A New Book from Helpguide's Co-Founder, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
Simple, yet powerful steps to overcome loneliness, resolve conflicts and manage stress.
In our plugged-in, fast-paced world we've lost touch with the tools we need to overcome loneliness, stress and relationship problems—the skills that permit us to truly FEEL loved and pass that feeling on to others.
Helpguide’s co-founder, Jeanne Segal Ph.D., draws from the latest discoveries in the biology of human emotion, emotional intelligence and attachment to bring us a groundbreaking new vision of why our lives often feel overwhelming yet empty at the same time—and what we can do to change that.
You will learn:
- What you’re doing that prevents you from feeling fulfilled and happy.
- What you could be doing to feel loved and make others feel loved.
- A simple practice that will relieve stress and keep your life in balance.
- A 6-part recipe for resolving conflict and communicating successfully.
- How others have used these skills to overcome stress and anxiety.
100% of proceeds from book sales go to Helpguide.org benefiting the millions of people this nonprofit website serves.
Full Lives and Empty Hearts
- The Feeling of Being Loved
- Using Emotional Awareness to Beat Stress and Find Love
Barriers that Stand in the Way of Our Ability to Feel Loved
- Medication can be an Uneasy Solution to Complex Problems
- Virtual Connections Can Bring About Greater Disconnection
- Too Much Thinking Can Lead To Not Enough Loving
Tools for Replacing Stress with Love
- Managing Stress in the Moment
- A Meditation for Remaining Mindful Even When Fearful
- A Toolkit for Change
A Recipe for Feeling Loved
- Reconnecting in a Strained Family Relationship
- Staying Connected When Memory Has Been Lost
- Keeping Communication Open in Tense Work Relationships
- Staying Connected With Differing Needs
About the Author
The desire to feel loved is real and universal. We long and ache for it. When we see others giving and receiving love around us, we’re like starving people staring at food in a grocer’s window. We can see heaven, yet feel as though it’s out of reach. This desire is not in our heads: Science reveals that the experience we long for is real, even if we can’t seem to get our arms around it. Though we do things that interfere with our ability to feel loved, brain science, new emotional inroads in psychology, and early child development provides a roadmap for finding what we need.
In 1990, there was an explosion of brain research that overlapped with early child development and psychology. Researchers discovered that when an infant felt loved, he or she underwent profoundly positive effects in brain development. This proved that feeling loved makes us resilient and nourishes our nervous and immune systems so we can better face life’s challenges. Much of the loneliness, sadness, anger, and anxiety we feel are reflections of the emptiness we experience when we don’t feel loved. It’s no wonder artists and poets, as well as scientists, have remained enthralled with the subject.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we discover concrete evidence that demonstrates humans are profoundly social and emotional. We have a real need to not only feel the love others have for us, but also to ensure that those we care about feel loved. While there seems to be an enormous gap between what we need—and what we know about getting it—this gap isn’t as wide as it seems. That’s because today we recognize that we have brains that can change, so we can develop new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. We are able to make life-changing social and emotional changes. Unfortunately, there are also obstacles that prevent us from doing so. We have stressful habits that stand in the way of our desire for change and leave us feeling empty in the midst of plenty. We have fast-paced lifestyles filled with technological distractions and oversimplified solutions to complex problems that keep us from what we really need.
When I first began working with people as a therapist, the brain was mostly a mystery. But now, with modern technology, our eyes have been opened to so much potential, especially to the power that’s inherent in feeling loved. One of my first clients, however, was able to show me this power without any hard scientific evidence. Through a woman named Monica, I came face to face with a force that awakened me to the extraordinary influence that feeling loved can have on every aspect of our lives.
The woman who discovered nurturing love
Monica was a petite, vibrant woman in her mid-30s who had lived with diabetes since childhood. She was a member of a diabetic support group I led. One day she asked to see me privately.
Monica was at a crossroads with a long-term relationship and wanted to explore her options. Having grown up under the protection of anxious parents who felt it was in their daughter’s best interest to lead a very quiet, uneventful life, Monica didn’t have much experience with relationships.
Monica’s boyfriend of over five years was a nice person who didn’t seem particularly interested in her, nor did he ask much of her, which made her question her feelings for him, and the relationship overall. I encouraged Monica to be honest with her boyfriend and make herself available for new romantic possibilities.
Several weeks went by and I was beginning to wonder what happened to Monica when I received a shocking call from her doctor. He told me that Monica had collapsed and was in the hospital. Many of her organs were shutting down and she was not expected to live. The doctor asked me to visit and prepare Monica for the worst that might be ahead.
Because of my recent work with dying cancer patients, I was used to making near-death hospital visits. However, nothing I had experienced prepared me for this visit. When I walked into Monica’s room I found her sitting up in bed attached to an IV, looking remarkably well for someone presumed to be dying. When she saw me, she put her finger to her lips and asked me to close the door.
