In my most recent yoga teacher training, our teacher Kirsten told us that everyone is essentially going around through life asking every other person the question, "Do you love me?"
Am I lovable? Am I worthy?
These questions are implicit; we may not even realize that we're subtly asking for others to affirm our own worth, because the questioning is ingrained in our need for belonging.
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown points out our desire for connection as a fundamental human need:
"Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We're hardwired for connection--it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering."
In order to avoid the "suffering," which entails feeling like we are unworthy and that what we are and what we have to offer are not enough, we implicitly ask the question from above:
"Do you love me?"
As Brene goes on to explain, "If I had to choose the form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was the most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would say disengagement...Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears--the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable."
If you think calling disengagement dangerous is overreacting, consider the following:
Psychology researchers John and Julia Gottman, who have observed thousands of couples since the 1970s, have determined patterns in both the most successful and the most dysfunctional relationships.
The factor most prevalent in couples that stay together? Engagement, or what Gottman calls "turning toward" a bid for connection. In a study where couples were observed "turning to" or "turning away" from a bid for connection, the individuals who acknowledged and engaged with their partners more often were more likely to stay together:
"Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had 'turn-toward bids' 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had 'turn-toward bids' 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs."
In other words, engagement can literally save your relationships, while disengagement can be the death of them.
Engagement is at the very core of the success of our relationships, whether romantic or platonic.
When you engage instead of disengage, you make it clear that you think whomever you're engaging with and what they care about is worthy of your time and attention. As a result, you help assuage their fears of abandonment, unworthiness, and unlovability.
What greater pursuit could you undertake in life beyond recognizing the lovability of all people, yourself included?
Honestly, what is the point of any of this--life, being here on Earth--if we're not try to lift ourselves and others up?
Every person has a fundamental desire to be seen, heard and understood.
Why not help the people you know meet that need?
Give Them What They Want
As we circled up in yoga teacher training, considering the idea that every person is yearning to feel loved, Kirsten said, "How wonderful would it be just to give everyone what they want?"
I had never really thought about it that way.
When someone asks, "Do you love me?" with their eyes, why not take the time to answer:
"Yes, wholeheartedly. I love every part of you, not in spite of your flaws, but because of them. You light up my life and I'm grateful you're here."
Or at least, you know, imply that answer.
The way to imply worthiness is simply to engage from a place of authenticity. All you have to do is positively, wholeheartedly confirm that in this moment you would not rather be any place or doing any other activity on this entire planet except where you are and engaging with this person.
If that sounds lofty, I get it. When put that way, it does sound largely aspirational, but in practice it's actually pretty simple.
Just engage, human to human.
Make an effort to "turn toward" more often than you turn away.
The Kindness Experiment
Kirsten's discussion on lovability got me thinking. What if I simply say nice things more often when I think and feel them?
That is the practice I've been digging into over the last couple months.
I've been doing this mini-experiment where I consciously try to reach out with kindness whenever possible.
What that looks like is engaging with whomever, whenever--as long as it feels like it will positively affect us both.
I add the disclaimer because I don't mean "engage" as in self-sacrifice and make yourself wholly available to other people without considering your own needs. I don't mean constantly compliment people when you desperately need a nap and some chocolate and (for God's sake!) to be left alone to recharge.
Instead, I mean send out love when you might feel like shrinking in fear or indifference.
Any time you think, "I don't have time/energy to do _______ with this person," do it anyway. Because engaging with other beings on this planet is by far the best use of your time and energy.
Write a handwritten letter. Ask the barista how they're doing before you order your cappuccino--and truly care about the answer. Send a quirky text to your friend. Initiate sex with your partner. If you like your coworker's sweater, by all means, tell them.
Sometimes kindness is not something you say at all. Kindness can simply be holding space for someone. It can be listening or sharing a hard truth of your own that will help someone feel less alone.
Expressing kindness doesn't have to be a profound, long, face-to-face conversation to lift someone up. It can be that, but it could just be a few words mentioned in passing, a change in tone, a smile or even simply eye contact.
Because I'm currently living far away from friends, some of my kindness practice just happens on social media.
If you can tell a friend is excited, comment to share their excitement. If they post a picture of their adorable cat and you think the cat is cute too, by all means like their picture. Besides a few seconds, you've probably just gained a lot more than you've lost.
It doesn't take a single thing away from you to "like" someone's photo or comment with a personal note.
What do you think will happen? Someone will judge you for liking their photo?
More likely, the recipient will be pleased that you have validated something they care about.
The internet is one of the greatest potential tools for helping others feel lovable because of its wide reach. We need only use it that way.
Truly, it makes life a much better party.
Do It Yourself
While I'm sure some of my science-minded friends would scoff at me calling my vague endeavors at kindness an "experiment" (since it's anecdotal and I haven't established any parameters and don't actually plan to make any of this measurable), it has given me a certain amount of "self-knowing" that I feel compelled to share.
Even before this "experiment," I felt like I was sensitive to the needs of others and that my propensity for positivity and connection was much larger than my inclination to be outwardly negative.
But going the extra mile, sometimes even just the extra inch, has rewarded me manifold.
You don't have to take my word for it, because expressing kindness is an incredibly simple action to test on your own.
Do a little something. Gauge how you feel about it. Do another little something. Gauge. Repeat.
"Do you think expressing that instance of positivity has made your life better in some way?"
Check yes or no.
"Do you think expressing that instance of positivity has made someone else's life better in some way?"
Check yes or no.
It's clear that, for me, I feel like I can check "yes" on both accounts.
Sometimes loving people up is more aspirational than real action. But having the awareness and intention has definitely opened up my capacity for expression.
