Do you think you can be a more loving person? Do you think you can walk through a day demonstrating love and acceptance rather than indifference and contempt? I hope so, and I think if we’re intentional about living life as a more loving human being we can make a huge difference in people’s lives, including our own. We should want to be loving people because after all, that’s what we’re created to do. We were made to give and receive love. A study I read many years ago claimed when a person dies there are really only two questions they ask. First, did I love the people in my life enough. Was I a loving person. Secondly, was I loved. Did people find me lovable. Certainly these questions are with us our whole lives as well, and therefore we want to explore what loving and being loved involves. From the time we’re born we evaluate how our primary caregiver interacts with us. Attachment theory is based on this very idea and is a well respected approach to understanding human connection and love. Basically, if we feel cared for and attended to we feel loved. If not, we become anxious or ambivalent about how others treat us. How we’re loved is exceptionally important and I would argue so is how we love others.
I believe there are five things we can begin to practice to help us become more loving people. Sure, these five things aren’t the ONLY things one can do to become a more loving person, but they’ll help you become more intentional in developing a loving disposition. These things may feel awkward at first but I promise they’ll transform who you are and the relationships you have if you just make an effort to practice them more and more each day.
- Practice Empathy – Empathy is our ability to feel and experience another person’s emotional and contextual situation. We’re all empathic to some degree. For example, if you’re watching television and they’re demonstrating how eye surgery is done you probably squirm and cringe as you watch the needle get closer and closer to the patient’s eye. Or maybe you just watched a guy hit his thumb with a hammer. Most of us react with that gut feeling screaming, “Ouch!” We’re wired for empathy. We have these things called mirror neurons that create a sense of what’s happening to someone else within our own neurological experience. This basic biological experience can expand and develop your brain’s empathic system just like learning a musical instrument develops deeper neural patterns. The key is to practice understanding how other people feel and experience the world around them. Love requires us to be invested in other people and one of the most basic things you can do is develop a level of empathy which when it matures can become compassion. Compassion is a great word. Its latin root means to “suffer with.” When you have compassion for another person you don’t only feel what they feel, you’re willing to suffer what they suffer. Practice empathy and become a more compassionate human being. That’s the root of being a more loving person.
- Avoid Snap Judgements -Let’s say you’re driving down the road and someone cuts you off. Your first reaction is to scream some expletive at the driver as he or she drives past. You immediately believe the driver did something rude just to tick you off. However, what you didn’t know is in the back seat of the speeding car was a child passed out from having seizures and the driver needed to get his or her child to the hospital as quickly as possible. Social psychologists call this quick attribution of negative intentions the fundamental attribution error. In everyday life we call this the unwillingness to give people the benefit of the doubt. We immediately believe people do things we judge inappropriate because they’re ignorant, being stupid, or careless. Yet, we always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. If we want to be more loving we need to avoid making snap judgements and work a little harder at giving people the benefit of the doubt. I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “Isn’t that just making excuses for people?” Sometimes it is, but other times you’re extending an act of kindness that develops into love for others. You’re better off erring on the side of love than harboring anger and indifference toward other people.
- Practice Forgiveness – Forgiveness is a complex topic we could talk about forever. While I can’t go into any great detail about its specifics because of the brevity of this article, it’s really important we become forgiving people for many reasons. Forgiveness is difficult to exercise because our minds are wired to alarm us when equity and justice are ignored, particularly when we haven’t been treated fairly. If we’re hurt we need recompense for being hurt. We don’t like letting someone off the hook for something they did to us, they owe us something and it’s only right and just we get it. Trust me, I’ve worked with many clients struggling to forgive people who’ve hurt them. However, the more forgiving we can be the more we can love. We don’t have the emotional room to harbor feelings of anger and love. One can easily squeeze the other right out of your emotional world. Anger is enslavement to the person who hurt you so when you can forgive them you recapture your freedom. Yes, there’s a time to be angry, it’s a good emotion and has its place when you’ve been treated unjustly, but when it becomes the bedrock of your emotional world you need to do something about it. Anger should be a transitional experience released over time. Love must be a permanent intentional dispositional emotion carried within you constantly. By becoming a forgiving person you make room to fill your emotional self with love. Learn to be a forgiving person.
- Choose to be Invested in Others – Love means telling other people both verbally and non verbally “You matter, I’m interested in your life, and I care about what’s happening to you.” Some people think hate is the complete opposite of love but I believe it’s indifference. Showing people you care is showing them love. Being invested in other people means honestly listening to them, being fully present to them, and choosing to share your life with them even when it’s difficult. Carl Rogers, a famous therapist called this unconditional positive regard. He believed it was essential clients felt they were being heard and the therapist was invested in their well-being. It’s a non-judgmental approach to being with others. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “If you judge people you have no time to love them.” Her point is when we’re invested and care about people we find ways to show them they’re loved. If you want to be more loving find people you can invest in and help them flourish.
- Be an Encourager and a Coach – Loving people means making sure their successes, regardless of how small they may be, are celebrated. People need to see others care about their success and feel encouraged to continue in that path. Basic behavioral psychology demonstrates when behavior is rewarded we continue in that behavior. We want to encourage what others do well and help them do it better. That’s where being a coach makes a difference. You need to be more than a cheerleader, you have to want them to do better. Sometimes that means critiquing what they’re doing. When you have a good relationship with someone and they feel you care they’ll allow you to tell them what they need to improve. We critique behaviors not people; we love people so make sure you discuss what behaviors need improved and how to improve them. I do this all the time as a counselor. The reason people accept critique from me is because they know I’m critiquing what they do to help them achieve their goals. There’s a saying I use when I teach counseling skills courses or do workshops for ministers regarding pastoral counseling that states, “You can critique and challenge someone only as well as you have supported them.” If you really want to love someone you must be an encourager and a coach helping them become the best person they can be.
If you can practice empathy until it becomes compassion, avoid being judgmental and give people the benefit of the doubt, become a forgiving person, choose to invest yourself in people, and care enough to encourage and critique those you’ve developed a relationship with, you’re showing love. Sure, it’s not that “fluffy” love you see in movies or television shows nor is it that romantic love you read about in trashy novels. Rather, it’s what I call real practical love that says to the people in your life, “You matter, I care, and I am here for you.” Start practicing these five things today. I assure you it will make the lives of those you meet better, but ultimately, it will also make you a better healthier person as well.