“You’ll never guess what happened,” she said. “I found someone!”
I sat there with my eyes wide and jaw hanging as Monica told me she had recently met a man named Phillip who continued to see her in the hospital after her collapse. Phillip spent time listening to Monica, talking, laughing, asking her questions and being engrossed in her answers. The best part about this new relationship was that neither the hospital, nor her illness had seemed to frighten or discourage Phillip. He had a sister he dearly loved who had been ill most of her life, so he was used to medical challenges. The more Monica and Phillip talked, the more engaged and excited she became. Monica then told me that two nights prior, she had bribed the night nurse and, still attached to her IV pole, she had taken the elevator down to the bowels of the hospital basement where—as impossible as this may seem—Monica made passionate love for the first time in the backseat of Phillip’s car.
I drove home that night feelings certain that Monica’s life wasn’t over and I was proven right. She left the hospital and some months later married Phillip. I never saw her again, but followed her for years through the postcards she sent telling me how she was doing. Monica and Phillip bought a small home near the canals in Venice, California, and traveled a great deal. They even visited a few Third World countries where Monica put her life at risk for infections, which surprised me given her medical history. Yes, she did get sick again, but each time this happened she recovered, determined to embrace the life she found fulfilling. Monica’s serious health challenges proved less influential on her health than the nurturing, motivating love she experienced and gave.
Monica is an example of how someone’s life can change by feeling loved. Her life didn’t just change, though; her life was saved. In a setting that didn’t allow them to do much more than communicate with one another, Phillip demonstrated a keen interest in thoroughly getting to know Monica. He wanted to understand what she felt, as well as what she thought, and his approving interest and encouragement made her feel deeply known and valued. For the first time, Monica felt she knew what it was to feel loved.
Monica’s experience made me look closer at the different kinds of problems men and women brought to my office. Over the years I saw individuals, couples, and families from many ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds presented with a wide-range of problems—they were depressed, anxious, unproductive, unhappy together, sick, and sick at heart. Their problems were different, but they had two things in common: they were intensely stressed and none of them felt loved.
Sometimes a spouse or family member felt an absence of love from a loved one who insisted this was not true. Sometimes I could understand why they felt unloved, but not always. At times the feelings of those who felt unloved seemed rooted in an inability to feel anything, good or bad.
Discovering the role emotional awareness and connection plays in our lives
As I was completing my doctorate, I had an opportunity to become part of an experimental program with end-of-life cancer patients at UCLA. The program focused on something new at the time called “holistic health” which brought a wider view to health issues. The opportunity was a good fit. My husband, Robert, and I began exploring the subject of holistic health in a series of very popular conferences we coordinated for the Association for Humanistic Psychology.
This broader view of health that I embraced affected the direction of my work. The interventions I participated in included many new theories and therapies developed in the 60s and 70s. It was heady stuff, especially when we saw that some of the men and women we worked with weren’t dying, but in fact surviving for more than seven years. Because of this, I was assigned a research project that sought to discover a connection between our interventions and the survival rate of our patients.
After years of false starts and dead ends, we finally found a link between the relationship our patients had to their emotions, stress, and their ability to survive. Those who recognized what they felt, accepted all their feelings, and used their emotional awareness in their decision-making processes appeared to make better decisions and have a better chance of survival than those who did not. Though we had no idea why this might be true, I learned that emotion mattered and how stress plays a role in blunting emotions.
Searching for answers to questions about emotional connection
With the aim of reducing stress and increasing emotional awareness, I began developing a prototype for a meditation that could teach people how to concentrate on what they were feeling—even when they were uncomfortable with the experience!
My understanding of the role all emotion plays in preserving someone’s well-being led to the publication of my second book Living Beyond Fear.
In the 1980s, as the pharmaceutical industry began to dominant the mental health field, my interest in practicing therapy waned. I believed that emotion-altering drugs had their place in someone’s recovery, but they were not producing long-term solutions for most mental health problems. Then, in the 90s, there was an explosion in brain research and technology, and when I saw the connection between what I knew about emotion and the new field of emotional intelligence, I began to deeply explore the subject. My findings led me to write two books on emotional intelligence and its connection to emotional awareness.
As the millennium approached, I became increasingly interested in how emotional health, or its absence, first develops. I coordinated two community conferences in Los Angeles titled, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, which brought together leaders in the field to discuss this subject. It gave both parents and professionals the opportunity to learn about the newest advances in the understanding of brain development, stress, and trauma.
