Mother Teresa called feeling unloved and unwanted the greatest poverty. Whether with your spouse, partner, friends, anyone, or everyone, do you struggle to feel loved?
No matter how different we all are us people – in race, creed, faith, geography, history, whatever – we are all fundamentally the same in that we all want to feel like we are loved and wanted. There isn’t a single person out there who wakes up in the morning and says, “I can’t wait to feel like I don’t matter today”. We’re all looking for somewhere to belong and to find rest.
Oscar Wilde certainly wasn’t wrong when he said that a life without love is “like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead”. If you look around you, you’ll see that people will do all sorts of crazy things to try to find acceptance and love wherever they can find it. And when we can’t find out, we wither, we shrink, we die.
The struggle to feel loved is one that all of us are on the journey of. I’ve learned that there are so many factors involved in how loved we do or don’t feel. And it’s a terrible thing when you don’t feel loved in a marriage, a friendship, by God, or with any other person or group of people in your life. What can be done?
I thought I’d have a look at some of the factors involved in the struggle to feel loved, and what sort of things can so easily get in the way. At a high level, people in our lives either love us or they don’t. At a more detailed level, let’s have a look, as things may not really be as they seem. Here are some things that stop us from seeing the love in our lives, and reinforce the often incorrect view that we are unwanted and unloved. I would like to submit to you that nothing could be further from the truth.
#1: Unloving actions
The first thing that goes without saying that can make us feel unloved are the unloving actions of others. If you’ve been neglected, overlooked, trodden over, ignored, cut off, broken up with, or had someone be cruel or dismissive to you, you’re going to get the sense that you’re not loved. Dr David Augsburger in the book, Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, said that “being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable”. When you’re not heard or received, it’s dreadful.
And perhaps the person or people who have hurt you the most truly don’t love you. Perhaps they genuinely have no sense of value for you. We see this all the time in the world of marriage and relationships, where people so frequently use and abuse people for their own gain, say and do awful things, then permanently leave. That can definitely leave scars that don’t heal easily.
The unfortunate reality is that we can do nothing about the actions of others. We can’t control what they will and won’t do. We can’t make a person stay, we can’t stop them from saying or doing what they will, any more than anyone could control us. All we can control is how we respond. John Maxwell says that
“life is 10% of what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it “. How will you react?
#2: Unmet needs
I think all of us have had times where our needs have gone unmet. Whether it’s by well intentioned or malcontented people, we can’t always deliver to others what they need, nor can they always deliver to us what we need or want. You’re in a real dire situation, however, when you have absolutely no source in your life for having your needs met.
And this is where we can get stuck. What do you do when you’re married to someone who isn’t fulfilling all your needs? What happens when you’re not getting what you need from the friends you have? What happens when you get disappointed or let down by that person? If you have no other source for need fulfillment in your life, you’re going to feel like the person in question doesn’t love you, or even that no one loves you, because you always feel like you’re going without. It must be their fault somehow.
I’ve learned in life that you have to go after what you need. When I was a child, it was up to others to make sure I was fed. Now that I’m in my 30s, imagine if I was still sitting at home alone complaining that no one loved me because no one was trying to feed me. I’m a grown man, it’s now up to me to go after the sustenance I need.
In the same way, do you know what you need? And do you know how to go get it? Doctors Tim Clinton and John Trent in The Quick-Reference Guide to Marriage & Family Counselling urge people to consider across multiple situations and seasons of life what any individual is capable of doing themselves. Whilst we could be a victim of things that are happening, they encourage proactively going after support, fulfillment, and a multitude of healthy relationships. That is something you have full control over. With multiple sources of input in your life, you are less likely to feel like the world is ending when you reach the limitations in one person or a particular group of people.
#3: Expectations over effort
Doctor Gary Chapman famously wrote and put forward the notion of five love languages. His research which has been well received by the larger community suggests that people have a particular way of expressing love and of receiving love. He notes that we may not always be feeling loved because we’re expecting love in a certain way that other people may not be providing.
I have seen that we can very unhealthily apply this wisdom in a way that puts pressure on people and allows us to build contempt and resentment against others by expecting them to only ever speak in our language. The balance to our desire for what we want needs to be compared against whether or not a person is actually making an effort in the way that speaks the loudest to them.
Could you be in a struggle to feel loved by someone or a group of people simply because you’re obsessing over what they’re not doing, and failing to see what they are doing? The antidote is to live a life of gratitude for what you are being given, rather than bitterness over what isn’t. It’s amazing how much more obvious the love in your life becomes when you’re able to see it.
#4: Feelings over reality
I’ll always remember a time when I was in a men’s mentoring group where our mentor got us all to close our eyes. He asked us to think about the worst experience we ever had in our life. The tone of the room became somber and somewhat depressing, and some of the guys even started crying. He then asked us to think about the happiest time in our lives. Smiles appeared all round, and some of the guys even started laughing. He then said, “Look at that, you completely changed the way you feel in a span of a few seconds. Why do you let your feelings lead your life?”.
Feelings reflect our perception of our life, and they don’t always align with what is actually true. We may feel like a person hates us or those people don’t love us, but it may simply not be true. It may just be the perception based on unmet needs or our expectations not matching how things are. Do you have an accurate perception of reality? If you’re ever not sure, write down what you wish someone was doing, and write down what they are doing. You may even discover that they’re already doing all the things you wished they were, just perhaps not the way you were expecting.
