“Sure’ you might be saying to yourself, “this touch business may be easy for you, but this is new and a little scary for me. I’ve had some difficult experiences in my life that I know hinder my ability to connect with other people. Where can I find someone I can trust?”
I would misrepresent myself if you got the impression that learning how to receive love, especially through touch, has been easy for me. While this journey has been very rewarding, there were times of apprehension. Opening myself up to love is a skill that must be developed over time. It won’t happen overnight.
Many approaches to healing are touted these days. “Self help” e-books and books sell millions of copies each year in spite of the simple truth that we cannot heal ourselves by ourselves. We just aren’t made that way. In the same way we were wounded by each other, we also need each other to heal.
I remember people telling me if I wanted more love in my life, I needed to give more love to others. I suppose the assumption was that I, being too dependent, should appear less needy and offer a better trade to other people. If they wanted what I had to give, they would care for me and give me what I wanted. I tried that. It didn’t work. I pretended to be independent, a limitless source of care. I gave and gave and gave.
What little I had to start with was soon gone. Consequently I found myself worse off than before. I was still feeling the need for more love, only now I was exhausted by my compulsive efforts, resentful over my losses, and depleted of hope. I now realize I was approaching this problem backwards.
Early infant research shows us clearly that babies who receive love grow into adults who are able to love. Babies who do not receive love, if they survive, grow into adults who cannot love. I was dependent upon the love of others when I was an infant, and I am still dependent on love. So is everyone else. We all need each other to heal, to expand our capacity to love each other.
I believe the goal of adulthood is not independence but interdependence. Happiness is not found in isolation but in beneficial, mutual relationships. As psychologist W.R.D. Fairbairn explains, we do not shift from dependence to independence, but from “infantile dependence” to “mature dependence.”
I now have a new definition of love: “To love is to allow another person to make a real difference in one’s life, and, because of the difference the other person makes, to act toward the other person so as to assist her or him to develop fully as a person.”
The first step in learning how to love others is learning how to receive more love, learning to receive care and nurture from others. Like the infant opening her arms to a loving parent, we all need to share ourselves with others in order to grow and to heal. I am finding that as I experience more love, my capacity to love others expands. Loving becomes more like breathing, taking in and giving out, less rooted in my neediness or used manipulatively as a “trade.
The art of loving is learned by sharing love. Unfortunately many of us have been hurt and carry those memories in our bodies. To protect ourselves from further harm, we may push away exactly what we need the loving and healing touch of another.
Diana was such a woman, afraid to be touched but needing the nurturance terribly. Barely holding back the tears, she came up to me after a workshop. Visibly shaking, she said, “I feel so lonely, so unloved and,” her voice cracked, “unlovable. I need more love, but I don’t know what to do.”
If you are like Diana, wanting more love in your life, I suggest you do something so simple that it may seem almost impossible: open yourself up to more love and nurturance. This recommendation may seem radical, selfish, or foolhardy. In light of past disappointments, isn’t it useless to try again? But I urge you to give it a try. All you have to lose is your isolation.
If you, due to the pain of the past, have a pattern of unconsciously pushing away the love that is offered to you, opening yourself to love will require some effort. If you have become touch avoidant because of painful touch in your past, it will take time to change.
Like a huge ship turning at sea, the turn won’t come quickly as if riding in a speed boat. Grace and patience are required to turn such a magnificent vessel around and head in a new direction. But now you have assistance you didn’t know you had before: you have your body map to help you find your way.