"Love" is a term that gets used very casually in our day-to-day lives. It's utilized to convey a strong liking towards something and an explicit desire to associate with it. For instance, we say, "I love what you said," "I love your idea," and "I love the blue one!" In all these examples, we are expressing our passion for a subject, and announcing that we derive pleasure from it. While it might seem here that the subjects in these cases are praiseworthy, the reality is that what we are really doing in these scenarios is we are making statements about ourselves. When we verbally express love for something, we are actually describing how something makes us feel.
The verbal expression of love typically has another function as well. Often it is used to get a reaction from the person to whom we direct it. When someone tells someone, "I love you," he or she could be communicating that they enjoy the other person. The point that is often overlooked here is that the speaker is usually also trying to get the other person's attention, especially if it is repeated over and over again. At that point, one might ask: if you love the person so much, why do you keep repeating it? While many might think that the more "I love you" is said the more love there is in a relationship, the truth is that sometimes the habitual repetition of "I love you" could actually be indicative of something else – namely, a marked need for external validation, approval, or acknowledgement. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with telling those we care about that we love them, or even wanting acknowledgement, but the key here is to be mindful of what we are saying and why we are really saying it. Such thoughtfulness can help differentiate between loving, and Loving.
Truly loving someone goes beyond just expressing how something makes us feel, or trying to get someone's attention. It's about respecting the other person in such a way whereby we act with kindness, sensitivity, and understanding, and preserve his or her integrity. It's about meeting the other person where he or she is, and being there for them in the way they want us to be there for them. It's about giving them what they need, and not simply what we want to give them. It's about focusing more on them, not us.
It takes a lot of work to be able to truly love another. It first involves understanding the person for who he or she is. That's essential. If you don't know who the person actually is, it is impossible to truly love him or her. Maybe you like who you think the person is, or how he or she makes you feel, but you cannot actually love the person because you don't really know who he or she is. But that doesn't mean you will never know him or her. Indeed, it is very possible that you can get to know the person, but that's where the works lies. At the core, understanding others starts with understanding ourselves. We can only understand others as much as we understand ourselves. After all, the relationship we have with others is a direct reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves. From here it follows that the more we are attuned to ourselves, the more we understand ourselves, and love ourselves, the more we can project such love in our relationships with others and give them what they really need.
A general litmus test of true love is the following. Imagine you got a gift for a loved one — for a spouse, a partner, a child, or a friend. You have spent a lot of time and effort carefully picking out the gift, wanting to see that it's going to be something your loved one is going to like. So you get it, and excitedly bring it to him or her because you know it is going to be something they really like. In the meantime, unbeknownst to you, your loved one is having a really bad day. So you give them the gift as planned, but are surprised when they get really angry and throw the gift back at you, exclaiming, "I don't care about this stupid ____." How do you feel? What do you think? What do you do? If this reaction makes you feel angry, disappointed, and possibly even regretful for having gone through all that work to pick out such a gift, it seems the primary motivation here was to get acknowledgment or validation from your loved one for having done something nice for them. After all, your discomfort stems from not getting the warm reception you were seeking. However, if your loved one's reaction conjures a sense of concern within you for them, a desire to truly understand why they are upset, and you meanwhile do not take their comment about the gift very personally, then you are likely operating from a higher level of love. A more real kind of love. You got the gift for them because you really care about them. In spite of their reaction, you don't regret all the effort you put into getting the gift, you don't feel sad that they did not acknowledge the gift; instead, you feel compassion for them knowing that they are going through a tough time and you are invested in being there for them in the way they want – sensitively, compassionately, with understanding. Needless to say, this requires a certain level of self-understanding and clarity, to be able to appreciate that what they are upset at probably has little, if anything, to do with you personally.
Truly loving another assumes that we have a certain amount of knowledge, understanding, and love for ourselves. We can only know others as much as we know ourselves. We can only understand others as much as we understand ourselves. We can only love others as much as we love ourselves. So the more we actually know, understand, and love ourselves for who we are, the better equipped we are to really know, understand, and, ultimately, love others for who they really are.
And at that point, we won't even need to tell them we love them. They'll know.