Nancy did everything she could to make her children feel loved: She had natural births, breast fed them, carried them strapped against her skin, and read countless books on how to best care for their upcoming needs. But even though Nancy changed their diapers in a timely manner and fed them nutritious meals and took them to see the doctor when they were sick, her son grew up lonely without making many true friends, and her daughter often hid in her room and communicated with the world only from her computer. Nancy didn’t know where she went wrong. She imparted as much love as she thought she could, but as her life got busier and busier, she never read the signs that just because her children were loved, they didn’t feel loved, or self-confident enough to reach out to others.
Do your relationships make you feel valued and emotionally fulfilled? Is there someone in your life who really gets you? Do people you love actually feel loved by you? Do they know that you appreciate them as they really are? If the answer to any of these questions is "no," read on to find out why your ability to thrive in life depends on feeling loved, and what you can do to find it.
Why more feels like less
We have more things than ever before: more possessions, more food, more contacts, and more access to information and locations around the world. But even though we have so much more, it can often still feel like less.
How is that possible? Just as you can eat without being nourished and drink without quenching your thirst, you can be connected without feeling connected. You can satisfy an urge without feeling you’ve satisfied a need. You can have hundreds of friends online, instant message colleagues on the other side of the world, or order the same shirt in a dozen different colors and have it on your doorstep in days, but if you’re not making honest, face-to-face connections where you can touch, read non-verbal cues, or give undivided attention, then it’s nearly impossible to feel connected, or feel loved.
Similarly, you can express caring for others and receive care yourself without getting what you really need—that sense of feeling loved.
Why feeling loved is so important
When we feel loved we:
- Feel less stressed and more relaxed.
- Can be ourselves knowing that we are valued for who we really are.
- Don't have to hide or numb our feelings.
- Can connect to the wisdom of our emotions and our emotional intelligence.
- Are better able to cope with difficult situations and recover from setbacks and losses.
- Feel more self-confidence and find it easier to explore new possibilities and be creative.
When we don't feel loved, we struggle connecting to others
Too often our loved ones don’t seem to understand or appreciate us, and this makes us feel misunderstood or unimportant to those we’re supposed to be closest to. We hear them say, “I love you,” or they give us gifts or other tokens of love, but they rarely look at us or have the time to sit down with us for any length of time. Instead of feeling deeply connected to them, we feel confused, distanced, or disconnected.
In order to make others feel loved we first need to experience feeling loved ourselves. When we don't know what this experience is, we are apt to offer comfort and support that, though well intended, may miss the mark.
Things we do for loved ones that may not result in them feeling loved:
- Provide excellent physical care.
- Try to make them happy.
- Protect them from experiencing painful or disagreeable emotions.
- Provide intellectual stimulation.
Why we need to feel loved
The need to connect to others is a biological human need, similar to the need for food and water. We can't escape it; it’s hardwired into our brains. For most of human history, our survival depended on being with others to find food and shelter, protect us from predators, and to thrive intellectually. Even if we feel less dependent on others today, the need to connect still exists. No matter how much some of us might try to deny it, we hunger for that meaningful connection to others that makes us feel loved. Our instincts remain primed to:
- Pick up on nonverbal cues that tell us how others feel about us.
- Connect to faces that express caring and concern.
- Depend on emotional communication.
- Search for relationships that make us feel safe and secure.
What the experience of feeling loved is like
Though it was after midnight, when Linda called her friend Joan with news about her recurrence of breast cancer, Joan immediately jumped out of bed and drove to Linda’s house. When she arrived, Joan hugged Linda and quickly made them both a cup of tea. Then, sitting close—close enough to put her arms around her—she asked her friend to tell her everything about her illness, including everything she was feeling.
When Frances saw the look on her husband's face, she knew Ed had experienced another discouraging day at work. No matter how hard Ed tried, he just couldn’t seem to please his boss. Frances quickly got a board game set up for the kids, and then gave Ed her undivided attention. Over the course of an hour, Frances was able to draw Ed out and patiently listen to his feelings until she saw a shift in his mood.
