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Dr. Dinorah Nieves: When Giving and Receiving Love Feels Uncomfortable

Photo Credit: Tim Mossholder

We’ve all heard it before, “You can’t love others before you learn to love yourself.” While this may sound like a worn out cliché, the truth is, we all know it’s not. Self-love plays a vital role in your relationships with others. Whether it be romantic relationships, professional or friendships, the view you hold of yourself reflects in the quality of your relationships.

“When you treat yourself without respect or love, you give others permission to do the same.”

To understand the role self-love plays in the ability to give and receive love, and foster healthy relationships, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Dinorah Nieves, PhD, behavioral scientist, personal development coach and consultant for OWN’s “Iyanla Fix My Life”, and the author of Love You: 12 Ways to Be Who You Love & Love Who You Are and Love You: The Latina Edition.

In our discussion, Dr. Nieves “draws upon her personal experience, counseling women and girls on how to untangle limiting beliefs,” to live healthy, balanced and loving lives.

BJB: What is the biggest internal block to giving and receiving love?

DN: There are two very important pieces to this.

First and foremost, I don’t think people think they’re worthy of love just by being who they are. I think we are well-meaning individuals, who are taught by individuals around us how to be safe and what they believe will keep us safe. But, unfortunately, it means that we don’t always develop our inner voice and we are conditioned, instead to “play it safe” by being what others want. That conditioning keeps us thinking, ‘I have to be this or I have to be that,’ as opposed to thinking, ‘I am already perfect just as I am.’

Being taught to “play it safe” sends the message that we are not necessarily lovable for who we are, but for what we do and that we need to do things differently from how we might want to do them.

So, if you don’t feel worthy of love, then you can’t receive, exchange or emanate love. You can’t live inside of love because love is not a comfort zone for you.

The second piece to this is that love doesn’t feel safe to a lot of people.

Although people seek and crave love, they can’t fully participate in love because they don’t know how to be vulnerable. They don’t trust themselves or others to overcome any challenges presented by emotional attachment. When emotional and romantic love feels so unsafe, there is only partial participation.

BJB: Can you talk about the negative thought patterns, limiting beliefs and fears which contribute to a pattern of on-and-off again romantic relationships?

DN: One thought pattern which contributes to unhealthy relationships is the quest for control.

For example, ideas such as: ‘I have to control things. I can’t be happy if I let go. I have to constantly be in power if I want things to go my way,’ are all built on the belief, ‘The only way I can be safe and happy is if I’m in control.’

People who want to be in control may have had early experiences of feeling unsafe. That is why there is a need to be in control. When we don’t feel safe, there is a need to focus externally on changing other people without an acknowledgment of who the person really is.

That is a real danger for relationships.

BJB: What are the signs a relationship is connected in fear instead of love?

DN: The simple answer is, “Can you breathe?”

You know the difference between a relationship in which you can breathe and one in which you hold your breath. When you feel yourself tensing up in the presence of another human being, there is a lack of health to the relationship that has to be examined.

The more freely you can breathe in the company of another human being, the healthier that relationship will be.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you respect and admire each other?

  • Do you have a communication style that honors what the other person needs and wants?

  • Can you breakdown in a way that lifts each other up?

Photo Credit: Fabian Moller

BJB: How can mindfulness bring your attention to negative patterns which contribute to self-sabotaging relationships?

DN: So many of us are on “auto-pilot” all the time. We move through the world reacting to new situations in the same way we reacted to past situations that were similar. There is a reason for that. It’s about safety. We couldn’t move through the world if we didn’t think we had a handle on things.

However, there is also a piece of that which keeps us stuck in our behavioral, thought and feeling patterns. Although many of these habits were developed to respond to something (a threat) that was real before, often such habits are no longer helpful to us. Now that we’ve grown and matured, we’re fundamentally safe in a way we didn’t feel safe in the past.

What keeps us stuck is not looking at the situation in the present. We look at the situation from the past or from the future.

The beauty of mindfulness is that we can train the mind to ask the following:

  • How does what I’m thinking help me right now?

  • What does this have to do with right now?

