Unconditional Love?

Today is all about self-esteem in relation to love and expectation.  Everyone knows how important love is in our lives and if you don’t, you’re missing out on something great. However, not many evaluate how love plays into their self-esteem, or the esteem of their children.  This can cause a lot of misperceptions and problems if we aren’t careful.

But before we delve too far into this topic, I want to ask you two seemingly simple questions.

One, is there really such a thing as unconditional love?

Two, is there a right or good way to practice conditional love?

The answers may seem simple, but I think you’ll find after reading this post, that they are far more complicated than we would like to believe.

So love is the word of the day.  Every religion says something about love and its importance.  Christianity has love thy neighbor, which is a form of the Golden rule. AKA. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Even paganism has its own equivalent, do no harm. That is but another form of respect for both us and others.

Let’s start with unconditional love. What is it? In simple terms it is the idea that we love someone or something no matter what they do.

So does it exist?

The answer? Yes and No. Now hear me out before you possibly get mad.

Theoretically and long term, yes it does exist for most people.  At the end of the day most rational human beings love their child no matter what they have done. In reality however, love is somewhat conditional by personal perception, even if it is conditional only momentarily.

So what does that mean? Well, all of us have gotten angry at our child at some point or another, no matter how old they are. And we have had to take moments away from our child before speaking to them. Or maybe you sent them to their room, withdrawing affection for an hour or two.  While we may still love them, their perception of the situation is that we don’t love them in that moment. It may or may not be true (usually not), but the perception still exists in the child’s mind.

We do the same thing as adults. When we get angry, that emotion can momentarily, affect our love for someone else, or even cause us to question it. If you have ever withheld relations from your significant other you have practiced conditional love. If you have avoided speaking to someone, you have participated in conditional love.  It’s true because you have created a perception that the love that you share with this other person is in question or danger.

To quote Psychology Today The phrase unconditional love is usually mentioned in other contexts where love is never unconditional.

As a side note I really want to stress that conditional love does not mean that we ever stop loving our child or anyone else. It is the perception that one is in danger of losing love due to the consequences of an action.

We’ve all done it some point. It’s a harsh truth I know, but most love is, in some form, conditional.  I hate to admit it, but conditional love is one way that we as parents control our children.  When we display displeasure in the actions of our children, they perceive it as a danger to our approval and many children equate approval to love.

However, we have to be careful what “conditions” we place on love.  Some conditions are damaging and others are serious enough to be considered abuse.  The ever popular flavor since the eighties has been achievement, which has led to self-esteem being related to what we accomplish instead of who we are.

This is a real problem as it causes us to disconnect from who we are as an individual. That’s not good for a pagan, or anyone for that matter.  One of the, for lack of a better term, “doctrines” of our faith is to know, to will, to dare, and to be silent.  To know is not only knowing information, but knowing ourselves.  We don’t want our children to associate their worth with achievement over their personality.

In all reality, the problem isn’t unconditional love, as we have already established that all love has at least perceived conditions.   The problem is the conditions people place on love.

Conditions on Love

1. Love should never be conditional on the success of a child in their endeavors and failure should never be punished. Instead we should help our children dust themselves off, get back up, and try again. Outcome love produces children who live in a state of fear. They believe that if they are not successful that they will not be loved by their parents or others. They work so hard to maintain their grades or do good in a task that it stresses them out.

2. Never dangle the carrot. You are dangling the carrot if your child’s success is never enough. Relish what your child achieves and help them brush off the failures.  We need to encourage them and find tools to help them succeed instead of withdrawing support, communication or physical contact.

3.The human doing vs the human being. When we dangle love or promote outcome love, we cause children to think that they can only be loved if they meet their parents’ expectations. I’ve been here before. It was a big part of the reason I was afraid to come out of the broom closet. I was afraid to lose the love of everyone important to me because of the expectations of the community I lived in; when in reality the people who loved me most didn’t care or at least, didn’t hold it against me.

Human doings are often list people who don’t feel good until all the tasks on their list are accomplished. Due to some forces outside of my house, I faced this form of conditional love as a child and it can take a toll on you.  It makes it hard to accept failure and it makes you feel like you don’t deserve love. It’s also very hard to overcome.

