Let your love be known without condition while you still can

Celebrate the grades, the promotions, the acceptance to a prestigious school by all means – but also honour those you love just because they’re special to you regardless of what they’re doing. — JOHN HAIN/Pixabay.com

This week’s column is a bit of a special one for me as it falls on Fathers Day, June 19, as well as my nephew’s birthday – it’s always nice to have days like these to reflect on those who matter. Occasions to celebrate, congratulate and cherish others are wonderful opportunities to bring to mind those who truly make life meaningful and provide feelings of connection, support, and love.

Admittedly, this is something I’ve only just begun to understand after some 30-odd years of introversion and a penchant for solitude. The older I get, the more time seems to sharpen my sense of the importance of family, friends, good colleagues and others who give my life its worth.

When I was younger, these things didn’t seem to matter so much and, perhaps due to mental health struggles in earlier years, I wasn’t in the best place to recognise the blessings that were those around me. Instead, I longed for the safety of solitude and familiar seclusion.

In recent years, however, my work as a counsellor has magnified the crucial role that family members and other loved ones play in the lives of clients and how much family contributes to how clients see themselves.

I can certainly empathise. As someone who spent considerable time in therapy for depression and social anxiety, I appreciate that, while we’re responsible for ourselves as individuals, none of us is shaped solely by our own experience but always in concert with others.

One of the most heartbreaking things to hear as a counsellor is how fervently some people attach their entire worth to a metric such as grades, salary, status and so on.

Learning, growth and success (however you define it) are all important in life, but when people come to me and say, “I don’t know who I am beyond my grades”, or “I don’t think my parents would be as proud of me without my achievements”, it’s impossible for my heart not to sink deeply.

In fact, I have a sizeable debt of gratitude to pay to all my clients, who have taught me a great deal about the courage of vulnerability, being open and showing up to their experience, well aware that it’s rarely a simple process.

As they share stories about how loved ones help define their self-image, it’s easy to witness what shows up on the surface – anger, frustration, confusion – and leave it at that. But where we hurt is where we care, and beneath those emotions can lie considerable sadness and longing to be loved and accepted without condition. It can be easy to blame parents – and there are certainly some negligent parents. At the same time, we forget that they, too, grew up within cultures of demanding expectations and environments, where very few people were aware of mental health let alone aware of their children’s inner worlds.

Sadly, we live in times where comparison and competition are rife to unhealthy degrees and, in an effort to help their children along, it makes sense that parents might want to push their kids and give them the chance of opportunities they never had.

In their book, Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller observe that, when people’s emotional needs go unmet, that’s when problems occur in terms of their capacity to thrive. They write, “Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward, (and) the more independent and daring they become.”

What does this mean in practical terms? It means prizing people around us for who they are rather than what they’ve done or achieved, and it means learning to be intentional about how we show appreciation to loved ones.

Sharing photos of your kids, partners and colleagues when they’ve achieved something special is a delightful moment and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, it’s a rare thing to see posts online about how proud a father, a spouse or a friend is of someone they love without it being tied to some occasion.

This can result in potentially damaging outcomes, beginning with people suffering in silence while feeling their worth as a person is based on performance alone.

Celebrate the grades, the promotions, the acceptance to a prestigious school by all means. In addition, though, make room for honouring those you love just because they’re special to you regardless of what they’re doing.

Otherwise, it can be impossible to believe in unconditional love and self-worth when your self-worth is consistently shaped and measured by love that’s conditional. Young people in particular can struggle immensely if they believe they’re loved only so long as they perform well.

Don’t wait for signs of suffering. Don’t leave the chance open for that horrible moment of, “They seemed so happy”. Don’t take for granted that what shows up on the outside reflects what’s going on inside. Let people who matter to you know they matter to you.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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