The hidden conditions of unconditional love


I’d imagine that most parents think they give their children unconditional love. It’s an easy enough thing to say, and indeed to believe. It probably even feels like they are. I’d hazard a guess, however, that the vast, vast majority are not. Love? Yes. Unconditional? No.

The sad truth is that children are offered a very conditional love – a love based on good behaviour, expressions of love towards their parents even if they’re not feeling it, and a love based on obedience, appropriateness, achievement and suppressing emotions, especially difficult ones.

As a consequence, the ever-adaptable child simply develops in such a way that s/he reveals only what is expected of him or her. Over time, that child grows older and becomes an adult, by which time they have probably entirely hidden their true selves with the person they think they are expected to be. They may entirely identify with the persona they now present or they may feel a strange, hard-to-pin-down unease – something akin, perhaps, to that pat phrase which is frequently spewed out: ‘Be true to yourself.’ But how do you do this if you don’t know who you really are?

Alice Miller writes powerfully on this subject and reflects on  what a turning point it is – albeit a painful one – in psychotherapy when the patient comes to the emotional insight that all the love they captured with so much effort and self-denial was not meant for them as they really were. She writes, ‘In therapy, the small and lonely child that is hidden behind her achievements wakes up and asks: ‘What would have happened if I had appeared before you sad, needy, angry, furious? Where would your love have been then? And I was all these things as well. Does this mean that it was not really me you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding, and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all?’’

Sadly, our society welcomes and approves of precisely those qualities that are often signs of damage not emotional maturity. Children are told not to cry, that they should not cry, to be brave and grown-up or that they are silly to cry. Often, of course, the adults telling them will have heard exactly the same words, will have been forced to deny their own fear and sadness. No surprise that the baton is passed on.

At the core of effective therapy is the chance for the client to address deficiencies in the development of their own self. Only then can people begin to address society’s conspiracy of wilful ignorance. Therapy at last allows a person to speak and feel without conditions or expectations, and to begin to discover who they really are and what they’re all about.

If this rings true for you, find out more about psychotherapy by googling the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). There’s also some interesting reading here and something that’s a bit more ‘out there’ if you’re feeling curious –


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