Fear of not being loved

As with so many important figures that have been an inspiration to others, those who sought out Saint Ignatius of Loyola were looking for the answer to one of the most challenging questions: How does a person love?

Ignatius said he couldn’t do that; but he could teach them not to be afraid. And then, love could flourish. In the heart that overcomes fear, there is love.

Speaking of fears, Saint Ignatius was obviously not referring to phobias or manias. He was talking about something deeper. Something that, if not overcome, would undermine our ability to love.

This ties in with the fear that we want to touch on at this point: the fear of not being loved. A person can read the title of this article and quickly identify with it; furthermore, we can surmise that everyone suffers from this fear. That is why it is important to get into details: If anything characterizes the human race, it is the desire to be loved — not the fear of being unloved. These are two opposite starting points, and they create two completely different people.

We have talked a lot about the fear/desire duality. It is a dichotomy where meaning matters, because a desire developed as a reaction to fear is not the same thing as one in which desire itself is the starting point. Someone driven by fear is not free. Someone driven by desire (as in heartfelt desires, not whims) is more capable of facing up to any fear.

Someone who seeks the affection of others because they are terrified of being unloved, will probably approach any relationship the wrong way, because they go into it with expectations: that the other person will show them affection and respond to their attention.

The TV show The Office, a real gem of British television, was adapted by NBC in the United States and ran for nine seasons. For the lead role, they chose a comic actor who was a virtual unknown: Steve Carrell. He plays Michael Scott, who many consider a classic character along with other “greats” such as Walter White, Don Draper and Tyrion Lannister. And it turns out that Michael is a clear example of someone who fears not being loved and the consequences of being ruled by this fear.

Whenever Michael gets involved, things almost always get botched up. It’s not because he lacks intelligence, or because he’s the equivalent of “Dr. House” in the office. It is because he endlessly yearns to be the one who saves the day, or comforts someone, or has the funniest one-liner… because he wants to be the “World’s Best Boss,” and the way he has achieved that is by making himself “necessary” to others.

It is very common for a person who deeply fears being unloved to display hyperactive behavior to peers in the form of favors, tokens of appreciation, gifts, etc. And at first it may seem like a good thing. However the problem arises if that hyperactivity creates an expectation: that others will recognize those favors appropriately, that those receiving his favors and attention will thank him “appropriately.” That’s the pitfall: they identify these thank yous as the source of affection that tells them that they are loved. That is where the expectations come in: It is one thing to expect gratitude, but quite another to intend for it to be expressed in the way one would like.

Thus, driven by that fear, they ultimately fail to recognize the meaning of real gratitude. Because they focus on the appreciation received from others instead of delighting in the joy of giving, or the pleasant surprise that comes from the variety of ways in which others are thankful. It is the difference between giving oneself to others freely and doing so out of fear of being unloved if they do not. It is the difference between being free and being enslaved by that fear. One clear symptom of this is when someone has a hard time receiving a gift (whether it be time, a compliment, a favor)… because they unconsciously think that the gift implies an obligation to give something in return to the other person: a reciprocal gift, public recognition, etc. Because essentially that is what they demand when they are the ones offering it. It’s important to understand that they are not doing it on a whim or out of pure selfishness: they’re doing it because they are terrified of being unloved, which makes them go begging for shows of affection… going out of their way for others.

Now we understand better what Saint Ignatius was referring to. It is hard for a person to love if they do not feel loved, because they will likely reduce love to something that only they can generate. Someone who knows they are unconditionally loved easily overcomes the fear of not being loved, and that absence of fear enables them to step outside of their skin and give themselves. Because they are no longer focused on how the other person will respond; they do it because nothing is more fulfilling than giving ourselves freely. The good news is that we don’t have to do anything special to be loved. Perhaps we’ve been thinking too much about doing things to please others, when all we had to do was to be ourselves. As in the case of Michael Scott: both the spectators and the other characters ultimately love him, not for his continuous efforts to be liked, but for the huge heart that we sense behind it all, which we get to see on those occasions when he’s not striving to be the “World’s Best Boss.” Then, even his gaffes make us love him more.