Developing a Deliberate Practice of Loving

After writing my article about how I never learned to love children, I got a wonderful question on Facebook about what we can do to change if the ways we experienced parental love were based in fear, control, and power.

I’ve been pondering this question ever since I read it and want to talk about what it means to develop a deliberate practice of loving.

There is much written out there about deliberate practice. You may have heard of it as the 10,000 hour rule.

The idea goes like this: it takes 10,000 hours to gain expertise in a particular area. Some of this is based on research on athletes and musicians.

Even though I am using the word “deliberate” I don’t want to scare you away from this deliberate practice of loving with the thought you won’t be able to do it if you don’t practice for 10,000 hours.

I will say this, however, if you break down 10,000 hours of practice over 10 years, it turns out to be about 2.7 hours a day of practice.

Think about that.

If you are a parent to a 10 year-old, you’ve already spent way more than 10,000 hours with the child in your life.

What Does It Mean to Practice Loving?

I think developing a deliberate practice of loving is a combination of “heart” and “head” work. We create greater awareness and presence on a moment-by-moment basis, while also using critical reflection to create greater understanding of ourselves.

Because most of us did not grow up experiencing love that at a deep level affirmed who we are, that affirmed our value and worth, that deepened our understanding of ourselves, we do not necessarily have models for child-adult relationships that aren’t based in some form of control.

I distinguish loving from the feeling of love. I feel deep love for the children in my life. At least that is the word I put on the emotion I feel when I think positively about them.

But because I never learned how to love them from first-hand experience as a child, I must deliberately practice loving them.

Even more importantly, this deliberate practice of loving begins with learning how to love myself.

From Triggers to Self-Recrimination to Loving

When I behave less than loving toward them I go into judgment mode about what I’m thinking and feeling. I feel sad about being short-tempered.

The “shoulds” or the “shouldn’ts” start flying around in my head. I fight against my feelings as though they were my enemy.

Because in our own childhoods we were judged, deemed unworthy or not enough, we carry that judgment into our adult lives. We hear the voice of “should” or “shouldn’t” because we heard it so often as a child.

Because we were treated this way and we saw that most other children were treated the same, we learned that this is how adults treat children.

As we try to develop a different way of loving ourselves and children, we have to be willing to create a deliberate practice.

My daily practice is centered around being a parent.

It comes in those times when I feel discomfort, frustration, and/or challenge.

It could be a daily practice with my partner, children, food, or money. Whatever it is that I may feel challenge or discomfort with is a place to engage in this deliberate practice of loving.

It is usually when I’m triggered, that my behavior is less than loving.

Being triggered by something puts me into fear mode.

I move into wanting to try and control the situation, the person, or myself to hold my fear at bay.

So the desire to treat them (and myself) with trust and respect (lovingly) is outweighed by wanting to feel safe and in control.

When I am in that place, it is uncomfortable. It feels downright crappy. I don’t feel good and the people affected by my actions feel it too.

When the discomfort or challenge comes up I have some choices.

At any given moment, I might do any one of these things.

  • I might decide to follow the pattern I learned in childhood and tell myself that I suck.
  • I might get angry at the people in my life that I’ve decided are to blame for my feelings and actions.
  • I might decide to walk away from the situation.
  • I might decide to just let myself feel whatever I’m feeling without judgment, or as I have said in other contexts “move toward the feelings.”

My deliberate practice of loving as a parent is about allowing whatever feelings I am having to come into my awareness.

To invite in those feelings and give them space to be within me. Treating children with respect has to start with treating myself with respect when I don’t behave or feel the way I’m “supposed” to.

Here are some examples:

  • I close my eyes and focus on where I feel discomfort in my body. I listen to my breathing, noticing it going in and out. Not trying to control it.
  • I “talk” to myself as a neutral observer. I describe what I am noticing around me. What sounds I am hearing. How and what I’m sitting or standing on. I might describe and notice all of the feelings and sensations within me.
  • I take 3 grounding breaths. Just feeling the air go in and out of my lungs.
  • I verbally or in my head “invite” in my discomfort. I say to myself things like “I am willing to feel how I feel.” “I invite my feelings into my awareness.” “I am open to accepting how I feel right now.”
  • And often most importantly, I remind myself that I have all the time I need.

Each of these examples is about grounding myself in present moment awareness. And in that present moment, I am better able to accept where I am at with less judgment.

This daily practice of loving is a deliberate practice. It is not just doing the same thing over and over until “practice makes perfect.” It is about being mindful and present.

Slow Down to Create Deliberateness

When I engage in this daily practice, I am reminded of when I studied music with a particular teacher, Mrs. Paschal, as a teenager. When I began to learn a new piece, she would have me play it at a very slow tempo.

It was a speed that caused me to play deliberately. It gave me time to breathe and think as I looked at the notes on the page and translated those notes into action in my fingers.

It also allowed me to make mistakes and feel less frustrated.

When we slow down, take those breaths, and tell ourselves that we have all the time we need, often we are able to create space for possibilities that don’t exist when we are rushed and stressed.

Our daily practice isn’t a race. Each deliberate step, breath, or pause to notice what is happening within and outside of us, is an opportunity to practice presence and loving.

So often we hear about how parents automatically love children, that we don’t have to learn to love. I say the opposite is true. Given that most parenting in our culture is based on control and fear, learning to love is as much a practice as anything else.

Critical Reflection Deepens Our Practice

It also requires a willingness to be reflective in our deliberate practice, to be willing to make connections between our actions, reactions, triggers, and past experiences.

When we engage in critical reflection we use the internal and external feedback we receive from our actions to inform how we might change our practice.

Internal feedback comes in the form of our emotions and feelings.

External feedback comes from the children in our lives.

Sometimes, with an older child, I will specifically ask for feedback about an interaction or strategy to improve how I listen and communicate.

This allows me to deepen my deliberate practice and integrate new ways of being and behaving in that relationship.

An example of critical reflection might be thinking about how my daily activities create greater opportunities to respond with loving.

If I do a short guided meditation everyday or yoga practice, my capacity for loving increases. When I am short on sleep, if I don’t engage in some form of self-care in a particular day, my capacity for loving decreases.

If the children in my life are in a place that is triggering me, I might need to go back to tools I had used previously and start using them again.

Taking a moment to critically reflect on what has worked for me in the past allows me to re-engage those tools in the present.

The other piece of my own critical reflection is writing.

It is as much a part of my learning as anything else. I share my struggles with you and bring out the unconscious beliefs and values, as well as the triggers, that move me into control and fear.

This allows me to bring to consciousness and awareness those things that may have previously been hidden from me.

In our deliberate practice of loving, we use this continuous feedback loop and critical reflection to liberate ourselves from the ways we learned to “love” as children.