Unconditional Love is like a Muscle. It needs a Daily Workout.

Unconditional love is like a muscle, markham

“Love is not a feeling, love is an action…Love is as love does.” — M. Scott Peck

Last month, Step 1 of Ten Steps to Unconditional Love (It’s Better for Your Child If You’re Not Perfect) encouraged you to renounce perfection and shoot higher — for love!  If you change nothing else, that will change your life. But why stop there? Why not really give your love muscle a workout?

It’s simple, but not easy. Commit to treating yourself and everyone around you with compassion. Every time you notice harshness creeping in, toward yourself, your child, or anyone else, stop and find something to appreciate about that person. No exceptions.  If you could choose compassion in every interaction with everyone, including yourself, you’d be enlightened by the end of the month.

Sound good?  Now let’s go for the gold. It’s easy to be loving when everything goes our way. What about when you’re stressed out, when your desires are thwarted or your needs aren’t met? When you’re in fight or flight and even the people you love look like the enemy?  When life crashes into you and knocks you over? In other words, at least once a day, and for some of us, many times a day?

Can you take a deep breath and ease from anger to compassion?

I know you’re not a saint. I’m not asking you to greet a murderer, or even that woman who was mean to your kid, with love. But what about that guy who just cut you off in traffic? Or the preschooler who shoved your child on the playground last week? Or the rude grocery store clerk?

Maybe all those folks just had very hard days.  Maybe you don’t want to be near them, but can you think of them with compassion, even while you remove yourself from their presence?

What about your partner, who might look to you at this moment clueless and lazy and selfish?  Maybe your partner is as overwhelmed as you are, but showing it in a different way.

What about your child, who is being impossible today?  Maybe he’s feeling disconnected from you.  (Kids don’t act out when they feel deeply connected, but that connection gets frayed during daily life and has to be constantly renewed.)  Maybe he’s actually afraid — of the mean kid at school, or the monsters in his closet, or losing your love to his sibling, or of never being good enough to stop you from yelling at him.

If you can’t imagine shifting from anger to compassion, start with baby steps.

1. Stop and take a deep breath. Just the act of noticing your breathing and increasing the oxygen to your brain gives you a moment of choice. You don’t have to act on whatever’s triggering you. You could just choose love. Really.

2. Recognize your anger as a physiological hijacking that is poisoning the situation you’re in. Take another deep breath.

3. See it from the other person’s point of view.  That will switch off the blood-wrath of your inner critic. Remind yourself that the other person is having a hard day too. Find something to appreciate about the other person.

4. Ask yourself what’s under your anger.  I know, you want to smack that person. But why?  Did they make you feel disrespected, for instance?  The button that just got pushed is from feeling disrespected in your own childhood. Guess what?  This is an opportunity to heal that! 🙂  Even if that person actually DID disrespect you, you have all the respect you need inside yourself.  Find that self-respect inside and give it to yourself.  I’m not suggesting you let yourself get walked on. I’m suggesting you take responsibility for your own emotional regulation, and not act when you’re triggered.

5. Take care of yourself. Whatever deep need is triggering your anger, hug yourself and meet that need. Do you need a good cry?  Do you need to give yourself permission not to get it all done?  Do you need to cut back your expectations and try again tomorrow?  Give yourself what you need. Then you won’t need to be angry.

6. If you still need to, express the anger safely.  Go shake out your hands, splash water on your face, or put on music and dance.  No time to calm down?  Do five sit-ups. (At the very least, you’ll have a flat stomach in a few weeks.)

This is basic emotional self-regulation, and it’s arguably the most critical emotional intelligence skill.  Most of us don’t come by it naturally.  But every time you resist acting when you’re triggered, you’re re-wiring your brain. And the more you practice shifting from judgment to compassion as you move through your day, the more you’ll be able to shift into unconditional love when your child acts up.

Because love isn’t a feeling. Love is an action, an act of creating love where there wasn’t any.  Love is the hard internal work you do to shift from your automatic reaction of anger into a place of compassion.

Compassion is the heavy lifting of life. You know it takes daily practice to build that kind of muscle. Why should your heart be an exception?

Repeat daily. Watch your life transform.

Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.