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Love and the Meaning of Life

» Mental Health Library » Featured Articles

By Hunter Teets, MA, NCC

Hunter Teets, MA, NCC

Love and the Meaning of Life:

So what is the meaning of life and how do we love well? An overly ambitious topic? Are these questions too big to be answered? As Rilke (1908) says: "Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday, far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."  So, if you please, live these questions with me for a few minutes in the following musings.

In high summer hiking towards Arapahoe Pass I was surrounded by Columbine, the state flower and favorite of my grandmother, a connoisseur of flowers. Being surrounded by the flowers that my grandmother loved helped her to live in my experience. I remembered her in what she loved. The meaning in our lives is wrapped up in what we love, in who we love and in how we love.

Once psychology was averse to love as a field of study, but that began to change with the research on attachment done by John Bowlby. Continuing research shows over and over that people are social animals and that love is central to our healthy development and functioning. In the research there are three terms that operationally define love, which have put a difficult to define concept like love into language that is amenable to measurements. These terms are: attachment, unconditional positive regard and feeling felt. These concepts are interwoven, each supporting the other. Each of these terms help give a sense of what love is, a sort of passing glance at the reality of love which is too large a concept to explain, but can be understood through experience.

Attachment indicates a kind of connection, that we know there is another person out there whom we can count on, that we matter to another (Johnson, 2004). Part of knowing that we are loved is the simple knowing that we matter to someone else. Unconditional positive regard is a phrase that Carl Rogers (1989) used to define the necessary condition for change in therapy. This means that others are accepted and respected in a real way. This also includes a deep honoring of anotherís experience, even when it is very different from our own. The last term, feeling felt, is the experience that another person is experiencing our experience. This is a profound sense that another person "gets" you (Stern, 2004).

What is really exciting about research around these aspects of love is how innate they are to the human experience. Attachment is so deeply wired in that securely attached relationships allow us to regulate our own emotions well (Johnson, 2004). In an environment of unconditional positive regard a drive in people is kindled and they naturally grow (Rogers, 1989). The experience of feeling felt is so powerful that it makes new neural pathways in the brain and augments previous pathways (Stern, 2004). These aspects of love are so powerful that we are shaped and changed by them.

Maybe you are thinking: "Yes, yes that is all good and true, love is important. But you donít know how much I have been hurt, how hard it is for me to let people love me, or for me to love others." There are many reasons that love can be difficult, and often we resist love so as to protect ourselves.

Blocks to love: Busyness

Sometimes we are not able to love and be loved as we would like because life is so busy. It is easy to get wrapped up in doing what is urgent, doing those things that are insistent in our lives. It is difficult to distinguish between what is urgent and what is important. When we are not clear about what we truly value in life it is easy to be lost in the urgent/important dilemma. Values are an anchoring point that make it easier to say "no" to those things that are urgent, but not as important to us. When we put boundaries on our life, it is not for the sake of excluding, but so that what is important can be protected and honored. When there is a stronger sense of the real meaning of our lives it is easier to love out of that place.

Busyness can also be a coping mechanism. Sometimes it is easier to stay at work and get one more thing done where we will feel that small thrill of accomplishment rather than go home to a place that might feel overwhelming, lonely or rejecting. It can be wrapped up with another coping mechanism, numbing. If I am running full speed all the time I donít have time to dwell on the pain and fear that comes up in quiet moments.

Blocks to love: Numbness

A friend of mine uses the analogy of a faucet to describe numbing. Emotions are like water coming out of the faucet. If we donít like what is coming out we can shut the faucet off and we get no water, neither hot or cold. So it is with emotion. We can shut down emotionally to shut out the pain, but it also prevents us from experiencing love and joy. And just like when the water is shut off for a time it must run clear to get the rust and junk that accumulates out, when we let our emotions flow after a time of numbing there can be bitterness, anger and pain that needs to run its course before we are flowing freely again.

