Interview with Jeanne Segal, Author of “Feeling Loved”

Jeanne-Segal

In 1999, Jeanne Segal and her husband began HelpGuide.org, a website that helps its readers make healthy choices to help themselves. Earlier this year, Segal published Feeling Loved, a book dedicated to showing us why we might not feel loved in our relationships and how to fix that. After reading the book (check out our review here!), we chatted with Segal on how you can feel loved – and help others feel loved – during this holiday season.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write Feeling Loved?

Jeanne Segal: Well, you know, we have a very major website, HelpGuide.org. Something like 81 million people came to the site and stayed on the site to read for a few minutes. So it’s a pretty big site. We’ve never spent a penny on publicity or marketing so this is all word of mouth. Our challenge is to use this two-dimensional screen to really see what we can do to help people to help themselves with a lot of the emotional problems that people have today.

And so the book is a way of deepening that healing, what you can do for yourself, kind of process. There’s just a limit to how much you can put in a written article that has to be around 1500 – 2000 words. A book gives you an opportunity to tell stories. I believe that that’s how we learn. I think we learn best when we’re moved and stories can move us. So Feeling Loved allows me to take what I hope will be a healing process for people to a deeper level.

SHY: If you could have people take away just one lesson from Feeling Loved, what would it be?

JS: That we need to take the time and pay attention to non-verbal communication. To what people are telling, the messages people are sending us through their tones of voice and the expressions on their face in particular. There are more muscles in the face than really in the rest of the body put together. And of course, they’re not weight-bearing. What do they do? They’re very important to the messages to the brain that transmit so rapidly we’re not necessarily conscious of them. But that communication is enormously important if we are going to either feel loved ourselves, feel safe, feel secure — or create that kind of safety and security and acknowledgment for the people that we want to feel loved.

SHY: How can you tell if someone isn’t feeling loved?

JS: Well, I don’t think you can tell. You know, people are pretty good at pretending, making up stories. You can tell if you don’t feel loved. You don’t feel safe. You don’t feel secure. You don’t feel happy.  You may have somebody who’s talking, who’s saying all these wonderful-sounding things, giving you presents and in many ways acting in a way that our culture says is loving. But you don’t experience it. So it’s just kind of an empty experience, and it’s very confusing.

When people are telling you that they love you and in some ways acting that way, giving you presents or calling you up to see how you’re feeling, why is it that you don’t feel deeply? Why don’t you have this experience that makes you feel secure and happy and safe? Why isn’t that happening? So it’s very easy for you to detect when you don’t feel loved.

You’re doing your best to show others that you love them. You’re doing your best. But they don’t seem to get it. When we make people feel loved, they want to be with us. You can’t get enough of that. So when we’re good at making others feel loved, we are in a way attracting them. One way of saying that you’re not good at making, at assessing whether other people feel loved – do they want to be with you? Does it seem like they seek you out and you’re somebody they want to hang out with and want to be with? If that’s not the case, there’s always the possibility that we’re not doing what we could do to make them feel loved.

It’s also possible that they’re not open to our signals. That also is a possibility. There are plenty of people who have never felt or experienced the feeling of love. They don’t look for it. They don’t even know it exists. So they may not look at us. We need to have eye contact. They may never really listen or really look to see that there is love in front of them.

SHY: Do you think it’s possible to feel loved in certain relationships and unloved in others, or is this more of a blanket issue?

JS: No, it’s very person-specific. You know, you can have an interchange with a clerk or a waiter and feel acknowledged and safe and valued and feel that good, happy, mmm feeling that is feeling loved. You feel mmm, I like to be here. I’m having such a good time in this moment. It’s very individual. If someone doesn’t even look at us, if someone’s looking at their phone and having lunch with us, we’re not going to feel loved.

SHY: If you want someone to feel loved, is this a two-person job or a one-person job?

JS: Well, feeling love is a social interaction. You don’t feel loved all by yourself. You know, this idea that I can look into the mirror and say, oh, I’m so wonderful, I love myself, I’m loving, I love myself…that isn’t the way the brain works. Feeling loved is the brain’s or the nervous system’s take on love. The nervous system needs certain signals to feel that feeling, that mmm, falling-in-love safe, good, happy feeling that we associate with love. It has to come to us in these non-verbal ways. It doesn’t happen through words. It happens through non-verbal communication. And if we don’t have that non-verbal communication, if we’re not giving that non-verbal communication, their nervous system, their brain isn’t going to have the experience of feeling loved.