As I absorbed all this information, I was learning more about the role emotion and intense levels of stress play in our mental health problems. I was also learning more about the brain’s ability to change itself and our ability to intervene in this change. As I observed, worked with, and labored to help others, I also made personal discoveries that have changed me to a degree I never believed possible.
Reflections on my personal journey
My parents were good people, and today I have no doubt that they loved me. Yet, as a child, I felt unloved. Both of my parents were hard-working and devoted to my well being; they did their best for my sister and me, yet neither of us got the love we needed. I survived by withdrawing from my emotions and becoming an observer of things. I paid attention to other people and nature, and when I felt lonely, I comforted myself by taking out my crayons and drawing for long periods of time.
If I was a somewhat lonely and isolated child, I was even more so as a teenager. I was popular with my teachers, but unpopular with classmates. I was shy, but when something seemed hurtful or wrong, I became energized and let my feelings be known. Because I was attractive and a serious student, I received attention from different people, but the attention never felt meaningful. There were some unknowns that I longed for and tried to find in books. I looked for something that would make me feel safe and whole, but I didn’t know what it was and had absolutely no idea of how to get it. So I kept searching.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to thoroughly indulge my curiosities in many things. It began with an interest in art and the liberal arts; then I became engrossed in the psyche, psychology, and the relationship we have with ourselves. In college, when I found the self too narrow a subject, I switched my major to sociology. I soon led women’s groups and trained as a marriage and family counselor, and as a social worker.
The 1990s witnessed an explosion of brain research and technology and it was during this period I faced the biggest challenge to my own mental health. In 1996, our adored daughter Morgan Leslie lost her battle with a depression worsened by a variety of anti-depressants and other medications, and took her own life. This tested everything I believed in, and everything I had ever written. I only survived by fully embracing the feelings of grief that defined my day-to-day existence for the next four years. At one point, I said to myself, “If this is the way I’m going to feel for the rest of my life, so be it.” The experience has left me stronger, wiser, and more determined than ever to fully embrace life. Our daughter’s death also made me recognize the gap that can exist between being loved and feeling loved. Morgan Leslie was deeply loved by her family, and by all who knew her, but I don’t believe she felt loved.
As a way of preserving our daughter’s memory, my husband, Robert, and I created a nonprofit mental health website. Helpguide.org was launched in 1999, inspired by our belief that Morgan Leslie’s tragedy could have been avoided if she had access to unbiased, reliable information that gave her a sense of hope and direction. Since then, the website has grown from a small project in Santa Monica, California, to an internationally recognized resource serving over 65 million visitors a year. As Helpguide.org has grown, so has my understanding of the challenges people all over the world wake up to every day. Rooted in most of these challenges is the profound need to feel loved and to make those we care about feel loved.
Feeling Loved: Finding Happiness in an Overstressed World, is dedicated to helping those who don’t feel loved. My goal is for you to experience this feeling, and to share it with others.
This is a multilayered book—one that not only draws a distinction between being loved and feeling loved, but also provides the reader with tools for overcoming this distinction. In addition, there is a connection between the advertisement-free, nonprofit Helpguide.org website and this book. Helpguide.org is one of the largest mental health websites on the Internet. My intention in connecting Feeling Loved to the website has been twofold: First, to enrich, inform, and support your experience as a reader by linking parts of the book to parts of Helpguide.org; and, second, to serve as an extended source of information, understanding, and support for the expert articles and other resources found on the website. Finally, this book has been written for a lay audience, but is based on decades of research, a portion of which is listed in the bibliography.
~ Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
The Feeling of Being Loved
Love and fear are the two most important emotional influences in our lives. One or the other motivates much of what we feel, think, and do every day. Both produce reflexive biological responses. When we’re frightened, a cascade of hormones automatically causes us to get angry, to flee, or to freeze. When we feel loved, other hormones are triggered that make us feel safe, secure, and happy. Feeling loved causes us to overflow with joyous feelings and, because we feel protected, our hearts and our minds are receptive and open. Fear, on the other hand, shuts us down, stripping our lives of positive feelings, stressing our bodies, and narrowing our minds.
With the ability to make ourselves happy, calm, focused, and relaxed, the state of being we achieve when we feel loved is unlike any other. Feeling loved is such a powerful experience that it can ward off stressors and support resilience in the face of challenges. Feeling loved isn’t a “take it or leave it” choice; it’s a biological need like water or food, something that we long for when it’s not part of our experience. When we don’t feel loved, we instinctively know that something important is missing in our lives.
So many of us today feel isolated and alone—evidence that fear is gaining control over our lives. Though we have more technology, entertainment, and opportunities to connect with others than ever before, we feel that our lives are shrinking rather than expanding. As individuals, and as a society, we are growing increasingly troubled. More than half of those who marry, divorce—often more than once. Half of us live alone, often not by choice, and one in four Americans say they have no one to confide in. The loneliness, sense of alienation, and emotional distress we feel highlights that we don’t feel loved. Our efforts to feel loved, and to make others feel loved, have been negated by interests and habits that not only dull our fears but also block our ability to get the love we want and need.