Do you have someone you can contact in the middle of the night if you’re upset, someone who’ll not only listen to you, but will genuinely care about what you’re feeling and want to help? Would your spouse or partner want to talk to you, or would he or she just roll over and tell you to go back to sleep? Even if you live alone, do you have someone who’s there to console you when you’re down and celebrate with you when you’re excited? Do you have someone you trust and feel safe with?
Feeling loved requires you to focus on what is happening in the moment between you and the other person. This is largely done through nonverbal communication or body language, such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture and gestures, touch, and the timing and pace of a conversation. When you can pick up on another person’s nonverbal cues, you’ll be able to tell how he or she really feels and be able to respond accordingly.
- The way you look, listen, move, and react to another person tells them more about how you’re feeling than words alone ever can.
- Connecting to someone requires eye contact when they open up to you, a hug to show empathy, a gesture that says you’re listening when they talk, and a smile that says you care.
How we compensate for not feeling loved
When we feel disconnected and unfulfilled, when we long to feel loved and make others feel loved, we may try to fill the void with habits and distractions that numb and distance us from our emotions. We may eat too much, drink too much, shop too much, or obsess too much. The trouble is that the reprieve these actions provide is only temporary, and by distracting ourselves like this, we end up living lives that take us further and further away from the experience of feeling loved and making others feel loved.
In college, Max was a star soccer player loved by fans around the country. But after graduation and a knee operation, he stopped playing and slowly grew overweight. To make matters worse, he didn’t like his job and lived alone, and had no one to confide in. Whenever he was upset, angry, lonely, stressed, exhausted, or bored, he turned to food. Eating allowed him to momentarily feel better, but the weight he gained made him feel unattractive and less willing to reach out to make new friends.
Carol couldn’t seem to get enough stuff–fancier cars and more dresses and shoes then she could ever need. Many of her friends thought she was just having fun, but in reality the shopping distracted her from her emotionally abusive husband at home who made her feel worthless.
Devon's fear of insects was so intense that even in the hottest weather he insisted on keeping all his windows closed. He also repeated an elaborate ritual to check for insects every night before getting into bed. These obsessive and compulsive behaviors began when his over-protective parents began a private war using their relationship with Devon to hurt one another.
We build our lives without room for feeling loved
To feel loved, and to make others feel loved, takes time and the willingness to stay connected to our own feelings and the emotions of others. But modern life is often rushed and full of distractions, excitement, and temptations that divert our attention from our emotional experiences. These distractions absorb our time, attention, and energy, making it difficult to find the intimacy we need.
Over-scheduling and overloading ourselves, losing ourselves in technology, and taking advantage of quick fixes that mask core problems diverts us from the slower, more absorbing task of staying connected to ourselves and others.
Aspects of our disconnected world that can impact our ability to feel loved include:
Quick solutions that can make complicated problems worse
When dealing with health and emotional issues, we tend to look for the easiest solution rather than the best solution. Often that involves simply popping a pill—even when other, healthier options are available.
When Stephen’s boss asked him to move across the country to Chicago, he left behind his family and friends and everything he knew and loved. It wasn’t long before he became lonely and depressed. To combat his depression, Stephen’s new doctor prescribed antidepressants. The medication kept Stephen’s depression at a manageable level, but at the same time the drugs lessened his motivation to go out and meet new friends or explore the city. He either sat inside his office or at home on his couch, never giving Chicago, and his new life, a chance.
Joyce started taking antidepressants at her internist's suggestion when her executive job created more stress than she could bear. At the time, medication seemed like a good idea because it enabled her to continue working at the rapid pace, but two years later when Joyce became so ill she was forced to retire, she found it nearly impossible to withdraw from the medications she no longer wanted to take.
Both Stephen and Joyce opted for the quickest solution when faced with a complicated problem. Lifestyle changes that improve diet, exercise, and sleep have been shown to be as effective for treating mild to moderate depression as medications, without the unpleasant side effects. But taking a pill, for many people, is quicker and simpler. When antidepressants were first developed, they were referred to as emotional straitjackets. Their purpose was to avoid hospitalization for individuals who were suicidal or homicidal.