SHY: So it’s a two-person job then.

JS: Absolutely. Right. It’s social, that’s another way of saying it. It’s a social process. It involves another human being. A lot of people get good feelings from their animals and I’m an animal lover. But you cannot get the same feeling from the sweetest dog in the world that you can from a human being who really loves you.

SHY: Is it possible to fall out of love?

JS:  Our nervous system needs this signal that we’re recognized, we’re safe, we’re valued, appreciated, whatever, you know. Our nervous system is hungry for this kind of communication all the time. We never lose the need for that kind of social connection and interaction. So what happens for a lot of people, especially in romantic relationships, you see a lot of this. At first, people take the time to really have face-to-face communication. They take the time. And then what happens is when they stop taking time, and the only way they communicate with one another is through a text message, that wonderful experience of feeling loved disappears. And people say, oh, I’m out of love. What’s really happened is that the experience they were having, they’re not having it anymore. They could. But they’re not.

SHY: And long-distance relationships don’t work for that reason?

JS: Over time, they don’t work.  If you’re lucky enough to have a very close relationship, you have spent a lot of face time and you really have a deep and loving experience with someone for a period of time, and they go off or you go off, there can be phone conversations. The tone of voice can initiate memories of how wonderful that face-to-face was. And so it can reinforce it. But if it’s the only way that we’re connecting to others, it won’t work. It just doesn’t affect the nervous system. It doesn’t penetrate the nervous system. So it tends to come and go – and it goes very easily.

In the book, I give an example of grandparents who really never see their grandchildren — and the grandchildren have never seen them. They’re trying to communicate and create a truly loving experience on Skype, because that’s all that’s available to them. And I understand that. And to some extent, and to a real extent, the grandparents, because they have all this experience and they love their children, it’s just natural that you love the grandchildren. But from the grandchildren’s perspective, all they get is these flat images. There’s nothing there that penetrates their nervous system.

SHY: Is it possible to change this experience of feeling loved?

JS: I think that we’re learning all the time about new ways that we can make change happen. I’m hopeful. Yes, if it’s really impossible to change, then fine, grant me the wisdom to recognize that. But I tend to be more hopeful. I think there’s really exciting stuff happening in regards to the science that’s telling us how we can connect to other people and so even though we may have never had a real connection experience or don’t have nearly enough of that sense of connection that we long for, I believe that it’s available. We can get it. It’s built into us, and as we have new information and new science that guides us on how to do this, it’s not an impossibility. We don’t have to say, oh, well, just give up.

SHY: What happens if you’re trying to make the person feel loved and they’re not receptive?

JS: Well, there you go. I guess what I advise people to do when that’s the case is to, if they have any kind of relationship at all, is to talk to them. Then you have to say, look, we need to talk face to face. If they can’t find the time, they’re just too busy, too blah, whatever it is, then they’re not interested in a relationship and they’re telling you that. And then, well, you know, it takes two to do this. And if you’ve only got one person interested in doing it, then it’s not going to happen, at least right now, until something changes with that person.

SHY: Earlier you said that feeling loved is a social interaction, and that it’s not possible to fall out of love if you are talking to each other. So that seems contradictory to me.

JS: If we keep that connection… if you’re with someone who consistently over time makes you feel valued, recognized, understood, you’re going to feel good when you’re with that person and you’re going to want to continue to be with that person. That’s how we stay in love. If that relationship, if that social interaction stops, that person gets too busy or we get too busy, and we stop communicating in that way, what’s going to happen is that our nervous system is not going to feel all those good wonderful things that we call love, and it’s just not going to be there anymore. So you could call that falling out of love or you could simply say that we’re no longer continuing a process that generates that experience.

SHY: Do you think there’s a time that it’s necessary to give up? When do you stop?

JS: Well, I think you stop when you recognize they have no interest. If you’ve done your best to communicate to them what you need and what you would like to give them, and there is zero interest or very little interest or no time – I’m just too busy to do this, kind of thing, then you have to say to yourself, I am not going to, you know, at least right now and for the foreseeable future, this person isn’t going to make me feel loved. And I’m probably not going to make them feel loved because the time, the process can’t happen without two people investing some time and effort in it. That’s what social means – it’s an interactive process. It’s not something you can make happen all by yourself.

