5 Ways to Love the Unlovable

unlovable woman

How to love those who resist us the most.


In the past few weeks, I’ve wanted to give a number of people a hug, but stopped myself out of fear of inappropriate behavior. Hugging in a loving open-hearted way is dangerous for men. If we hug women, we are creepy. If we hug men, we are gay. If we hug children besides our own, we are molesters. If we hug strangers, we are touchy feely.

While contemplating ways in which I could give others hugs without touching them, I realized that a hug was just a physical expression of love. So the real question is how do we love those who are unlovable?

Here are five ways to love the unlovable:


Small Gestures

Many times those who need love the most are not ready for a hug or to hear “I love you” (many men, like our fathers, fall in this category). Sometimes a very subtle gesture can express love and seep into the cracks of the most armored psyche. Examples include a pat on the back, a touch on the shoulder, a smile with eye contact, or a slight bow.

Sometimes a very subtle gesture can express love and seep into the cracks of the most armored psyche.

At a weekly meditation circle I attend, I’ve wanted to give the host a hug for months, but she is always busy cooking food for everyone. One evening I opened my eyes after meditation and she was sitting right in front of me. Here was my chance to finally give her a great big hug and tell her how much I appreciate her.

When she opened her eyes, she saw me staring at her. Before I could rush over and tackle her with an embrace, she softly put her hand over her heart and bowed her head down. The connection, humility, and love I felt in that 3 seconds still resonates with me.

Small gestures also allow us to spread love to people who we might never know. On one of my commutes, I drive by a county jail. Every time I drive by the jail, I flash the peace sign and say, “Peace Out, my brothers.” Some might think me delusional, but imagine if everyone who drove by that jail did the same thing. This gesture of love might not reach the prisoners, but it would affect how society views and treats the margins of our community.


Love the One You’re With

“If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”~Stephen Stills

When I think about unconditional love, I think about a love that has no preferences, no favorites. Often when we are trying to love someone who is distant (either geographically or psychologically), we get caught up in our desire to only love one specific person.

The body and the heart don’t distinguish different types of love for different people. Love is love. In fact, modern science reveals that even a love for chocolate stimulates the same dopamine release as falling in love with others. The only thing that prevents this love cycle is the mind and our ego. We tell ourselves that we will only love certain people or we will only love if we get certain things in return.

“you are what you love, not what loves you.”

True love loves without expectations or preferences. Like Donald Kaufman says in Adaptation, “you are what you love, not what loves you.”

My new strategy is to love the one I’m with. For example, my ex-wife would rather eat a whole case of bitter chocolate than get a hug from me. Even subtle gestures of kindness are met with suspicion and indifference. So I transfer all this unused love onto my two sons. Whenever I’m with Jett and Fox, I shower them with love and gratitude. I also try not to talk badly about their mother, so the love keeps flowing.


Visualize Love

Professional athletes have known for decades that visualizing certain acts improves performance just as much as physically practicing those actions. The mind cannot distinguish an actual experience from a mental rehearsal of the same experience. In truth, visualizing making the game-winning, clutch free-throws actually improves performance more than practicing free-throws in an empty gym because athletes get to experience the context of the action.

Like I said before, the body and the heart don’t distinguish between different types of love, so visualizing loving a person can trigger the same physiological reactions as actually being in the presence of that person. I put this science into practice by visualizing hugging those who are resistant to any overt expressions of love.

The Tibetan practice of Tonglen is a type of meditation that visualizes breathing in the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness to all sentient beings. It comes as no surprise that Tibetans like the Dalai Lama are able to cultivate compassion and love for even the most difficult others who have trespassed against them.

Sometimes I’ll say hi to a stranger who will return my salutation with a scowl. I then pretend that I am giving them a nice long hug. On other days, I will visualize giving hugs to three people with whom I having difficulty. I feel them soften into the imaginary hug, relieved that the tension between us is dissipating.


Sing and Chant

The other week I sat at a bus stop with a woman who was extremely upset that I had the nerve to sit down next to her. She felt the need to shower me with racist insults. So I just started singing, “I love you; thank you; thank you,” over and over again. This chant/prayer comes from a Hawaiian spiritual practice called ho’oponopono.

At one point, the woman at the bus stop yelled at me, “who [sic] are you singing to?” I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “God.” Then I kept singing.

The power of chants/songs/prayers like this lies in their ability to remind us that we are all one. Even our worst enemies are simply human beings looking to love and be loved.



Love yourself

Loving oneself is an extension of loving the one you are with. Even when we are completely alone, we have someone to love. What I have found is that I’m often the last person to get loved by me. It is often easier for me to love my enemies than to love myself.

“Nature reflects your nature.”

I once heard a Native American elder say, “Nature reflects your nature.” If I have a tendency to see myself as unlovable, then no wonder why so many unlovable others show up in my life. The more I can love myself with all my faults, history, screw ups, and mis-takes, the more lovable and loving people start popping up out of nowhere.

To be clear, the self-love that I’m referring to is not narcissism or ego inflammation. I imagine loving and treating myself like an innocent 5 year old child who just doesn’t know any better. This child might have raged in anger when he didn’t get the love he needed. He might have grasped at unhealthy distractions or addictions to supplement his lack of love.

I forgive him for all his misguided attempts to find love in all the wrong places and just hold him like I wanted to be held when I was 5 years old. I stroke his cheek and confess to him how I ignored him in the past, but now I’m here to love him no matter what.


I guess the simple answer to loving the unlovable is to just let love flow no matter what is going on in the external and internal world. I’m aware that I sound a lot like a 60s Haight and Ashbury hippie, but like I’ve said before, in our mad rush to make everything faster and more efficient, we’ve left something very important behind.


Photo: Flickr.com/Liz

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