinite resource. I aim for kindness towards everyone I meet--let the coworker know about my vacation time in advance, tip the waitstaff, make sure I'm not spreading into the seat next to me on a crowded bus. Conversely, if you consider yourself a person with as much inherent worth and dignity as any other, you're less likely to put up with situations where people make choices that cause you harm. That could mean avoiding a second date with someone who made you uncomfortable or extending a friendly overture to the colleague who remembers everyone's birthday. It's not magical thinking to choose to spend time in environments that feel good. And if you "love yourself" (which is kind of squishy language for "consider yourself to be a human worthy of decent treatment"), you're more likely to choose those better environments rather than assume that what you have is the best you can achieve. It doesn't guarantee a lover or best friend that would give their life for you, no--maybe that's the equivalent of thinking you deserve a high-paying job. But it is certainly a more pleasant way to go through life, even without those things--maybe it's the equivalent of thinking everyone deserves a living wage.

In terms of rags-to-riches stories, I know a few folks from pretty horrific backgrounds. Some of them are perpetuating the cycle (and, nature or nurture, who knows), others have very consciously broken it, and you'd never guess from their outer gentleness what steel was required to forge a different path.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:27 AM on December 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

I have seen this abundance of love and mutual support in play in some of my avocational communities, particularly a weekly drawing club that serves as a social focal point and has spawned an almost unimaginable number of deep connections for a large portion of its membership. I also just saw a literally awesome (as in inspiring awe) outpouring of help both emotional and practical for family members from their religious community during a terrible family tragedy.

So I would say that locating yourself a community where mutual interests and fellow-feeling are at the center, and then devoting some time and effort to becoming a part of things (showing up regularly, making conversation, looking for opportunities to contribute) often pays dividends of connection, friendship, and caring support.
posted by merriment at 6:28 AM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I could write a book for you. I kind of have that story, incest and abuse, although with WASP advantages. I will try to summarize a bit.

"Love yourself and mystical good will happen." Well...I have to tell you this is both a load of bunk and also very true at the same time.

Loving myself actually came after I got married and almost wrecked my marriage, but I had a preview of it because I met my husband at a time that I had just exited a bad relationship and had decided love was not for me. He also was unavailable (celibate).

And so, we met each other as people not looking for romantic love from each other at all, and for me anyway, I bypassed my usual set of extremely dysfunctional behaviours at the start of a relationship. On his side, what I looked like was someone who wasn't pressuring him to mate and date, or be something for me to fill a hole in my life (because at that point I really wasn't, I was just experiencing the holes).

So we really enjoyed each other. We had (have still) so much fun together! We hung out not because we were Relating but because we wanted to. The time and attention worked was good.

Later, after we were married, my assumptions that his love was finite, that we were doomed, that he had bad taste for picking me, and a bunch of other things, flared up and It was not good. I got into therapy. I did have to realize that even if my marriage, the One True Thing, failed that I would be okay. That core of being okay -- loving me -- I almost can taste the day I really felt it for the first time. The first day was walking to therapy and I realized if my marriage ended, I could get my own tiny apartment. I knew that would be lonely but I also knew, by then, that you could be lonely in a marriage and that loneliness sucks but it is...not an end, it is not a sentence on one's self worth. It's just loneliness and it can be addressed. And I could decorate a tiny apartment my way. And volunteer in a nursing home. And lean on my friends. Or make new ones.

So then I focused not on being worthy of/winning/keeping/achieving love. Love is there. No, I busted my ass to work on stopping being a neurotic mess, to learn how to communicate, stay grounded, love life and invite him into it...and on and on.

So... out of that experience, I think that's kind of how the loving yourself piece works and that you are really onto the right next questions which is: So what? I would encourage you not to look for love from people but for a life you love that includes people, and when you find people it is including, then see about loving them. So if what you want is someone who gets your sense of humour, take a stand-up comedy class. Etc.