Feeling loved depends on our ability to communicate emotionally. We can learn skills that foster this ability which when put into practice reward us with the opportunity to feel loved both now and for the rest of our lives. The first step is to understand what we experience when we feel loved, and why it’s so difficult to identify and value this feeling.
We need love but don’t know how to get it
We all want love in our lives, but often we don’t know how to find or keep it. One of the reasons for this is that while we know we want it, we don’t know enough about what love really feels like. We don’t know what it takes to make us feel loved, or what it takes to make those we care about feel loved. We don’t understand why we make such poor choices at times, or why we can’t seem to make good choices. We certainly don’t see the things we do that sabotage our ability to love and feel loved. Libby, Oscar, and Karen are examples of people who long to feel loved but don’t know what to look for, or are too afraid to let themselves be loved.
The woman who didn’t see love
Libby grew up in the middle of a large family that had little interest in her apart from the fact that she was an exceptionally pretty child. By the time she was a toddler, Libby had given up trying to get noticed by any means other than smiling, batting her eyes, and acting coy. The habit was so ingrained in her that when she became an adult, she acted the same way with men. A man named Peter, though, saw more in Libby than just a pretty girl, and after a short courtship, they were married. It never occurred to Libby that Peter actually cared about how she felt about herself and the world around her, and not just about the way she looked. She continued to focus on outward appearances, all the while doing her best to be a good wife and mother who paid attention to the physical needs of her family. But, because she didn’t look for emotional connections, no one in the family got the love they needed, and her relationship with Peter and her children suffered.
The man whose fear kept him from experiencing love
Oscar grew up being cared for by a series of nannies—a rather long series. As a result, he became a tense, vigilant child who feared intimacy, focusing on elaborate gadgetry rather than people. He was intelligent but insecure and distrustful, believing that because he came from a wealthy family, people only liked him for his money. In his 30s, he traveled all over the world visiting religious sites, always searching for a greater sense of security and peace of mind.
Oscar’s first wife was his social equal, but the marriage ended badly, leaving him even more fearful of intimacy. Then on a charity mission to help less fortunate children, he met Francis, a woman who recognized Oscar’s emotional problems but also saw the kindness and goodness in him. For the first time in his life, Oscar experienced being loved and believed that someone loved him. In the beginning, they were happy traveling and exploring the world together, but soon Oscar’s old insecurities began to take hold. Fearing that Francis only married him for his money, he ignored Francis’ care and concern, and distancing himself from her physical warmth. Francis tried in vain for many years to make Oscar feel loved, but he remained unavailable, and eventually she gave up trying and they divorced.
The woman who didn’t recognize love
Because her mother was an alcoholic, Karen had a childhood that was confusing and traumatic. There were times when her mother was loving and tender, but there were other times when she screamed and called Karen stupid and worthless. Until the day Karen graduated high school and left home, her stepfather did his best to protect Karen from her mother, but the damage was too deep. Not surprisingly, Karen lacked self-confidence in the real world. She compensated by being clever and exceptionally hard-working. Her first job was as a filing clerk, but her eagerness to prove herself helped her advance to a managerial position within a year. For the first time in her life, Karen began to relax and let down her guard. Many of the men at the company were interested in dating Karen, but she kept her distance until she met Tony. Tony swept Karen off her feet with his self-confidence, charm, and good looks, but since she had so little experience of being in a loving relationship, Karen failed to notice how much Tony’s behavior resembled her mother’s. After a few drinks, Tony, like her mother, became mean and nasty, but it wasn’t until after she married Tony that Karen realized the truth.
People like Libby, Oscar, and Karen long to feel loved, but because they don’t know what to look for or are too fearful to look at all, they miss the opportunities right in front of them. Some of us can identify with stories like those above, but not all of us see the role we play in our failed efforts to experience emotional fulfillment. What we do tend to recognize is that more increasingly feels like less.
Why more feels like less
More can feel like less when we’re not getting what we need. When we’re absorbed in the pursuit of things we want, to the exclusion of things we need to feel and be our best, it’s possible to be both full and empty at the same time.
Just as you can eat without being nourished and drink without quenching your thirst, you can be technically connected without feeling connected. You can have hundreds of friends online, but if you’re not making connections that make you feel secure and valued, then it’s nearly impossible to feel fulfilled. You can also care for others—and receive care yourself—without giving or getting the experience of being valued that you need.
