Wanting, Liking, and Loving

The other day, I was on a weekly call with three other people I am taking an online course with. Going through this experience together, I sense that we have become really good friends. I expressed to them my anxiety about everything that could go wrong with the apartment my husband and I are about to buy. In response, one of them shared her past experience with this process. Things did indeed not go the way she had hoped—and yet, in the end, she said it was the best thing that could have happened to her and her husband.

For me, the connection to the title of this post lies in how we take the experiences we go through. Depending on our attitudes and beliefs, we are given an opportunity in every moment of our lives, even the ones we initially feel are so very different from what we want, or wanted at an earlier point in time. Having worked in a psychology lab focused on emotion regulation, I learned many years ago about the difference between wanting and liking. I now believe that there is a third aspect of experience that we can bring towards everything that happens to us: loving.

Wanting describes the sensation of anticipation of liking in relation to something expected in the future. Whenever I want something, it is not quite in the present yet. For instance, I want to have—that is I have a strong preference for experiencing—a smooth and easy going time with the apartment purchasing process. To some extent this is true for a lot of things in my future. About many possible situations, I have a desire for ease, peace, harmony, comfort, etc. Reality, however, often looks quite a bit different. And for better or worse, I cannot choose what I like. Evolution has placed some pretty strong boundaries on my intuitive response to, say, hypothetically finding out that the apartment we chose and bought has, in fact, some deep flaws somewhere. It is difficult for me to imagine liking that experience as I am finding this out.

That is where the third aspect of attitude and meeting reality comes in. Loving things as they are, to me, provides a path forward that opens a door. This difference also plays a key role in interpersonal relationships. Liking another person is easy. They are present in your life and show up in a way that elicits positive affect. They probably contribute to your life or wellbeing, and so it is truly enjoyable having them around. Loving, on the other hand, can sometimes be more akin to hard work. As an intimate relationship matures, and all masks and pretenses are peeled away over time, people see each other fully. Some aspects might not be experienced as positive. What then?

Love allows me to accept reality in its entirety, simply as it is—especially if it does not comply with my evolutionary derived or acquired tastes and preferences. I can then look into the future and experience thoughts and feelings saying something like this: it is still worth paying attention to and engaging with this situation or person. Something good will come into my life if I do. That makes loving an act of faith. It requires trust in that, so long as I do my part, things will turn out OK.

And the person hardest to love? For me, that is probably myself. It is true that there are moments in which others criticize me for things I have not yet noticed. Most of the time, however, I am faced with an inner voice seemingly belonging to someone who enjoys painting horror scenarios of all the ways I could go wrong—and reminding me of all the things I did do wrong. I certainly have sufficient evidence from the past that my behavior has at times been far from perfect. So, how could anyone love me if they knew all the things I have done, let alone thought?

The most mysterious and magical transformation can take place if and when I dare taking this leap of faith. Seeing myself as flawed while at the same time allowing for a deep love for the potential in me to exist can be an incredibly powerful source of motivation and energy. Loving what is, to me, does not suggest giving up on transforming reality. It does however mean to attempt this transformation in a loving way. And that means not getting stuck on the criticism or the flaws.

Another of my friends on the same call described how her son had recently told her of his desire to move out of their home. In listening to her expressing how this disclosure had hit her, I realized how much I enjoy the deep connections I have with other people in my life. And it drove home how much the thought of questioning myself with “am I loved?” or “am I lovable?” can be a source of pain. Having had such moments in the past, I can now say how important it has been for me to learn to look at myself with a loving attitude. Without it, life can turn into a series of painful moments, never quite feeling at ease and peace with who I am.

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