Loving yourself is like having a trust fund in life's relationships. You may not want to rely solely on the capital; you may want to go out and experience all kinds of other love, it does not have to be a barrier to anything more. But it means you have enough to keep going to do the things that you want to do - to keep finding a way, really. It means you have capital - your own love and attention - to invest. And as you get better at that, you find you actually have quite a lot. I think this is one of the gifts pets can give us actually, we learn we can care so much for a little furry creature who sure, loves us back but isn't going to bring home a paycheque.

The mystic truth is not exactly that suddenly the outside world changes. It's that you feel your own inherent trust fund and how it grows when you invest in others. It's like...I can weather investments that don't pay off visibly or immediately, because the base is solid, and because some pay off really well.

As noted above by Jenny'sCricket, that comes with a whole other set of skills that are needed to find what really works for you. I think this is where the issues really come in, that some environments have not nurtured that in people. But it's not love, it's a skill set.

You started with a scarcity economy around you, but the capital within you is not necessarily sparse. It's just that you had no opportunity to learn how to leverage it.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:30 AM on December 13, 2017 [24 favorites]

If you have any interest in religion whatsoever, I would urge you to join a church. Most mainline protestant churches (Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) focus strongly on love. If you aren't religious, you could consider a Unitarian Universalist church, which is extremely welcoming to atheists. Unlike other groups and organizations, a church exists the people who are not members, and are therefore extremely welcoming and friendly places.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:34 AM on December 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I just heard a great recommendation for this book, The Forgotten Art of Love: What Love Means and Why It Matters, and had to order it. Here is the article about it.

I think it may be a helpful read.
posted by maxg94 at 6:42 AM on December 13, 2017

I believe love and attention are only finite resources if you can't get them from yourself. When you are having a hard time, do you speak to yourself with tenderness? Do you honor all of your feelings, even the petty ones? Do you practice self care? Do you do all the things you would want a lover or friend to do for you?

Healthy people who are generous with their love and attention seek out people who will do the same. They are cautious about giving this part of themselves to someone who can't or won't reciprocate. If you are stingy with yourself, how can they know you won't be stingy with them?
posted by pazazygeek at 7:13 AM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I left my bad marriage, I felt very protective of giving people any of my emotional reserves, and I mistrusted people when they tried to show me any emotion either. I was and still am wary of men’s intentions when they show me affection or kindness. In the last year and change, what I’ve done to change my love-hoarding tendencies is to stop keeping score of how much love I put out into the world, instead of focusing on policing how much love I receive. This means: I initiate contact with my friends and try to always follow through with plans I make (because reliability is a way I want to show love). I say the nice things I think about people when I think them, because there’s no reason to withhold compliments. I hug people (who like to be hugged) as much as possible because physical affection is nice. I try my best at being polite and helpful to the strangers I interact with throughout the day, to maintain a default sort of position of kindness. I give my closest friends one on one attention because it strengthens and reinforces our bonds. In dating and romantic contexts, I try to do mostly the same stuff, just intensified: affection, undivided attention, reliability, initiating contact, default kindness. What shifting the focus from receiving to giving has done for me is twofold. 1) it has made me realize that I myself have infinite reserves of love to give people, and that it is not reliant on what other people are able to give me. 2) you get back a lot of what you put in, and when you don’t have ulterior motives or expect back the same level of love you’re putting out there, you tend to get more back anyway. I’m gonna cross stitch a thing I saw on tumblr or somewhere that said: you don’t protect your heart by pretending you don’t have one.

TLDR be the change you want to see in the world.
posted by oomny at 7:20 AM on December 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

And if you have always viewed love as abundant, why is that?

I'm this way. For me, it's because my love - whether it's someone else loving me, or my love for someone else, or my love for myself - is infinite. A person can always love more - whether that means loving a new person, or loving an existing person more deeply or in a new way. When I love a new person, I don't find that my love for others disappears or even diminishes.

