What Is “Unconditionality”?
Unconditional love is widely considered to be one of the most valuable gifts that parents can give their children.
Ironically, many parents set out to love their children unconditionally and then feel bad about themselves when they fall short. In other words, their self-esteem is conditional—contingent upon their success at loving unconditionally!
Some parents believe that giving selflessly to their children is proof of their unconditional love. But parental self-sacrifice is an insidious form of conditionality that diminishes both parent and child. Its true colors are exposed when the self-sacrificing parent eventually snaps and says, “How can you treat me that way after all I’ve sacrificed for you!?”
What gets us in trouble is focusing too much on what we’re doing, and not enough on how we’re being. The behavior of unconditional loving (what we do) arises from a particular state of mind (how we are), and I call that state of mind unconditionality. It makes the difference between superficially unconditional love and the real thing. And our kids can feel that difference.
Let’s take a closer look at this, starting with a practical definition of unconditionality: Unconditionality is a state of mind in which you are willing to allow well-being into your experience…no matter what.
This definition implies that the experience of well-being is always available to you—that you can have more wellbeing simply by letting it in. There are many people in this world—perhaps you know some of them—whose lives seem to prove this point. They have a high level of wellbeing despite poverty, disabilities, an abusive childhood, or other circumstances about which most people would feel quite unwell. But it’s not that well-being is somehow more available to them, it’s that they are more skilled at achieving the state of unconditionality that lets it in.
Unconditionality is selfish in the best sense of the word, because your own well-being becomes your top priority. You give to your child only what you can give happily, and that sets in motion a pattern of giving that continually increases your well-being instead of feeling like a drain. This leads to more generosity, not less.
Unconditionality increases your sense of freedom; it never limits your choices. It’s entirely possible to be in the state of unconditionality and passionately want conditions to change.
Unconditionality increases your creativity as you deliberately create the inner experiences you desire, regardless of external conditions. So you can have not only unconditional love, but also…
And the list goes on. Whatever you want to experience!
An Inside Job
Notice, however, that the list doesn’t include “unconditional obedience.” This is because your child’s obedience is an external condition.
Unconditionality is “an inside job.” It’s about how you interpret external conditions. It’s powerful because, while you can’t always control conditions, you can always change your mind. You can always find thoughts that feel better (or at least bring you some relief) when you think them. And how you think eventually influences outer conditions.
You might ask, “Well, what if my child won’t obey me? There’s nothing joyful about that!”
And I would ask, “Are you sure?”
You see, if you decide up front that you’re going to enjoy your relationship with your child unconditionally— no matter what—then what you are actually doing is opening up your creative channels. You are saying to yourself, “I don’t know how I’m going to pull this off, but I’m open to finding a way to enjoy (or appreciate, or be at peace with) anything that happens between me and my child.”
Once a state of unconditionality is well established, uplifting thoughts will come rushing in through those open channels—even when your child chooses not to obey you— and you will find a way to enjoy, accept, appreciate, or otherwise feel good about your child (and yourself) in that moment.
But in a state of conditionality—letting external conditions determine how you feel—your child’s disobedience can trigger a cascade of negative thoughts:
My child doesn’t respect me.
I’m a terrible parent.
Other parents won’t respect me if I let my child get away with this.
If my child doesn’t learn obedience, she might run out into a busy street!
How is he going to get along in the world if he can’t follow rules?
And before you know it, you’ll feel as if your child were about to die or go to prison! Conditions will likely worsen because your child would intuitively feel your fear and negative expectations, and his or her nature is to obey them.
In other words, what you say you want your child to do is less influential than the “vibes” you put out, which can be roughly divided into two categories: resisting or allowing. You are either resisting conditions or allowing wellbeing, and you can tell which way you’re going by how you feel. Resistance feels bad, heavy, or tense; allowing feels good, light, or relieving.
What kind of thoughts are likely to come to you in a state of unconditionality?
Nothing is worth sacrificing my peace for.
It’s good to know that my well-being is not dependent on what anyone else does or thinks.
I’m bigger than this. I’m more powerful than this condition.
My child is reminding me that having control over others is unimportant.
I appreciate that my child is not a mindless lemming!
My child is learning to find his own way.
I love that my child knows what she wants.
I’m grateful to my child for giving me this opportunity to practice unconditionality.
And so on… Now you are emanating a vibe that your child instinctively knows is the Authentic Flavor of Life. It is irresistibly yummy! And while there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the obedience you originally wanted, it’s a certainty that the quality of your relationship will improve in that moment, because you have unilaterally uplifted it.
Over time, your ever-improving relationship will make the issue of obedience more or less irrelevant. Each of you will be “obeying” your natural desire to enjoy the relationship. This applies to any behavior issue.
An “Unconditional Surrender”
I remember a particularly stress-filled evening when my first child, Olivia, was 2 years old and she refused to get into her car seat. We were on our way home after an all day excursion and had just stopped at a gas station. My wife and I were exhausted and we just didn’t have the energy for a struggle.
But old habits die hard, and I struggled anyway, eventually trying to force her into the car seat. And she—bless her fiery heart—would have none of it! She fought with every fiber of her being to uphold her dignity, until I finally gave up. I surrendered. But I was not defeated; I simply realized that I could have a much better time doing anything other than fighting my beloved child.
So I relaxed and told her she didn’t have to get in the car seat. I decided that I was willing to wait patiently in that parking lot until she was ready to buckle up and go, voluntarily. I told myself, “I don’t need conditions to change in order to feel peace now,” and I looked for something— anything—more pleasant to focus on.
My solution was to rest my chin on the steering wheel and indulge in the simple pleasure of people-watching— there were plenty of interesting people coming and going about the gas station. (This isn’t rocket science: Just reach for any thought that brings relief or feels better when you think it.)
Meanwhile, my daughter, feeling the shift from resistance to freedom and lightness, dawdled and tinkered with the various knobs and buttons in the car for about three minutes. Then she climbed into her car seat and let me buckle her in without protest.
I believe this rapid return to peace was, in part, because I was willing to wait “forever”—meaning I was totally focused in the present. In other words, my unconditionality gave her the space and time she needed to find her own way. And with that sense of freedom, we both found a way that was in accord with our shared desire for peace, freedom, and respect.
My story illustrates the paradox in which unconditionality leads to positive changes in conditions, but it doesn’t work if your intent is merely to change the conditions. You’ve got to make a commitment to unconditionality for its own sake—because you want the power to enjoy life under any conditions.
Our children give us ample opportunities to practice this, and sometimes they persist with undesired behaviors until we get it. It’s as if they’re saying, “Mom, Dad— I’d really like to go along with you, but I’m going to wait until you let go of the idea that I have to change for you to feel OK. I don’t want to deprive you of the wonderful feeling of knowing where your well-being really comes from.”
Unconditionality empowers you to create what you want from the inside out, while conditionality requires change from the outside in. When you truly shift inside, you can taste the deliciousness of well-being instantly. Any subsequent outer change is just icing on the cake.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #54.
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