Thursday, March 25, 2004


The counselling process is truly extraordinary. On the face of it, it is just a simple dialogue, yet it releases an internal process whereby, without conscious effort or intent on my part, there is a growing awareness, understanding and acceptance of self. All manner of thoughts and feelings that have remained trapped under the surface for so long are moving upwards into consciousness, where they become free to be accepted and integrated, or understood and let go, as I choose.

One such insight occurred a couple of days ago. I was travelling in a London Underground train to a meeting, thinking of nothing in particular, just standing idly leaning against the carriage door when this thought appeared out of nowhere: there has been a thread running through my life of trying to please others. It’s a motivation that has become more complex over the years, overlain by desires to help and nurture others and to see them happy, but underneath those more developed, altruistic motives there is still a primitive, child-like desire – and need - to please, even at cost to self. A cost the full extent of which I'm only just beginning to appreciate.

I can trace this in time back to childhood, although I can’t identify any particular reasons why it was so strong and why I never fully grew out of it. But I think it has to do with the way in which pleasing and pleasure are linked.

There’s something elemental about smiles. Mother and baby respond to each others’ smiles with more smiles; it’s a self-sustaining process, but it also works in reverse – if one withholds smiles, then so does the other. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about how the simple acts of smiling and laughing release chemicals in the brain corresponding to pleasure, so for a baby, experiencing pleasure can become a simple stimulus-response affair – do those things that cause Mummy to smile. But somewhere in a child’s development there comes a concept of love, and so pleasing, pleasure and love become associated in ways that may not always be helpful.

Thus the seeds are sown for a perception of the conditionality of love. Love that is only expressed by you in response to certain actions or ways of being in me, and is withheld in response to other ways of being. Whether the conditionality is real or not is irrelevant; it is the perception in the child that matters. It may well be that a parent’s love for a child is unconditional, yet if expression and denial of love are used in a carrot-and-stick way to reward or punish behaviour, it will appear to the child exactly the same as if that love were conditional; they wont have any evidence on which to tell the difference.

I can’t directly identify a direct cause-and-effect relationship between perceived conditionality of parental love and this need to please that I have had, although I suspect there is a link, and I do know that this need runs very deep and has coloured many aspects of life at micro and macro scales; day to day interactions and major life decisions.

So although I try not to preach here, I want to make a plea to all parents: if you love your child unconditionally, make sure that they know that your love for them is not dependent on what they do or who they are. Love should never be a reward, or it’s withholding a punishment. Love them simply for being. Always.

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