Now, attention is a little more complicated. There are only so many hours in the day, and it's true that attention unlike love is a finite resource. But attention is a logistical concern -- given that love is abundant, there are endless opportunities to meet people who will love you and make time for you.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:26 AM on December 13, 2017 [9 favorites]

Interestingly, I was just thinking the other day that love is exponential. You would think it is a finite resource, but the more you love, the more love there is.

This insight comes from having pets (and experiencing pet loss).

You want to practice love in low-risk, high reward way? Get a pet or two. Give them all your love and care and attention and just soak up all the love they give back. Then let it grow and grow and expand into the world. My belief is you get back more of what you give.
posted by slipthought at 7:29 AM on December 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

Also I'll share a personal story since you asked, which brought me to the conclusion in my earlier post. My entire life, I was co dependent. I believed that all the love I got was a referendum on my worth. I believed that all of my time alone with myself was only to be spent bettering myself to be more worthy. I needed a partner or close friend in my life to recharge my batteries. I could only really keep myself emotionally afloat for maybe one month, because when "alone" I used all of my emotional energy to self criticize, self punish or spiral in existential panic about the bleak future. This was a self defeating cycle, because I'd melt down, reach out, exhaust my "resource" and start anew.

I wasn't in crisis, but my relationships were lopsided and high drama. I over extended myself and gave too much of myself to keep my bank full of love and support. I stayed in unsatisfying relationships. I slowed my career and hobbies.

Throughout my 20s I managed to build a life I was proud of anyway. But I limited myself out of fear. I wanted to live in a new city away from everything and everyone i knew but my partner did not. Eventually I convinced him (hard spend of carefully built equity) and it ended us.

I spiraled when alone after that, zig zagging between elated and terrified. I met someone new who was more connected and loving. He had some serious trauma which was impacting him in a similar way, but he was working on it. I made new friends who were in a similar place. We were all fiercely protective and loving of one another. Not so much to our individual selves. There was substance abuse and drama and it was exciting but difficult.

One night my entire support system exploded in a single evening. My friends and my boyfriend had a horrible, drunken fight in my house. Lines were drawn. Cops were called. Sides were taken. I couldn't take a side. I was devastated and felt betrayed (so did they). I was 3,000 miles from my home and my entire support network crumbled overnight.

To strain your metaphor, perhaps this is where I had to declare bankruptcy. I had no choice but to look inward. I stopped looking for validation of my worth from my friends. I just realized it was already there. I learned to cook myself nourishing food. I asked myself what *I* wanted in almost any situation, and then did my best to give it to myself. I played and wrote music. I took myself on trips. I committed to myself long term and I quit smoking. I trained at the gym. I volunteered my time.

I signed up for this event called the overnight walk. It was in another city, far from home. You walk from sundown to sun up to raise money for suicide prevention. Most people are walking for a loved one they lost. I signed up for this to support a friend who had lost someone. But as I walked we got separated and I was alone.

At the halfway mark, in the dead middle of the night, I was completely exhausted already. My feet were throbbing, my joints aching. I visualized the finish line and realized nobody was there for me and thought, "what is the point?!". I'd already raised the money. My friend had to stop because her foot was bleeding. Her friends had taken a breather in a local bar and we agreed to meet up later, or the next morning. Nobody back home really knew what I was doing. Nobody would know if I just left. I was lying in a park staring at the black sky feeling so sorry for myself. Nothing I did for myself mattered.

Then I saw a family walk by. It was a mom and two kids. Their shirts had their father's face printed on them, with loving memory statements. I thought about the void I *thought* I was in and realized how totally imaginary it was. What I do for myself matters *to me*. And I matter to others. I have a responsibility to be proud of my own damned self! It doesn't mean I don't need to rely on others, in fact I needed that more than ever. But my totally tweaked motivations were suddenly so clear to me in that instant.