Signs that we’re not feeling loved
It’s difficult to put feelings into words, especially feelings of emptiness or longing. But what we’re missing might be revealed by answers to specific questions. Do you have someone you can contact in the middle of the night if you’re upset, someone who’ll not only listen to you, but also will genuinely care about what you’re feeling and want to help? Would your spouse or partner want to talk to you, or would he or she just roll over and tell you to go back to sleep? Even when you live alone, do you have someone who’s there to console you when you’re down and celebrate with you when you’re excited? Do you have someone you trust and feel safe with? Are you sure that the people you love actually feel loved by you? Do they know that you appreciate them as they really are? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you or those you care about may be missing the experience of feeling loved.
The biochemistry of feeling loved: why it matters
Due to the bonding hormone oxytocin, which can be found in our bodies starting at birth, all of us come into this world biologically prepared—for reasons of survival—to experience the positive, reassuring, and relaxing sensations that make us feel loved. We are inherently primed to continue experiencing this feeling throughout our lives. Oxytocin fills us with the most pleasurable emotions and sensations imaginable. Oxytocin reduces stress, calming and relaxing us while making us feel deeply and perfectly happy. This joyous sensory experience is what we feel when we first feel loved, and it’s what we experience every single time we feel loved throughout our lives.
Oxytocin is triggered by the exchange of nonverbal emotional cues that express attention, understanding, approval, and affection. Such cues include hugs, kisses, holding hands, gazing into someone’s eyes, and so much more. Infants only a few weeks old can make eye contact, mirror gestures, and participate in mutual exchanges with smiles and sounds of pleasure. If we’re lucky and have a caretaker that is both attentive and emotionally communicative, we will have our first mutual falling in love experience as an infant. This hormone is also the reason we form deep connections not only with our children, but also with our partners, friends, and even our pets. The role that oxytocin and nonverbal cues play in making us feel loved continues once we learn to speak, and for the rest of our lives.
Feeling loved is nature’s antidote to stress
Human beings have always lived in potentially threatening and stressful environments where feeling loved was nature’s antidote to stress. When we feel threatened, exhausted, and overwhelmed, feeling loved can make us feel whole and relaxed. Aided by emotional cues that are seen, heard, and felt, nonverbal exchanges stimulate oxytocin and neutralize stress. Painful feelings can be replaced by sensations that return us to a relaxed state. In a flash, we can go from feeling very bad to feeling very good.
Feeling loved also helps us thrive by relieving stress. Oxytocin overrides high levels of stress and counteracts stress hormones such as cortisol that can exhaust our adrenal glands and damage, sometimes severely, our bodies and brains. Infants come into this world experiencing high levels of stress, as do their mothers during childbirth, but immediately after birth, oxytocin replaces stress with joyous feelings of love.
Infants who continue to experience interactive emotional communication with their caretakers feel loved and thrive. Infants’ brains develop in the most cohesive ways when they feel loved and are not threatened by stressors. The same is true for adults. When we have experiences that make us feel loved, oxytocin is released and we are able to overcome stress and flourish in life.
Slowing down: Feeling loved is a much slower nonverbal experience
Emotional communication on the run is rarely successful. In order to be aware of what we are feeling and what others are feeling, we need to slow down. The feeling of being loved and the biological response it stimulates is triggered by nonverbal cues: the tone in a voice, the expression on a face, or the touch that feels just right. Nonverbal cues—rather than spoken words—make us feel that the person we are with is interested in, understands, and values us. When we’re with them, we feel safe. We even see the power of nonverbal cues in the wild. After evading the chase of predators, animals often nuzzle each other as a means of stress relief. This bodily contact provides reassurance of safety and relieves stress.
Yes, words have meaning, especially when exchanged with someone you love. But the impact words have depends on the success or failure of what is not said, or your wordless exchange. If there is an inconsistency between what is being said and how it is being said, you will feel it instantly and become confused or skeptical. If the words and body language someone uses don’t match up, then we won’t feel loved.
In order to effectively pick up nonverbal cues, we need to pause and focus on what’s happening from one moment to the next. Nonverbal cues often come and go rapidly, so it’s important to pay close attention. When we get too busy or too preoccupied to accommodate the slower pace required for emotional communication, we lose the hormonal rush that makes us feel loved. If we are always on the go, planning the next step, multitasking, or just too exhausted to notice, we will miss opportunities to feel loved or to make others feel loved, as the following story illustrates.
The loving couple that didn’t know what they needed to feel loved
Maribel couldn’t believe her luck when she met Ben. Like her, he was from an immigrant family, worked hard, and enjoyed the outdoors. Soon, they fell in love and were married. They decided together to focus on building Ben’s career as a lawyer, and the next couple of years were hectic and a bit lonely as Ben put in long hours at the office. But they were happy. Maribel watched every penny and postponed the family she wanted. Ben felt very supported and appreciated Maribel’s sacrifices, but their feelings of closeness began fading as Ben threw himself into his growing law practice.
