Ways to Show I Love You

Yesterday, I was upset because so many of my efforts to connect with people about my recently published memoir had fallen on deaf ears or, more likely, into overstuffed email boxes. I sat across from my husband at lunch and cataloged the names of those who had failed to respond to a personal, carefully written email. The frustration of reaching out into the ether and being ignored was getting me down. My husband tried to cheer me up by offering a different point of view.

I was a graduate student when the pioneers of what became “cognitive behavior therapy” laid down their first principles. Learning theory provided foundations; Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Therapy, an approach; Aaron Beck, a new take on depression as being rooted in dysfunctional thoughts. Michael Mahoney added free association and other mental interventions to classic behavior therapy; Donald Meichenbaum came up with “cognitive behavior modification” as a label for the new integrative approach. Arnold Lazarus folded in techniques from Gestalt and other therapeutic modalities as he articulated principles for “multi-modal” therapy.  They all emphasized the power of perspective to alter emotion and, therefore, belief and subsequent behavior. Research supported the fact that thoughts can drive emotions as well as emotions evoking thoughts and that either can influence behavior and its evolution.

What does any of this have to do with showing love? How we respond to distress in someone we love needs to address their point of view before we interject our own.  We must listen carefully, be open to multiple perspectives, and consider the match of our responses to the current emotional state of the person receiving them.

  • Our loved ones have at least three sides to them. Which one is expressing the concern? We all carry with us fears and joys we experienced as a child, skills and competencies we learned as adults, and a capacity to judge where we have been and where we hope to go, as a parent might guide us into our futures. Is the concern based in the magical global thinking of the child, the barriers to problem-solving being faced by the adult, or a larger notion of “should” that may need revision given the world and times we actually live within?
  • What is the underlying, unspoken concern being conveyed? Most messages have a subtext. Is the concern about being lovable? Being powerful? Being competent? Being connected? Fill in the blank. What hot button is your loved one telling you is blinking?
  • Is there an easy transition to a more mature way of viewing the situation?  Once the feeling-state is validated, a person can move on to other perspectives. What impact is possible? Are there other solutions? Can the problem itself be redefined?Why is acknowledging different points of view a way to show love?
    • It accepts that the loved one is a complex person. Acknowledging all sides of the self can show acceptance, negating reactions of shame or impulses for defensiveness or hiding. It allows the loved one to share rather than muzzle less competent-feeling sides of the self and thus experience safety in confiding without risking scolding or judgment.
    • Ultimately, you can be a partner rather than a critic and help the loved one solve his or her problem that underlies the distress — or at least address its immediate trigger. No, there was no magic bullet for writing more effective emails to people I wanted to reach. But I could learn to take being ignored far less personally. After all, in today’s times, we are all deluged with far more demands and requests and information than we can possibly address. It’s not personal nor necessarily permanent — and it isn’t even global, because those people I do reach at the right moment do indeed respond.