I finished the walk. My friends were at the finish line, though I hadn't expected to see them. When I got back to my regular life, I had a new confidence and esteem for myself. If someone was being a jerk to me, I would ask myself, "when's the last time this jackass walked 18 miles overnight?" instead of internalizing their behavior and criticising myself for failing.

This was a block in a foundation that got easier and easier to build. In time I repaired my relationships by rebuilding them with my own sense of self worth as a foundational element. I trained the people in my life how to treat me by using my own self treatment as a guide.

I still struggle (obviously), but the quality and strength of my relationships is far and above what I've ever had.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:59 AM on December 13, 2017 [19 favorites]

Reflecting on my past choices, I see social-emotional equivalents of investing in get rich quick schemes, taking a lousy job because it was better than unemployment, and being so stingy that I missed opportunities for growth—all stemming from the assumption of scarcity. How does one learn to identify and build relationships and environments where love and support are more abundant?

By my read, an important mechanism at work in your situation is settling. When a person assumes limited availability of a resource, grasping at the first available shred is entirely rational. If there's only one kid in the schoolyard who doesn't throw rocks at you, befriending that kid makes sense pretty much no matter what their personality is like. But in a context where real choice exists, latching on to the first person who shows a bit of warmth can mean settling for a person or friendship ill-suited to you, simply because you find it hard to believe anything better could exist so it seems irrational and frightening to give up what you have to look for better.

Like many other emotional problems, it's a behaviour that is adaptive in the right situations but harmfully maladaptive when overapplied. I think when people talk about the value of self-love and seeing oneself as deserving in the context of recovering from emotional neglect, it's not because they think changing one's internal perspective will magically fix things. I think the assumption is that a stronger sense of self-worth will help people feel empowered to take those risks, to leave a relationship that is "fine" because they're more willing to gamble on the chance that they can find better.

That being said, I think you're right that attitude in itself has limited power. It's the skills and strategies that, in my opinion, really make the difference.

In the context of employment and income you do things like seek further education to build skills, learn about budgeting and ways to save money, and move to a different area if the job market is bad in your locale. What are some of the equivalent behaviors in the social-emotional context?

People above have made good suggestions about seeking out communities, evaluating whether your areas has a good (and large enough) potential pool of people to connect with, and working on your ability to initiate and maintain conversations, maintain relationships, etc.

Important questions: what are you looking for? What traits or features attract you to a person, either for friendship or romance? What do you value in relationships, and what would a loving and happy relationship look like for you? Do you see yourself as possessing the emotional and social skills to participate in such relationships in a balanced way? Self-awareness is an important skill and, in my experience, the ability to accurately assess one's feelings about other people and compatibility with them is the biggest time saver in the search for connection. Obviously nobody can tell for sure in advance, and everyone makes mistakes, but there's a wide spread in how good different people are at this. Chances are, if you've got a history of seeing emotional connection as a scarce resource, your ability to assess compatibility objectively is underdeveloped. And chances are you undervalue what you have to offer to others when assessing the likelihood of someone wanting to connect with you.

So I suppose my advice is: (1) make sure you really understand what you're looking for (2) work on developing the social skills to meet people and open doors to relationships (3) develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence to assess which people and relationships are worth pursuing and (4) work on developing the confidence/selectivity/risk tolerance to only pursue relationships about which you're truly excited. Don't let mere availability register on the list of features for a prospective friend or lover.
posted by Severine at 9:59 AM on December 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

It may be helpful to think of love and positive attention less as resources that exist out there, precious gems waiting to be found or mined fully formed out of some substrate; they may be more like skills or crafts, with attributes that need to be practiced with attention and developed over time. To stick to the gemstone analogy, love is less like a preformed diamond and more like an ore that must be found, sieved, purified and cast into a mold before the metal it contains is recognizable.