#5: Failing to recognize or accept a season change
People are seasonal. Let me prove it to you with your own life. How many primary school friends did you see this week? How many people from high school? How about university? Your last church? Your old gym? Does that mean they don’t love you any more? Does that mean you don’t love them any more? Of course not – your seasons are now different.
And so, perhaps you’ve had a family member grow up and decide to move overseas for work. You may be tempted to think that means they don’t care for you anymore, but is that actually the case? Those friends you used to catch up with every week no longer see you because you’ve changed your weekly schedule. Does that mean you’re unloved? Of course not. You have a life, they have a life, we all have lives, and we all have things we are supposed to be doing with them that don’t always put us in the same place at the same time.
You can seriously damage your relationships when you expect them to be like a previous season, and especially if you start blaming people for that not being the case. But this is a failure to accept the reality of life that not everyone who comes into your life is going to stay, and everyone who does stay longer in life will maintain exactly the same relationship with you over longer periods of time. How you react to that reality is up to you.
#6: Dwelling on negative thoughts
Joyce Meyer rightly says that a negative mind will never build a positive life. You just can’t do it. When you expect that everyone in your life is working against you, when you obsess over that one moment of disappointment, when you stare at the rear-vision mirror instead of looking through the windscreen in front of you, you’re not going to enjoy your life, and you’re going to struggle with feeling loved in your relationships.
Once again, I think we need to focus on the truth. Does this person love me? Does this group care for my wellbeing? Am I looking for problems where they don’t exist?
This can be a tricky one. If you’ve lived your life expecting the worst, and especially when you’ve been proven right in that viewpoint more than once, this can be a hard habit to break. But if you don’t, nothing good will ever be able to compete with the view you have already decided on.
#7: A self-fulfilling prophecy
When you’re feeling unloved, you tend to push people away, isolate yourself, or dwell on the negative. A consequence of this can be that it makes it harder for people to love you successfully. This in turn can serve to reinforce your feeling that no one cares for you. This may lead you to decisions or behaviour that makes it even harder for people to reach your heart. This in turn…
Watch out for that cycle. Only you have the power to break it in your own life. Is there any reason a person may be or may have been finding it harder to demonstrate love for you? Is your husband closing off because you kept cutting him off? Is your wife unable to get through to you because you keep blaming her for things? Is that friend holding back from you because you always take their comments as negative? Is that group struggling to support you because you doubt every good thing they do?
Break the cycle.
#8: Failing to see all the love around you
Man, how many thousands of people are around you in your life? How many hundreds or thousands of people have you met? How many people have tried to be your friend? How many positive words have people spoken over your life? How many times have people come to see you, or tried? How many support groups and networks are around you, waiting for you to just say what’s going on in your life? How much stuff is your house filled with from birthdays, Christmases, graduations, celebrations, accolades and moments where someone has tried to express their gratitude that you’re alive? How many messages have come through your social media? How many cards have you got sitting around the house with encouragement from people?
You might not have all that you want, but have you looked around and seen just how much you have? Even if you don’t have the relationships you want, look at the potential that you’re surrounded with. Look at that brilliant woman or that strong man in your life who puts themselves in your world to the best of their ability. Look at all the people out there who open their homes and hearts to accept and hear you out. Look at all the tangible things that people have done for you that confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that you matter.
How wrong we are when we tell others or we tell ourselves that we’re not loved. We cry ourselves to sleep because we’re surrounded by thousands of people and hundreds of opportunities every week for connection and happiness, but don’t connect. It’s like going into Woolworths or Walmart and dying of starvation. The problem isn’t the lack of food, the problem is perhaps in how we partake in it.
You may have looked over your life and determined that no one loves you and that no one cares. I would urge you to look again. Allow yourself to receive the truth.
#9: Building a life on fallible love
I’ve talked a lot about the love we have for one another, and the struggle to feel loved in our human relationships. But no matter how perfect and wonderful our human relationships can be, there are going to be times when people let us down. They just will. They’ll lose their patience, they’ll say the wrong thing, they’ll be unrepentant, they’ll be closed off, they’ll steamroll you, they’ll brush you aside, they’ll fail to live up to their end of the bargain. And to base your life on such shifting sand can leave you extremely vulnerable.
Build your house on the rock. See the love in your life that has been there from the very beginning, and the love that will never leave you. The love of God is unchanging and unending. We all have an opportunity to respond to that love. We can be dismissive or ungrateful of it, or we can open our hearts and let it in.
When the unshakeable love of God is your foundation for life, what people do and don’t do won’t matter as much. Yes, it’s still important to have healthy relationships with others. Yes, it’ll still hurt when people betray us or let us down. But the strongest way that life and love can be experienced, shown, and received, is from a platform of living in God’s love.
Then it doesn’t destroy my world so much when you don’t love me, or I can’t see how those people care for me, or I don’t know if anyone really cares. Because I know I am always cared for and always accepted. And from a foundation of acceptance, I am much more empowered to see how others have accepted me, and also negotiate the difficulty of when they don’t.
What will be the foundation of your life? Will it be the fallacy and the frailty of human effort? Or will it be knowing that you are always accepted in the heart and the plans of God?
I look around in life and in all the reading and talking I do with people around the world of relationships, and I see how truly distraught we can be in the struggle to feel loved. I hope that some of these observations help you negotiate your current relationships and help you see that you’re more loved than you realize – perhaps even more loved than you’ll ever truly know.
How about you? Do you struggle to feel loved? Have you felt that way before? What have you done in that boat?