People numb for good reasons, life goes on and we must keep going. It is not always possible to heed our emotions when life is in chaos. Pain is, well, painful. It makes sense to avoid the things that hurt us. We need support when we are going through painful experiences and that is not always available to us. It is sometimes necessary to shut pain out when we are not in a safe situation. But it is important to return to these painful places so we can be released from them.

Blocks to love: Shame

What if I open up to people and they see how bad, ugly, disgusting and worthless I really am? That is the voice of shame. This comes into our lives when we, for various reasons, we believe that we are bad. Often times abuse gives this message. It is easier for a child to believe that they are bad and deserve the abuse rather than believing that the person who abuses them is bad. It also often comes when there are family secrets. In these situations people pick up that something is off, and if what is off cannot be located externally people can come to believe it is they themselves that are off. Brene Brown (2010) explains the relationship of the conflicting experiences in love and shame.

"The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging are the people who believe they are worthy of love and belonging. Thatís it, they believe they are worthy. The one thing that keeps us out of connection is the fear that we are not worthy of connection. Everyone has shame, and the less you talk about it the more you have."

The saddest part here is the very thing we need to relieve our shame, loving connection with others, is made difficult or impossible by shame. Many times people carry shame for years after the events that brought it about. Once shame is brought into the light it is far less scary and painful.

Blocks to love: Blame

In psychotherapy there is a distinction made between primary and secondary emotion. A primary emotion is something that is felt directly, but can be overwhelming or painful to experience so it is covered up by a secondary emotion. For example, I may be hurt that a good friend does not call when they are in town visiting, but instead of expressing my hurt to my friend I get angry. Anger protects me from being hurt and at the same time makes it more difficult for me to connect with my friend. (A quick caveat: anger is not a "bad" emotion, it is appropriate to some situations and wakes us up to the need to protect ourselves or those we love. Anger becomes a problem if we use it to cover other emotions.) Brene Brown (2010) says: "You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort." Blame is our way to relieve these painful primary emotions, but damages our relationships. We donít experience the healing connection that would help relieve the very pain and discomfort that gives energy to the blame.

Blocks to love: Fear

Another block to love is fear. We all joke that life is messy, and often give a nervous chuckle, but rarely let others into that messiness. We might be afraid to because of shame as described above, or we may be afraid that if we open up difficult subjects we will be overwhelmed by them. But it takes considerable effort to keep these difficult subjects under wraps and there is no healing or growth without addressing them. So, we have to continually expend the energy to suppress the troubles and tensions in our lives, but do not get to experience relief and freedom from them. The following excerpt is from an interview with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. where he addresses this fear of opening up painful topics in a community setting:

"Our white brothers must be made to understand that nonviolence is a weapon fabricated of love. It is a sword that heals. Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present. We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation. I am not afraid of the words "crisis" and "tension." I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth. Innate in all life, and growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates." (Washington, 349-350)

For healing to occur in relationships, and individually, tensions must be brought out to the open.

These are some of my musings about love and the meaning of life. If this has woken up a desire in you to live more fully and you are unsure of how to proceed I invite you to call me for a free 50 minute psychotherapy consultation.


Brown, B. (2010)

Johnson, S. (2004) The practice of emotionally focused couples therapy. Taylor and Frances

Group LLC: New York.

Rilka, R. M, (1908) Letters to a young poet. Norton: New York.

Rogers, C. (1989) On becoming a person. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York.

Stern, D. (2004) The present moment in psychotherapy and everyday life. W.W. Norton and Company: New York.

Washington, J. Ed. (1986) A testament of hope: the essential writings and speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper Collins: San Francisco.

About the Author...

Hunter Teets, MA, NCC, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. After finishing his MA in counseling, he has gone on to do post graduate work in Marriage and Family Therapy. He specializes in working with boys and men, particularly in the context of their primary relationships.

Last Update: 3/16/2011

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