4. Unhealthy expectations. A goal is something that we aspire to while an expectation is an assumption that something will be achieved. Goals may not be reached, but expectations should almost always be met in our minds. With a goal the mantra is that it is fine to reach for the star, but realize that you may not reach it. When we fail at an expectation, we feel that we lose something that is already had, even if you never had it in the first place.

Let me give you an example of a healthy vs unhealthy expectation.  Healthy expectations would include expecting yourself or your child to be kind, respectful, responsible, hard working, etc. On the other hand, it is unhealthy for us to expect that our children will never get a bad grade, will automatically go to (insert College name here), or do exactly everything we wish they would do.

It is important to have expectations, but we have to evaluate them and make sure that they are rational or feasible.  We cannot expect our children to meet expectations over which they have no control or only partial control either. For example, winning the big game.  If we hold unrealistic expectations we can cause our children to believe that they are incapable of being successful in the future.

Eventually they can even internalize these unrealistic expectations and their discomfort will follow them forward into their adult lives.  If our children place too much value on being perfectionist we have done them a great disservice. Perfectionism has been linked to eating disorders, social phobia, procrastination, fear of failure, depression, performance anxiety, and poor stress coping.

5. Unhealthy praise and punishment. Too much praise can put pressure on a child to maintain that level and too little praise can discourage them. The same thing goes for punishment. And that line depends on your child, your family dynamic, and the punishment. It’s a line that no one can define for you.

Positive Conditions for Love

1. Values love. This is the idea that we promote love that is perceived conditional on adopting good values and acting in socially appropriate ways. It goes back to the disapproval of an action that causes the perception of the withdrawal of love. You are trying to internalize good behavior and values in those moments of anger or frustration that you express when your child has disappointed you. As pagan parents, we should be focused on teaching good morals anyway.

2. Create a human being. Your child’s success has to come from within them. Foster individuality and don’t expect perfection. I know it sounds simple enough, but you’d be surprised how many parents I hear say exactly this and then do the exact opposite.

3. Create healthy expectations. Look at your expectations and help your child evaluate theirs (which are most likely based on some role model in their lives). Make sure to explain why an expectation is unrealistic and help them to set a more realistic expectation for themselves. Ask them what they expect of themselves and why they expect that.

4. Also make sure that you are walking the walk yourself. Model healthy expectations for yourself.

5. Make sure your child has control over the expectations you set for them. A child has no control over whether or not they make this team or get into that school. All they can do is go out and give it their all. In the end it’s up to the people in charge of the programs.

6. Set expectations on determination, hard work, and persistence in their efforts. My parents always encouraged me to try my best. As long as I was working as hard as I could to improve that math grade, I was meeting their expectations. After I had tried my hardest we sought out tools to help me like tutors or after school study groups at the local church. It’s fine to expect your child to do chores or to participate in family activities. These promote values and morals that you want your child to possess.

7. Clearly communicate expectations and enforce them. Be consistent. Make sure your children know that there are consequences

8. And when your child messes up, which we know they inevitably will, talk it through with them. Discuss why it was wrong and what you can do as a family to prevent a similar problem in the future.

Conclusion

Just remember that conditional love doesn’t mean that you only love your child when they do x, y, or z. It is about the perception the child has of our supposed conditions and how that affects their emotional well-being. We want them to learn from their mistakes, but we don’t want them to attribute their happiness in life to the wrong facets of life.

Healthy expectations are key in this and it can be really hard to accurately and impartially assess your own expectations for yourself or your child, so find a sounding board, someone you trust as a wise sage to help you if you need to.  You’re never alone in parenting. It takes a village. I know I take advice from all my friends and elders who are parents. I ask my own parents for advice.  They are my sounding board.

And finally, always cherish your child for who he or she is and not just what they do.  We all want what’s best for our kids and we can all get a little crazy trying to do that. So just stop, take a breath, and take a moment to make sure that your expectations and goals are all in the best interests of your child’s well-being.

Blessed Be.

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