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What Stops People from Experiencing Love?

A roundtable discussion with mental health researchers and practitioners.

Key points

  • Childhood trauma, and not only from overt abuse, can make people afraid of love.
  • People disconnect from others as a way of protecting themselves.
  • Social conditioning, or not being taught how to heal from painful situations, can make people fear love.
Marek Studzinski/ Pixabay
Source: Marek Studzinski/ Pixabay

This is the second article in a two-part series about how love works in psychotherapy and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. You can find the first article here.

Proper expression of ‘love’ is thought to be one of the primary ways in which psychotherapy, and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, treat mental illness. One could thus say that a lack of love- be it in childhood or as an adult- may be a major cause behind the increasing rates of mental illness around the world.

I recently put some questions around this topic to an esteemed panel of researchers and practitioners within the psychedelic and mental health space.

They included Mary Cosimano, clinical researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research; Dr Adele Lafrance, psychologist, psychedelics researcher and co-developer of emotion-focused treatment modalities; Dr Anne Wagner, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist, founder of Remedy and treatment development researcher and Katalin Kálmán, a trauma and integration therapist at mental health company, Numinus.

In this piece, we dove into what underlies the fear that stops people from being able to experience love, and how to overcome it. Ideas covered include childhood trauma, and how it needn’t just be overt abuse; a lack of connection, that is being able to be vulnerable is others; and social conditioning- not being taught how to heal from painful situations, and thus letting it evolve into a debilitating fear.

Below is a condensed version of the discussion that took place:

What stops people from experiencing love?

Katalin Kálmán: Early childhood stuff. Very often, parents are emotionally unavailable or unresponsive. And there is just no love. In this Western society, most of us suffer from not having love when growing up. And it doesn't even have to come from emotional, sexual or verbal abuse. A lack of love is enough.

I want to emphasize the importance of connection here because I think what we suffer the most on a societal level is disconnect. Disconnect from ourselves, from each other, nature and even our childhood trauma. And that’s why there’s a fear of love- because we’re disconnected from it. It’s almost like a fear of the unknown.

Mary Cosimano: But I believe that is the definition of love. Love is connection. Anything that's not love is disconnection. Most of you are probably familiar with Brené Brown, who says it so beautifully: ‘Connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The way to connect is by being vulnerable. And that means opening up your whole heart'.

The reason why we often don't open up is a paradox. We're afraid that if we do allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open people won't like us, and thus won't connect with us. So people disconnect as a way of protection.

All the blocks to this connection are fears that ‘if they see the real me, they won't love me, they won't connect with me, so they better not see that part of me, because that is really unlovable’.

The importance of vulnerability is that we see that we all have parts of ourselves we don’t want others to see. No one is excluded from this and thus we should let our defenses down so we can connect with each other.

In relation to psychedelics, one of the characteristics of a mystical experience, which many people have on psychedelics, is that paradox. There’s always this Yin Yang. It's by being open and vulnerable, rather than shutting down that you connect.

Dr Anne Wagner: We're often not taught models of what it's like to heal- to heal from pain or heal from the idea that you must avoid pain at all costs. Instead, we think that if something will hurt you, you'll never recover and you'll be damaged.

And so we fear love, especially if we’ve been hurt before by something like heartbreak. We shy away from certain expressions of love for fear of being hurt once again.

But really, this is a catch 22 because it means you're just cutting yourself off from the possibility of love. To heal in this sense would be to know that even if you've been hurt before, it’s ok to re engage and heal with the knowledge that having been hurt before doesn’t reduce your capacity to love or to receive love going forward.

You’re just as capable as you were before and in fact, you probably have more capacity due to the depth of experience you’ve experienced from your pain.

Dr Adele Lafrance: I’d like to expand more on the conversation relating to our cultural conditioning. I have observed gender differences in terms of how we are raised in the experience and expression of love. In our culture, women generally are provided with more opportunities to learn how to give and receive love, than do men who are more often encouraged to avoid the expression of vulnerability.

Therefore, it’s my belief that an important part of the broader healing process will include supporting men to move through the fears that exist within them as a result of this cultural conditioning. In doing so, they too will be able to embrace this fundamental need to love and to be loved in ways that have not been acceptable in the past, and that are important in the context of all relationships.

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