I feel like I'm in a relationship that's its own emotional, loving "rags to riches" story, if only because we're from very different stations in life, society, age, family, and so on. We certainly didn't hit the jackpot and dig up that diamond fully formed. We found a bit of gold dust and spent a good long period digging for the vein together. We knew what we were looking for, but we didn't know if we'd find it in the end--maybe it would just be a bit of gold dust here and there, outweighed by the rubble--but we were motivated enough by one another to keep looking.

My hackneyed mining analogy breaks down in so many ways, in no small part because I'm pretty sure that a big part of how we found this wonderful relationship was that we spent so much time together looking for that gold that we sort of transmuted it into existence. Love and attention are funny things. They seem to work differently for people. There's something to be said, though, for our capacity to spin our feelings into complicated ideas like 'love' with the help of other people for whom we'd like to feel love.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:52 AM on December 13, 2017

Yes, I agree. Most of it is chance. Right before I met my husband I was feeling very low, very unlovable. I had been putting myself out there and really making an effort yet I struck out on a bunch of dates. One of my friends had just betrayed me in a pretty big way. I was feeling extremely discouraged and low. But, another friend/acquaintance, one who had always been nice to me even if we weren’t as close, invited me to their birthday party. I thought, “this person has always been nice to me. I am absolutely going to get it together and go to this party. Even if it’s lame, even if I have a bad time. I’m just going to do it, what do I have to lose?”

Metafilter, I met my future husband at that party.

The lesson I take from this is “just do it.” Say yes to every invitation. You will strike out a bunch of times but eventually your number will come up. You just need to be there when it does.
posted by stockpuppet at 12:06 PM on December 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've learned that love *is* infinite by virtue of humanity's inexhaustible capacity to provide and receive it. It only feels as if the world operates on a limited supply because we are fallible creatures and despite our best intentions, our varying levels of brokenness get in the way of developing meaningful connections with one another. We're too ill-equipped to understand our deepest selves, let alone be able to successfully sustain love and continuously give what it asks of us.

For years, every failed relationship affirmed the narrative I created in my head that I was not worth loving and was "cursed" to be alone forever. My saving grace was my choice to not to let that get in the way of living. I treated searching for love as an adventure. When I felt like I exhausted all my dating options, I moved to a fast-growing progressive city, only accepted dates from people who fit my very specific criteria, and did my best to be unflinchingly honest with myself and others every step of the way. I trusted my intuition, stopped overthinking the things that happen to me, and laughed at the good and the bad. A year later I got engaged to a wonderful man and I'm the happiest I've ever been.
posted by tackypink at 4:17 PM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can understand your lack of resonance with advices. Advices are dry, and they come from outside.

This rags-to-riches example could be me (well, perhaps not exactly from rags, but close). Under the older terminology I'd have been labelled as neurotic. I was a bit like you in the low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness, feeling that life is rarefied and scarce and stifling. I constricted my own life and made (perhaps still making) lousy choices. I was emotionally abused and neglected as a child. It's not hard to believe the formative experience of love-poverty has led to the association of love with poverty. And the craving, and the denial. Insecurity. Fumbling from one bad choice to another.

Part of the early breakthrough was kinda about saying yes to the sense that my internal emotional world is actually rich and diverse and complex, so worthy of curiosity and attention, even in its single-minded obsession, or desert-like depression, or polar and embarrassing discrepancy between my outward expression and how I described my inner feeling. I started a journal to record my subjective feelings, thoughts, everything, while trying to let go the judgemental attitude of "should this be put in here or not?" I tried, and am still trying to allow everything, boring or scary or confusing or ridiculous or hateful -- as long as I know the impulsive and destructive bits stay in symbolic form within the boundary of this safe space.