- Serve a necessary purpose for those who really need them, but if you don't need them, or no longer need them, their continued use may have unwanted consequences.
- Have numbing side effects that make it harder to feel emotions, even those you like such as love and joy.
- Numb emotions and reduce motivation, making it more difficult to make changes and take constructive action.
Trying to build social lives around social networks
Technology can facilitate relationships by helping us reconnect with old friends and maintain relationships with people who don't live nearby. But these forms of communication don’t utilize nonverbal communication that is essential to gaining emotional fulfillment in a relationship. Instead of paying attention to the people around us, we’re answering our cell phones, checking emails, posting on social media sites, responding to texts, watching TV, or playing video games. Spending so much time in front of screens teaches us to be spectators instead of engaging with others.
Acme Products' sales team gathered for their weekly meeting. Most of the team members thought the meetings were terribly dull, and so they began bringing out their smart phones and using the time to respond to emails and surf the net. Because they were all focused on their virtual experiences rather than on connecting with each other, no one attempted to make the meetings more interesting, more interactive, or more productive.
Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands that can overload your nervous system with stress. Overwhelming stress can:
- Limit your actions to fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
- Cause you to say and do things you later regret.
- Cause you to misunderstand and misread other people.
- Disrupt your capacity to think clearly and creatively and act appropriately.
Sometimes we even court stress by making choices that increase, rather than reduce, stress. Being constantly on the go can make us feel busy, important, wanted, and needed by others.
You court stress when you:
- Make yourself available by smart phone or computer 24 hours a day.
- "Relax" by watching TV or movies or by playing video games that are each increasingly louder, faster, more frightening, and more violent than the last one, making more and more demands of your nervous system.
- Don’t get enough sleep or exercise, or eat a balanced diet.
Stress can also be made more complicated by early-life experiences that undermine our attempts to behave differently.
Through therapy, Jordan discovered his trust issues came from his relationship with his mother. He knew that his wife, Lois, was unlike his mother, but when pressure built and he became overwhelmed, Jordan’s anger spilled over and poisoned their marital relationship.
Liz grew up not knowing whether to expect kisses or slaps from her father. When she became a mother herself, Liz never hit her children, but she would fly into such rages that her kids feared her much as she had once feared her father.
Having no time to feel loved or make others feel loved
Feeling loved is a process that can’t happen when you’re thinking about something else, planning, problem solving, or otherwise absorbed in your own thoughts. It takes time to notice, understand, and respond to what you’re feeling or what another person feels.
Patrick was a conscientious pediatrician who made frequent house calls on the weekends. He had a large family of his own and his youngest son, Frank, wondered why his daddy took such good care of other children but didn’t have time for him.
Emotional exchanges that make you or the ones you love feel loved can only occur when you:
- Take time for emotional connection.
- Are relaxed.
- Are able to be emotionally present in the moment.
- Pay attention to the nonverbal cues that you and others send and receive.
How to feel loved and make others feel loved
If you're very lucky, you learn the skills for feeling loved early in infancy. Before you can speak or think, you can learn to manage stress and self-soothe. In addition, you can learn that your feelings matter because your parent or caretaker successfully responded to your emotional signals.
If you’re not part of the lucky few who learned these abilities as infants, you can still learn them in later in life by mastering two core skills:
- The ability to recognize and manage stress.
- The ability to stay connected to what you feel.
Developing the core skills for feeling loved
Helpguide’s free Bring Your Life Into Balance mindfulness program can teach you these core skills and help you build healthy, fulfilling relationships so you are able to feel loved and make others feel loved.
Tell us your story about feeling loved
Do you have a story that addresses this topic? If so, would you be willing to share it with us and maybe others as well? Click here to send us your story. We may also use it in my forthcoming book entitled Feeling Loved: Emotional Fulfillment in a Disconnected World.
– Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.