SHY: That’s easy to say in a romantic relationship, but what if it’s a family relationship?

JS: Again, it’s really the same thing. Once you know what it takes to create this sense of safety and happiness and good feeling that we call feeling loved, you can ask for it. You can describe it. Again, I wrote this book – maybe you give your family member the book for Christmas, you know, and you start a dialogue. We don’t interact this way. Could we? One of the purposes of the book was to try to help people who are in these situations, particularly with family members. Now Christmas is coming up and it’s, “Oh my god I’m going back to my family, and there are going to be people there that it’s really difficult to deal with.” And I’m hoping the book can help. Because maybe those people just don’t realize what’s involved and what they can do and what’s possible. Maybe they’ve given up. And as I said, there’s a roadmap, there’s things they can do to create this feeling loved experience. If, and you can certainly invite it, you can give people a roadmap and see if that helps. Not everybody follows, you know, there’s no guarantee they’ll do it. But it sure makes it a lot easier.

SHY: Can you talk a little bit about stress and feeling loved?

JS: This feeling loved experience is the nervous system’s definition or take on love. In the book, I talk about Dr. Steven Porges and polyvagal theory and the fact that within the last 30 years, a whole new pathway in the nervous system has been discovered. Now that we have better and better brain technology. That is totally a social pathway and has to do with the inner ear and the sound of the voice. Particularly high sounds, like a female voice sound. Low sounds make us scared. But the feeling and the muscles in, all of the muscles around the eyes, nose, mouth, jaw…this pathway, when we engage people in this way, we have the capacity to override stress. Even when we’re in fight or flight. Even when the sympathetic nervous system has been activated and we’re just ready for a good fight or to run out of the room, you can tell. People are like charged up, ready to respond to a threat, that is often more imaginary than real, but nevertheless they feel threatened. If this social pathway is engaged, it’s so fast that it can actually override that reflex. That’s pretty huge when you think about it.

So the way the nervous system evolved, human beings always lived in at least small groups. Always. A lone human was a dead human. We’re not that big and tough and hairy. So we’ve always depended, we evolved in groups of 10-12 people at least. And so the nervous system evolved in this way that we expect to be surrounded by people, and if those people signal safety, we immediately calm down and our stress returns to a comfort level.

I can give you an example of this. This happened just a few weeks ago. I had a friend visiting from New Zealand, who is from Christchurch, and you know, they’ve had all these horrible horrible devastating earthquakes there over the last couple of years. And so she’s sitting in my house, I have a 2-story house, and the housekeeper has dropped a load of bedding from the top floor to the bottom floor and the floors are wood so it goes thud…that kind of sound. I’m sitting with my friend having coffee, we’re face-to-face, and I see that she kind of goes white. And she’s looking around for something to jump onto like a table. But I know – I immediately know, I’ve heard the thud too and I know it’s laundry. It’s not an earthquake. And she looks at my face, and I probably, you know, I wasn’t smiling, but there were probably muscles around my cheek and mouth that said, and the expression in my eyes, that said there’s nothing to worry about here. And instantly she broke into a smile. She’s OK. Another example of that is if you’re in an airplane and there’s turbulence, I don’t know about you but I always look at the steward or the stewardess. Do they look upset? If they don’t, then I calm down. It’s that kind of thing. And it’s very powerful. And that’s very stress-relieving.

The quickest way to relieve stress, instantly, is through reassurance from another person. Nothing brings us back into a comfort zone from stress faster than that.

SHY: In your books, you talk a lot about failed relationships that failed because of people’s inability to feel love or to recognize love from another person. Is it possible to change that?

JS: Of course, it’s possible to change that. And many people…I was a therapist for many many years, 35 years, a long time. And so I’m dealing with people who are coming in with a problem, right? They’re not coming because they have a great relationship. They’re coming because they have a broken up one. And so I have lots and lots of examples about how things fell apart in the first place. But I also have lots and lots of examples of OK, this is what they came with, but they started to do things differently. They changed the way they felt and thought and acted, and you know what, it had a whole different effect on their lives. And there are people who’ve had just the most god-awful relationships that you can imagine, who have fabulous relationships now. You’re not stuck. But you need to know what you’re looking for. If you’ve got a roadmap that’s taking you in the wrong direction, you’re not going to get there. But if you have a roadmap that’s moving you in a direction that produces this sense of safety in the nervous system, your chances are pretty good.