As with any expansion of self (or what you may call "self improvement"), working to express love is a regular practice. Daily. Hourly, even.
Sincerity is a given here.
This is not just an instance where you just throw up fake praise all over passersby. This is not where you compliment someone haphazardly but your feelings don't actually align with your words.
It's for those moments when you think of something you truly feel that also happens to be nice to say and you almost hold yourself back from saying that thing, but then you resist the urge. You speak out loud.
When you feel the nice thought you just had start retreating back into the recesses of your brain, say it anyway.
It's a small practice, but in my case practicing kindness has had a profound effect.
The Boomerang Effect
The funny thing is, the more you give, the more you end up receiving. Tell and show people that you love them, that you support them and are awed by and inspired by them, and they'll reflect it right back to you.
Last spring, as part of a meal train for a friend whose wife was in the hospital for a month with their new baby, I made enchiladas for their family. Shortly after, a coworker had knee surgery and I made her family--surprise--enchiladas. A couple weeks later, a faraway friend also had surgery, so I sent her a care package.
I say this about enchiladas and care packages not to brag (though my enchiladas are the bomb), but because my pride is an indication of something bigger. In fact, the occurrence of spending some time, money, and energy on friends in this way felt like such a rare occurrence that I think I was too proud. I'm still proud about those good deeds and they happened over nine months ago.
I try to make it a regular point to be a thoughtful gift giver, to send my closest friends presents and to write them letters.
But these were friends verging more on acquaintance territory rather than the ones I tell all of my slumber party secrets.
The point is, it shouldn't feel revolutionary to give love freely in this way. It should be common place to love up the people you know, even if you don't know them all that well.
Because we're all just humans asking the same question.
The other point is, clearly giving had a long-lasting effect on me for the better. Giving once, without desire for recognition, made me feel significantly good about myself that I kept doing it. Besides the gratitude from the recipients (who also confirmed the delicious-factor of my enchiladas), the feelings of my own satisfaction with myself upped my own sense of self worth.
Send out more love, become more lovable.
What Keeps Us Small
If loving up other people is a win-win situation for everyone involved, then why the hell isn't everyone doing it all the time?
Vulnerability. It's as simple and incredibly complex as that.
We're afraid to send out love for fear of rejection.
We're afraid to receive love because it may be counter to what we feel like we know about ourselves. We may reject an outpouring of love because we feel we're unworthy.
So we contract in fear. We close our mouths and we close our hearts.
Being closed mouthed about good things is something I can easily pinpoint in my own life because it happens fairly regularly.
For instance, a couple months ago I went out for a meal with a close friend. He was wearing a new shirt that he had already expressed excitement about getting in the mail a week earlier. I complimented him on the shirt when we sat down, but throughout our meal I just kept thinking, "Wow, that shirt looks even better now that we're sitting here. It really brings out the color of his eyes." But I didn't tell him so.
I was afraid that if I brought up the shirt again and talked about his eyes, I would be seen as overly complimentary and it would sound like I was hitting on him.
Despite our close friendship, we're not each other's romantic types and he also happens to be very good friends with my long time partner, so the fear of coming across like I was making a move was unfounded. But underneath my desire to hold back was the base fear of being misunderstood and of being ridiculed or rejected by someone whose opinion care about.
The takeaway lesson is: acknowledge the fear and reach out anyway.
What's the worst that can happen?
Yes, you can get rejected, but so far I've found that occurrence happens much more rarely than we think it will.
If you do get rejected, it doesn't happen to be a reflection of your own self worth.
You are inherently worthy. We all are. We're just here to remind each other of that fact.
In all likelihood, a rejection is just a reflection of how the recipient feels about themselves, either in that moment or overall. Take each instance of rejection as an opportunity to re-strategize. Either find another angle to express your kindness or move your energies elsewhere if the rejection takes a significant toll on you.
Despite the possibility for rejection and disengagement, I've found that the kindness practice has been far worth the risk.
Affection is a Renewable Resource
Doubtless because of our fears of being rejected, I come across an astonishing number of people who seem to horde their compassion, their compliments, and their outward love, as if expressing love will somehow make love less available in their own lives.
I am so saddened by the stinginess of love, because they must not know.
Love offers exponential growth.
Keeping our positive feelings inside and from being expressed makes them less potent. It makes us more susceptible to fear and self-doubt and, therefore, unworthiness, because we're not confirming the worthiness of others and so they're less likely to confirm the same back to us.
Expressing love is not like draining a bank account to zero. Instead, it's more like compounding interest in a high yield savings account and depositing checks on the regular. Act with authenticity and vulnerability often enough and the returns can be like winning the lottery.
I use money loosely as a metaphor, but if you take care of people they will in turn take care of you. I'm not just talking about emotionally either--sometimes the number in your savings account really does increase. Friends will look out for you; they will help you seek out opportunities. Employers will do what they can to keep you around. I know this first hand and with surprising frequency. And I work to pay back the favors in kind.
Kindness begets kindness.
The greatest thing about love and compliments and affection is that they multiply every time you express them.
Besides the outpouring of love for others, we have to bring up the inevitable cliche: you must love yourself in order to be lovable.
That, my friends, is a cliche for a reason.
It's worth noting that no matter how many people bestow their love upon us, if we don't acknowledge within ourselves that we think we're lovable, we won't be.
No matter of outside love will truly make you lovable.
Only you can do that.
That said, you can encourage the process in others by giving your love to them. And they can reflect likewise back on you.
Just because you have to be the one at the end of the day to recognize your own worth doesn't mean it can't be helpful or welcome for friends and family to help you realize it along the way.