Are You Loving People the Way They Need to be Loved?

“There’s like a million ways to say ‘I love you.’ ‘Put your seat belt on.’ ‘Watch your step.’ ‘Did you eat?’ ‘Get some rest.’ … You just have to listen.” – Unknown

Different people need to be loved differently. Do you know how?

One of the most powerful lessons I have taken away from raising three children to young adulthood is that they each need to be loved in a different way – both overall and in particular life “moments.” Obviously, over the years they have all needed the same loving gifts of discipline, freedom, compassion, space, teaching, independence and the embrace of togetherness. Yet, over the years, I have discovered that none of these things looks or feels the same for each of them.

Discipline for my oldest has always been most effective when presented as a logical equation. But for middle child (and this was a very hard lesson to learn), discipline needed to be delivered with a soft voice and a loving hug. Finally, my youngest has always simply needed to know the rules and (ahead of time if possible) the consequences for when those rules were broken.

Affection, it turned out, needed to be similarly diverse. For one, it was enough to simply sit near each other in the same room. For the others, affection always came with physical touching. Yet even with these two it was quite different – one preferring boisterous, fun-loving physical contact, the other looking for long, cuddles and snuggles.

I also had to learn three different ways of offering freedom and space. One approaches independence like a bungee jumper – happy to soar off into space as long as she has the confidence that the bungee has firmly connected her to the security of my husband and me. Another child approaches life like a free solo rock climber – no ropes, no belays, no apparent safety devices at all. The third is somewhere in between. Maybe the trapeze would be a good analogy. She’s happy to hurtle through space as long as it seems like a sure thing that one of us will be waiting with outstretched arms on swing somewhere within reach if needed.

In short, I’m pretty sure when I became a mother I knew one way to love – my way. Twenty-two years later, I am a firm believer that there are as many ways to love as there are people on this planet. Our work (and it’s profoundly rewarding work) is to discover as many of these different ways to love as possible. Because when we love someone the way they need to be loved, not only do we help them stretch toward their potential, but we also stretch a little closer to our own potential.

We also need different kinds of love from ourselves.

All of the above holds true for the way we love and care for ourselves, as well. That’s right. In different times and circumstances, we respond differently to different types of self-care and love. What is effective at helping us reach toward our highest potential changes – perhaps a hundred times – over the course of our lives. Depending on the moment, we may need to nurture ourselves, or to let go and give ourselves freedom. We may need to discipline ourselves, teach ourselves, or give ourselves the latitude to explore uncharted territory. We may need to allow ourselves the space to change or the security of knowing it’s OK to stay the same for a little while.

Much like a mother gradually learns to love her different children differently, developing the ability to love ourselves, and to understand what loving support we need when we need it, is a gradual process that requires sensitivity, maturity and experience. Some of this experience is readily available from your yoga practice.

Practicing yoga is a way to practice loving yourself.

Think for a moment about a phenomenon we’ve all faced – the tired day. If you practice yoga, I know you’ve discovered that there are many types of tired days. It can require some keen discernment to figure out what you need. On some tired days, I need to kick myself in the proverbial seat to get moving and shake off the weight of my lethargy. On other tired days, I need to slow way down and nurture myself if I have any hopes of making it through the rest of the day.

Or let’s think about the way we approach a challenging posture – one that is just out of reach. Some days I might need to dig deep for the strength and the courage to go for it. Other days, the freedom to skip it is exactly what is necessary. Some days, I find myself knee-deep in blog posts and how-to videos trying to understand intellectually how it’s done. On others, that type of study would only be confusing. I just need to allow myself the space to fumble around and find my own way.

Loving well requires flexibility, intuition and the willingness to mess up.

Much as we learn to respond to ourselves on our yoga mats, learning to effectively love ourselves as we navigate our lives requires practice, reflection, intuition, persistence, flexibility and faith in the process. We have to be willing to be objective as we look at what works and what doesn’t in a  variety of circumstances. We have to be willing to try and try again. We have to be willing to throw out the old and to embrace the new. We have to be confident that making a mistake is not a failure, but a lesson learned. We must have faith that we will always (always!) get the chance to try again.

Whether we’re loving our significant other, our children, our siblings, our friends, the total stranger we met in a waiting room or ourselves, we must be sensitive to their needs as we love them. This is hard work! But I can promise you that there is no more worthwhile work in the world.

Learning to love yourself requires practice and yoga is a great way to do so. If you’re looking to start a practice in a supportive and caring community come try one of our classes.