As Ben’s firm took off and he made more money, Maribel saw less and less of her husband. When they did talk, he seemed preoccupied, rarely looking at her. Ben was always on the go, busy multitasking, with his mind and attention someplace else. Everything revolved around Ben’s work, even their social life. A year later, the couple had a baby boy and Maribel occupied herself by taking care of their son and a new house. It was around this time Maribel started feeling anxious. She knew something was wrong, that something was missing, but she didn’t know what it was. Her husband treated her well, giving her elaborate gifts and providing for her and their family. Nevertheless, Maribel found herself growing increasingly worried about many things that never bothered her in the past. She felt as though she were losing her zest for life. When she mentioned these feelings to her doctor, he prescribed anti-anxiety medication, which eased her worrying, but also numbed the pleasure she took in doing things she normally enjoyed. A couple of months later, she began to put on weight and stopped taking the medication.
Life went on and Ben was sympathetic, but Maribel sensed that her inability to relax and enjoy herself was becoming a burden to him, as well as to herself. Then something happened that brought their lives to a standstill: Ben was diagnosed with cancer.
Because the oncology office offered free counseling to patients and their families, Maribel—sensing that for Ben’s sake she had to do something about her anxiety—made an appointment. With a little encouragement, Maribel described her life and marriage. When asked why she hadn’t shared her feelings of loneliness and anxiety with her husband, she said she was afraid of burdening Ben with her feelings, especially now that he was sick.
It hadn’t occurred to Mirabel that Ben, too, might miss the connection they once had. In the context of having more time to spend together—even if it was time spent talking face to face while Ben got his chemotherapy—Maribel described her sadness and longing for the emotional intimacy they used to share. With no time pressure or work agenda, Ben relaxed, and with tears in his eyes admitted that he too missed the tenderness they had once shared.
Ben’s recovery became an opportunity to renew their relationship. When Ben went back to the work he loved, he made sure to carve out time exclusively for the two of them; they had leisurely morning coffee dates, evening walks, and started traveling. By once more sharing emotional as well as physical intimacy, both of them felt loved. Ben recovered from his cancer and Maribel’s anxiety became background issues in lives that now felt emotionally fulfilling.
Being loved differs from feeling loved
Being loved is not the same as feeling loved. There is a difference between being taken care of and feeling taken care of. You can tend to someone, provide for and care for them, but if you don’t slow down enough to create the emotional connection that makes them feel loved, you won’t trigger oxytocin. Someone can go out of their way to meet your every physical and intellectual need, yet completely miss opportunities to notice and respond to your emotional needs. If they don’t look at you, they may miss the fact that you’re feeling sad. If they don’t hear the frustration or fear in your voice, they may respond in ways that make you angrier or more fearful. When this happens, you realize that you’re well cared for, but you don’t feel loved. Without the body language and other nonverbal signals that convey emotional understanding, you won’t be emotionally unfulfilled.
Feeling loved happens in the moment and face-to-face
Feeling loved is an experience that goes beyond “thought-to-action.” It happens face to face, from one moment to the next, between you and another person. The way you look, listen, move, and react to another person tells them more about how you’re feeling—and how you’re feeling about them—than words alone ever can. Bonnie’s story is an example of using nonverbal cues to make others feel loved.
The teacher who made her students feel loved
Bonnie entered a Catholic order of teachers at 18 and was immediately thrown into a classroom of 45 first graders in an inner-city neighborhood. Without much instruction, she was expected to teach reading and writing. Bonnie was nervous, but to her amazement—and the amazement of her Mother Superior—she was an exceptional teacher who seemed to love every minute in the classroom. Bonnie soon became the envy of all the other teachers. How was she able to get 45 squirming little bodies to hold still and pay attention long enough to learn? How did someone so young and inexperienced manage to not only control, but also captivate, such a large group of first graders?
First, anytime Bonnie attended to a child’s question or need, she did so with a sincere sense of interest and wonderment. Also, she was never critical, judgmental, or blaming; Bonnie felt that each child deserved her reverent, undivided attention. Soon, every child in the class wanted to experience her rapt attention, and by the end of the day, they all did.
Bonnie also spoke quietly. She never raised her voice; instead, she made sure that her words were expressive and laden with emotion. The children in the back of the room sometimes had to work hard to hear their teacher, but the effort was always worth it. And on the rare occasion the class got noisy or unruly, Bonnie grew quiet, putting her hands together near her chin and cocking her head a little, giving the impression that she was listening intently to all of them. Soon, the children who were speaking or being unruly got the point that Bonnie heard everything they were saying and they calmed down. What Bonnie’s students experienced were feelings of recognition and understanding. In other words, they were eager learners because they felt loved.
