I’ve been staring a lot of sacred cows in the eye lately, and it’s been a very productive exercise. In my last post I wrote about empowerment; today I feel like taking on the subject of love. No matter how tough our actual job situations get, youth service professionals firmly maintain our love for the work and the people we serve: “I love working with youth!” “I love my young people.” What do we actually mean by the word ‘love’? More precisely, I should ask, what do you mean when you say the word ‘love’?
There’s been a lot written around the languages of love, but that’s not what I’m referring to here. While it’s interesting to figure out whether you express love through words, action, etc., I’m trying to get at something deeper still: your very definition of ‘Iove.’ In other words, when you tell someone “I love you,” or you prepare a meal for your loved one, or you give someone a hug, what is your intention? (And please don’t say, “To show love,” because that would be circular reasoning.)
If you can’t answer this question, I suggest you take some time to put together your own personal definition of love because this is too important a term to throw around lightly. My interest in love is not born of intellectual curiosity. This has to do with practice. Knowing what you actually mean when you claim to bring love to your work has several very concrete advantages. It allows you to:
- embody that definition as much as possible in everything you do;
- become conscious of when you’re unable to act out of love; and
- identify and release any unhealthy definitions of love you’ve been carrying around.
So let me stop talking in abstractions and give an example of how knowing your definition of love can transform your work with youth (and, moreover, potentially transform relationships in all areas of your life). I have a very specific definition of love that I’ve been working consciously with for about three years. I intend that every person who sits before me feels completely seen, heard, and held. I also intend to regard that person as someone of infinite potential. In practical terms, this means that I give every young person who meets with me my full attention. I open my heart, observe, and listen without judgment. I hold space for them to imagine for themselves a future of unbridled possibility. This is my gift to the people I work with.
Working consciously with my definition of love helps me stay in integrity. If opinions pop up in my head (and, believe me, they do), I mindfully set them aside and move toward compassionate understanding. In tough situations, I choose to recognize that the person before me is doing the best she can in that moment, so that instead of falling into self-judgment or shame, she can be gentle with herself and see a way forward.
More generally, this consciousness also helps me shape the direction of my work (and this hooks back to my discussion of empowerment). I avoid projects where I would have to try to get individuals to measure up to other people’s standards, no matter how reasonable or beneficial those standards were. This may seem extreme, but being in alignment with work that makes my heart sing is, quite frankly, one of the most important aspects of my life, so why shouldn’t I be uncompromising in this regard?
If I am invested in helping young people come into the fullness of themselves (which in my book is another way of saying that they come to know and love themselves), why would I lead them through a bunch of hoops or try to squeeze them into neat little boxes? In practical terms, this means I refuse to help students edit term papers, but I will jump at the chance to talk through a personal essay for their college application. This also means that if you need someone to train your youth in professional conduct, I am not the person for the job. Yes, it’s important that our young people understand that in certain contexts appearance matters, and that dressing up can actually have a positive, transformative effect on their behavior and self concept. But this is not the sort of work that gets my blood flowing. Why hire me when there are so many other youth service professionals who can bring good humor, creativity, and compassion to a “soft skills” workshop?
Yet another advantage of having a firm grip on my definition of love is that it helps me sense when I’ve started to veer into treacherous territory (i.e., crossed a boundary). If I find myself slipping into the position of caretaking—by which I mean trying to be the person who solves someone else’s problems, who acts as the primary motivating force in that person’s life, or who shoulders the responsibility of making someone else feel good—I know I’ve fallen out of integrity.
I’ve been guilty of all those actions I mention, and in hindsight I realize that although I thought I was acting out of love when I did those things, none of it made me (or the other person involved) feel good. You may disagree with me, but in my experience, if something doesn’t feel good, it probably isn’t love. The big lesson in all this was that it wasn’t enough for me to have a positive definition of love; I also had to come to awareness of all the unhealthy ways I thought I was expressing love but was actually acting out of obligation, guilt, or (more pointedly) the desire to be the parent I never had.
I’m a big cheeseball, so even thinking about how I put love into action can literally make my eyes well up with tears. And I swear I can feel my heart swell. This brings me to the secret behind all this: I do what I do out of love, yes, but the primary beneficiary in all this is me. It’s been a journey coming to terms with this fact because when I first started this work the happiness of my young people was what got me out of bed. It took burning out and being literally bed-ridden for me to figure out an entirely different reason for getting up in the morning. This is what I’ve arrived at:
I do what I do because it brings me great joy to witness people discover the truth of themselves and expand in directions they never anticipated. I show love to others by creating the space for this magic to happen in my presence. But ultimately what I’m doing is showing love to myself by paying attention to how I grow and learn by participating in this process. I get a thrill cooking up ideas for bringing this work into the world. I have fun being in a room full of people who are equally motivated and excited to grow and learn. It surprises and delights me to see my career take turns I never in a million years expected when I first entered grad school. I do this work, in other words, so I can see myself unfold in the truest way possible.
Does your work give you the space to show love to yourself and others? To answer that, it’s imperative to craft a precise definition of love. Then you can get to fun part of integrating love into your work as a daily practice. As with all internal work, this is tough stuff, but I promise the dividends are priceless!