  • What do I need right now?

  • How can I use what is going on in my body, my mind and my spirit to help me right now?

When you make decisions from this space, you tend to have a cleaner experience. It’s not polluted with reactions you don’t understand, expectations no one has agreed to, and conversations people are not prepared to have.

BJB: How do your thoughts about the disappointment of “not being where you thought you’d be in life” affect social and romantic relationships?

DN: A big piece of unhappiness that people feel toward themselves is from self-judgment.

Through socialization, we learn early on how to judge ourselves. Some piece of the process is helpful because you have to know how to self-assess and understand how your behavior contributes to any situation.

However, you can have an assessment of self without the judgment of self.

Judgment exists in right/wrong, good/bad, and black/white and in the dissonance of who you are and who you want to be. It’s very concrete and also a big piece of why people are afraid of being alone.

They don’t like to be stuck with their self-judgment and subsequent disappointments.

BJB: What’s the difference between loneliness and solitude? Why is there so much fear about being alone?

DN: If we eliminate the self-judgment being alone is a more pleasant experience.

We can be with ourselves in a way that allows us to be aware of what we think, what we want what we need without judging it against who we think we should be. The dissonance keeps us from being able to love ourselves, because we constantly compare the ideal self to the actual self, and it makes being alone too hard, too sad and too frustrating.

When being alone becomes a great space, we raise the bar for who we can be with in a relationship.

BJB: What about someone who feels stuck in a relationship? How can you begin to advocate for yourself and for what you want in life?

DN: One tangible activity you can do is journal all of things that benefit you with no requirement from you.

For example, the sun rises, you receive oxygen from the air, or the cashier has a coupon, etc. It’s a way to focus your consciousness on how much the universe is conspiring in your favor with no requirement from you. That’s an important process because it prompts you to believe in something outside of yourself; something bigger than you.

There is an entire world there to benefit you whether you wake up in a good mood, bad mood, scared or secure.

What keeps you stuck is when you feel you are the one who has to do everything — if you can’t see the way, then the way must not be there. To shift your consciousness to understand that all types of things happen without your effort is very important.

Photo Credit: Ali Abdul Rahma

It means you’ll have support, which makes change less scary.

Strategizing to build your sense of self is also important. You can hone in on the following:

  • Why am I here?

  • What gifts do I have to share with the world?

  • Can I create a plan to begin changing toward my purpose?

There are also more difficult questions we must ask of ourselves. They are equally important to address because it’s how we begin to align with the plan.

  • Why do I tolerate this?

  • Am I victim of the circumstances I’ve created?

  • What benefit do I get from the victim perspective?

  • What is the reward I secretly benefit from perceiving myself as a victim?

  • What is it that I don’t want to admit to myself?

It’s important to understand that whenever you are not working to change the life you claim you want to change, it’s usually because you believe that something or someone is holding you back. That puts you in the victim position. There is likely a reward there for you that you may not be comfortable admitting to, even if it’s just the comfort of staying where you are.

Ask yourself, “Is there something I’m getting from this?”

We all have hard times; some harder than others. But there’s a difference between having been through something, and being stuck in something.

If you repeatedly go through the same thing, you’re creating your own crises.

BJB: What has been the most unexpected part of your spiritual and personal growth?

DN: I am happy to admit that I have more to learn, and that I do have more questions than answers. Becoming comfortable with my questions without always needing answers has been one of the most amazing pieces of my growth. I can be with the process of being open to all the blessings I’ve received and the wisdom that comes through me.

“When you are able to recognize that you are not a victim of what you have experienced but that you are actually the creator of all that you have encountered, you will then begin to consciously create more precisely how you want to experience the world. But first, you must be willing to change your perception of yourself and stop judging yourself. When you can eliminate negative comments in your self-talk, the judgment magically disappears.”

Without self-judgment and the belief in your own unworthiness, you can have a deeper experience of loving yourself and others. You can “make each thought, feeling and behavior in your life, consistent and aligned with self-love,” because in the end, the most powerful and transforming force for human beings is love and all love ever wants to do is express itself.

Let’s get on with it.


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