When I was a young woman, I met psychologist Carl Rogers and psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler- Ross, renowned healers who had the same effect on me that Bonnie had on her students. Carl and Elizabeth took the time to look at everyone they met with a focused interest and emotional intensity that made you feel relaxed and appreciated. It was not only as if they could see right through you, but also that they liked what they saw. When I spoke to Carl, I remember being amused by the fact that I—a tall, strong vigorous young woman—felt like crawling into the lap of this frail little man and laying my head on his shoulder. Of course, I didn’t do that, but he made me feel so safe, and his presence was so comforting, it made me feel loved.
When we don’t feel loved, it’s hard to make others feel loved
Bonnie, in the above story, found it easy making others feel loved. Everyone she came into contact with felt special and important. People like Bonnie are the lucky ones who have experienced love and know how to pass it on. But not everyone is this fortunate. Many men and women don’t know what it is to feel loved, and because of this, they have great difficulty making others feel loved. This was the case with Marsha.
The woman who didn’t know how to make those she loved feel loved
Marsha felt unloved by her self-centered mother and grew up feeling depressed. She also grew up determined that her own children were not going to have the same experience; her children were going to get everything they needed to feel loved.
In her twenties, Marsha fell in love and married, and when it was time to start a family, she did exactly what she had always promised herself. Marsha had natural childbirths, breast fed her children, created fun-filled family vacations, and read countless parenting books on how to best raise healthy, happy, and smart kids. But because Marsha herself remained depressed from the experiences of her unloved childhood, she wasn’t very aware of her own emotions, or those of her children. Though she thought a great deal about her kids, she missed the red flags that her children didn’t feel securely loved, lacked self-confidence, and felt insecure with peers in spite of the fact that each was deeply loved.
Marsha wrote off her children’s behavior as “teenage angst,” including her son’s edginess, his lack of friends, and unhealthy preoccupation with video games. When Marsha’s daughter was younger, she was a dancer who had a lot of friends and talked incessantly about them. But as she grew older, she became quiet and reclusive, locking herself in her room every evening. Neither of her children had ever been willing to talk to Marsha about how they were feeling. Since Marsha rarely paid attention or understood what she was feeling herself, this all seemed normal.
Many years passed and Marsha’s son found love in the wrong places, marrying and divorcing two women who were both steeped in their own problems. He struggled with anger issues and had few close friends. Marsha’s daughter stopped dancing, gained a lot of weight, became chronically depressed, and rarely contacted her family. One night, alone in front of the television, Marsha finally realized that her children, despite her earlier promises, had grown up feeling unloved and insecure.
No matter how hard we try to make those we love feel loved, if we don’t feel emotionally connected to ourselves, we won’t be able to emotionally connect with them. And without this emotional connection, we won’t be able to communicate nonverbally and tap the hormonal resources that bring so much pleasure and strength to our lives. Be reassured it’s never too late to connect to your emotions and experience feelings of love.
It’s never too late to begin feeling loved
We are never too old to feel loved. We are never too old to fall in love. As long as we are in good health, oxytocin can be triggered by vivid memories of loving and feeling loved, and by being with people who make us feel loved. Sarah and Sam are examples of this.
The couple who took their time to fall in love
Sarah and Sam were both in their mid-70s when they met and fell in love. Each had children and grandchildren, and each had been in long marriages with spouses who died. Though their spouses had been good people who cared for them, neither had felt loved or been in a passionate relationship. For the first time in their long lives, both experienced a relationship with someone who looked directly at them, listened attentively when they spoke, cared about and understood what they felt, and brought emotion into their lovemaking. The couple’s intention to wed shocked their children, but Sarah and Sam stood firm. They resolved to spend as much time together as they could—for as long as they lived—and married in spite of the opposition. Both Sarah and Sam’s families eventually became grateful that they met, because each of them remained so healthy, busy, and happy that their children found no need to worry about them.
We can learn skills in order to love and feel loved
No matter our age, we can access tools and learn skills that enable us to feel loved and make others feel loved.
As far as we know, we are not simply born with an innate ability to produce an emotional connection. Emotional connection is a skill set that, if we’re lucky, we learn early in life. But we don’t have to acquire this skill set in infancy; we can learn these skills later in life. One way to do this is through a free toolkit program on the Helpguide.org website. This toolkit, which includes videos, articles, and audio meditations, is described in Part Three of Feeling Loved.
Even if you don’t feel loved now—or if you’ve never felt loved—you can learn skills that will enable you to release oxytocin and the feelings of love you need to overcome stress and thrive.
