Conditional Love

Conditional love or approval is familiar to many of us.

I love you BUT…

That’s good BUT…

You look nice BUT…

You tried your best BUT…

In my experience “BUT”…is passive profanity, a curse word in disguise.

Conditional love (or approval) can surface early in life and negatively affect how we feel about ourselves thereafter. It happens when a parent or mentor criticizes something we’ve done. Instead of just focusing on the task (or behavior) that needs improvement; they attach the additional message there’s something wrong with us as a person. It’s a double whammy! We’re left with the feeling that not only do we need to do something different (task), but that we have to be different (character) to win back love and affirmation.

Conditional Love and the Brain

Our capacity for rational, reasoning thought processes typically develops in adolescence (I said capacity – not reality). Before the age of 10 or so, we generally accept conditional messages without question. These messages and feelings of inadequacy are processed by the emotional part of our brain (amygdala) and cemented into our long-term memory. Given enough negative messages from parents, teachers, coaches, or peers, many of us come to accept that we are “less than.” We feel like nothing we do is ever good enough. If we have moments of approval or positive attention they may be so short-lived that the effort to regain approval status doesn’t seem worth the effort. In the face of demands for perfection we may become exhausted and simply give up.

When we don’t feel loved or okay the way we are; the natural emotions that surface are frustration, sadness, despair, and apathy. Eventually we get the urge to want to change how we feel. Unfortunately, many of us learned to turn to “treats”(foods high in fat and sugar) to feel better. We all know that when we do something often enough, especially if it feels good, we develop habits. These habits can be hard to give up. For many of us unconscious emotional eating becomes that habit.


One of the important and transformative skills taught in BreakThrough! is identifying and adopting an authentic self-view. A self-view (or schema) that focuses on strengths and accepts the reality that we all have preferences. I use the term preferences instead of weaknesses because it’s useless to beat ourselves up when we realize that we really don’t like doing something or know that others simply do it better.

I used to think I should be more sociable – that I should go out more and that my life (and house) should look more like One Wisteria Lane. It took turning 40 for me to realize that my favorite things to do for fun don’t involve crowds or staying up late. My lifestyle choice will never be a beach party with volleyball and beer so it’s useless for me to look at a Corona ad and think I’m missing out on life. I’m happy with my preferences and the opportunities to enjoy them.

Developing the authentic self is a challenge after decades of conditional love. However, it’s possible to retrain the brain. With effort and honesty, we can get to the point where we celebrate who we are and know that one step at a time, however slow, we’re working toward meaningful goals.

If you’re interested in learning more about this program, please browse our Read Blog and BreakThrough! pages. If you’re ready to make a change, schedule your free BreakThrough! consultation I’m ready!


One comment on “Conditional Love

  1. Heather Hamilton on

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