I also find it helpful to extend simple gestures of empathy and compassion. What held me back was a kind of doubt about if it's OK to spread it too thin, and the fear of being judged as false, ridiculous, immature, narcissistic, cheap, or privileged. But I found that the true expressions would break the barriers. I saw a new worker in a fast-food chain obviously stressed out and I said to her "no worries, you're doing a great job." Purely by chance I met young kids forced by their shitty father to travel and beg in extremely hot weather and I let my hunch direct my behaviour, and I find myself getting them cooled water and spending some time with them just to listen to them and hug them when they cry. I rescued a butterfly trapped in a train (which was almost a mystical experience). I find that empathy and love are like seeds. You sow them and they have a tendency to multiply. You give them out and find yourself later surrounded by plants, some thorny, but some amazingly beautiful and rewarding.

And I know how lucky I am. I have a more-or-less abled body (possibly w/ some mild neurological condition, but that's not important for now); I am not (yet) materially deprived and there are risks I just can take; I found friendship forged by really fortunate chances, and a counsellor who categorically refuses to put demeaning and reductive labels on me or give me "advices" but is open and attentive to my existence and trusts my own capacities.

This process is nevertheless full of Sisyphean frustrations, but in a sense I feel that the frustration is the wisdom that I seek. The frustrations are not a price paid for the wisdom. They're the only possible language in which the wisdom can be written out. It also takes a lot of time, but now I find my time-perception also changed. Suffering seemed not as long, and the separation between weekly therapy sessions seemed longer (because life in general is getting richer).

So how do I feel at this moment?

I've come to think of love, happiness, joy -- these are labels we use to name some of our experiences. They as experiences are not really quantifiable. Perhaps in psychometry there are measures to compare self-reported intensity or rank the outward behaviours, but subjectively, they feel like "high-dimensional" objects with surprising geometries and topologies. I can't neatly assign an ordering or sizing to them. I move in and out of them, my plane of perception (or attention?) intersects with them in some way now, and some other way next, but never encompasses their totality. I don't know where or how exactly it will surface, but I can be attentive to its traces and signs even in unexpected situations. I feel that this kind of mundane sensitivity is more valuable than tall and shiny intellectual constructs we build above it, or textbook advices we hear from others.

I do feel the anxiety of exhausting love, be it other persons' or mine. Still, I understand that I cannot guard it like a dragon sitting on a pile of treasures. Love is less a (consumable) object than a kind of motion. We can dip ourselves into it, shape it partially, help it grow and multiply on its own, but we can never control it fully. It has laws of its own governing its courses, and we can approach its knowledge but dimly. Part of my ongoing recovery has been to go from "I can't see clearly and grasp firmly in hand this adult life thing as I should!" to "Yeah, this is sort of fine; perhaps everybody just grope and fumble on and learn as they go."

I don't doubt that all of these are very subjective and it may or may not click with you. Perhaps I'm not very receptive to your question or your unique experience, and I may be too self-centred in telling mine. I dump it out and hopefully it will be of some use or amusement.

To say something about...

* The idea that you have to love yourself before people can love you

I feel that people may or may not love me, with or without me loving myself -- it's their choice. I feel there's a chronology implied by "before" but it seems an artificial one. And loving my self is less of an obligation than a kind of rewarding experience, something new for me, which enriched my knowledge about myself. Nevertheless, with a kind of "self-firmness" and the knowledge it brings forth, I can be more perceptive, less blind to the presence of love; I'll be more ready to be loved (and to be more functional in a loving relationship); and others tend to be less defensive to me, which is altogether good for interpersonal relations.

* that people will naturally be positive and caring towards you if you have high self-esteem

I feel this is too simplified and formula-like. And there could be a catch: If that implies that we build self-esteem for the purpose of attracting other people's positivity, is that really "self"-esteem we set out to build in the first place?

* that people in abusive or dysfunctional relationships are there because they actively (if sub-consciously) seek out dysfunction and abuse

I feel that this statement overstates the causation (which correlation does not imply) and devalues the meaning of the victim's suffering. I'd say people traumatised or abused are more vulnerable to revictimisation.
posted by runcifex at 10:00 AM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

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