This book was written to engage you into action. Change is about more than just thinking differently; it’s about acting differently and feeling differently. It’s important that you put yourself in motion. But before you do so, you need to know not only what you’re looking for, but also what obstacles stand in your way. These subjects are explored in Part One and Part Two of Feeling Loved. Part Three describes the skills you need to override stress with feelings of being loved. In order to further motivate yourself, you may also want to take a peek at Part Four, which addresses particular challenges that you may be facing in your life.
Staying Connected When Memory Has Been Lost
The man who found a way to connect in spite of loss
Maria’s memory had been slipping for a long time before her husband, Carlos, began to take it seriously. For several years, he had told himself that his wife’s forgetfulness was just part of her eccentric, lovable personality. He didn’t—or didn’t want to—recognize the problem. It wasn’t until a policeman knocked on the door with a confused Maria, who he’d found wandering a few blocks from their home, that Carlos recognized how severe his wife’s forgetfulness had become.
Carlos now saw how rapidly Maria’s memory was deteriorating; she occasionally even forgot who Carlos was. Maria tried to pretend that she knew various things that she had obviously forgotten, but Carlos saw that she really didn’t understand what was going on around her. Facing the fact that his wife of 45 years had dementia—probably Alzheimer’s—was the most painful thing he had ever done. Heartbroken and paralyzed with loss, Carlos tried to calm down and clear his head so he could begin making plans for their future.
Because Carlos had lost a son in the Navy, he knew the value of allowing himself to grieve about what was happening, and he let himself experience everything he felt. The ability to talk over every large and small detail of their lives was gone, and soon most of Maria’s memories, including her memories of him, would also be gone. Grieving deepened this sense of loss but it also made Carlos realize that there were parts of his wife and their life together that he might still be able to connect to. But first he had to understand more about what Maria’s new life was like.
Maria couldn’t tell Carlos what she was experiencing so he did some research to better understand her sense of the world through the lens of dementia. Carlos learned that because people with dementia feel confused, this also makes them fearful and agitated. But there were some parts of Maria’s experience that were not lost. She remained responsive to all kinds of sensory stimulation. Music continued to calm and soothe her, and certain colors, fragrances, and tastes continued to give her pleasure even as her memory loss became more severe. So Carlos made sure Maria frequently heard her favorite songs and music. She loved flowers—especially yellow ones—so he made it a point to place bright yellow flowers where she could see, smell, and touch them. Though conversation would grow more and more frustrating for both of them, they could still connect nonverbally through sounds, gestures, smiles, and tender touches. Moreover, because early memories would last for some time, the two of them would be able to play and sing the old songs of their youth together. This allowed Carlos to see Maria smile and even laugh.
Carlos realized that Maria’s dementia created social gaps in his life that had to be filled in by others. With this in mind, he began making social dates, attended events with friends, and talking over personal problems with his children and closest friends. He missed the life he and Maria once had, but realized they could build a new kind of life together—a much simpler life, but one they could share.
Once Carlos envisioned a future he could live with, he took action and set up a caretaking schedule to ensure that even when he wasn’t available, Maria would always be safe and never alone. In order to avoid becoming stressed and impatient, Carlos knew he also had to take care of himself. He arranged several labor exchanges with his neighbors in order to take daily breaks, plus he made sure to take his annual two-week fishing trip with old friends. His daughter offered to care for her mother while he was away, and he gratefully accepted her offer. Taking action not only made Carlos feel less helpless, but also more hopeful about the future.
Loss is an inevitable part of life, but as long as there is life, we can feel loved and make others feel loved.
We don’t have to think in order to feel loved
Feeling loved is a sensual emotional experience that begins at birth and lasts a lifetime. Because our senses remain intact until we near the very end of life, we can continue to feel loved, provided we also feel safe. People with dementia become confused and threatened by their inability to remember and focus intellectually, but receiving loving attention can override this fear and make them feel both safe and loved.
Love continues after loss
A loving connection can run very deep, especially if it has existed for years. This profound sense of closeness and communication continues even when the person no longer exists, or when parts of the person we love no longer exist. Even though we miss and grieve for what has been lost, we can still find satisfaction in the experience of loving.
Hoping that we can change is one thing, but being given the tools to actually change is a gift that Segal gives us.
The stories throughout the book keep the pace fast and make it a really enjoyable read.
'Feeling Loved' is so full of useful practices that if it were in conventional format, it would soon become dog-eared. On my Kindle, it will stay pristine a lot longer. And its price didn't hurt a bit.
If you follow her prescription, you will become more self-aware, less self-conscious. You will also learn how to improve your chances of living an engaged and satisfying life.
- Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Harvard Medical School
About the Author
To Contact Dr. Segal
Online Booksellers for Feeling Loved:
100% of proceeds from book sales go to Helpguide.org benefiting the millions of people this nonprofit website serves.
Paperback and eBook