I was going to say – I’ve had horrible experiences dating online, all right? But I’ve learned now. I’ve read Feeling Loved and I know now that I can’t possibly have an online relationship. I’ve got to meet this person to see if there’s really anything here. And I’m not just talking about chemistry. I’m talking about, is this somebody that is going to appeal to me? That I’m going to want to see again and again and again? And you can tell, even if you spend an hour having coffee? Does this person look at you? It’s the non-verbal communication, because it isn’t the words. There are different percentages, but they say at least 90% of communication is non-verbal. So it’s really about how other people feel in our presence. And if somebody feels really good in our presence, they’re going to want to be around us more.

SHY: What about basic incompatibilities, then?

JS: I don’t believe in incompatibility. I don’t think there’s such a thing. I mean, there are people that are just antisocial. They don’t want anything to do with anybody. You know, they just want to be all by themselves all the time. But if you’re with somebody who wants connection, who recognizes the need that they have to feel safe, to feel valued, to feel loved. If you’re with someone who has that awareness and desire, then what I hope this book will do is to give people the tools — and anybody can do this. Newborn babies do this, so anybody can do this. I mean, what is compatibility? If it feels good to be with this person, if I feel good, if I feel loved, if I feel safe, if I feel valued, well, all of a sudden that is a person who is compatible with me. Incompatible would mean somebody I don’t have any of those feelings with. In fact, I have, you know, I feel threatened or uncomfortable.

SHY: You said you have to be with someone who recognizes their need for connection, but that everybody has this basic need. So what’s the difference?

JS: Well, some people are so traumatized and in such a state of immobility. We have such high pressure going on for a lot of people today, and the screens don’t help. Because one of the things that’s happened as a result of the screens — which I use all the time and I love and I’m not giving up my screens because you don’t need to do that — but if they replace your ability to connect in the way that I’m talking about, you’re going to feel bad and you’re not going to feel loved.

Again, it’s an interactive process. If someone absolutely doesn’t want to do this, even though they need it, but they won’t do it, well, that’s…again, it’s interactive. It’s a social process. At least 2 people have to be involved in this. And they may say, and they will say, I don’t need this. Love is for the birds. There was a book, F*ck Feelings. There are people who will say, I don’t want any part of this. OK. It doesn’t mean they don’t need it. It just means they’re too afraid to get near it. They’ve had such often difficult, traumatizing experiences in their own lives that it’s frightening for them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need it. They do.

SHY: Do you think any relationship can work if you work at it hard enough?

JS: I think any relationship with two people who have the desire and have the interest, and you know, you’re not always interested in any person on the planet. Some people interest you more than others. But if you have two people who are interested in each other, they have an interest, and they have a desire to both have a loving experience with this person and to feel loved in this person’s company, if that’s in place, then yes, I think the chances are pretty great. In my experience, in my 35 years of working with people, I have never found that it was an impossibility if those things were in place. You have to be interested in the other person. If you just think that they’re so boring and dull you don’t want to spend any time with them at all, no, you have to have an interest in both the person and the process. And an awareness of the process. But if you have a genuine interest in the person and you know what the process is and are willing to invest in that process and they’re willing to invest in that process, you will both give and receive experience that feels so good you’ll want to return to it again and again.

SHY: What are reasons people won’t be willing to invest in a relationships?

JS: A lot of people today…first of all, they think, you know, there’s a difference between the stories we make up. We make up stories all the time. Humans like to do that. And so we may have talked ourselves into the fact. We may say, well, I don’t need this. I don’t want this. I don’t want a relationship. Actually, almost nobody does. Even people who are not in a quote-on-quote monogamous relationship, they want relationships with their families. They want relationships with their co-workers. People want relationships somewhere, somehow. Not necessarily an intimate one. But they want relationships – they need them. The reason they want them is that they need them. Their nervous systems are always signaling for that kind of connection. Because we feel good when we have it.

But they wouldn’t be interested because they’ve told themselves a story. They’ve made it up for themselves. I don’t need this. I don’t want this. It’s too risky. It’s too scary. I’ve been hurt too many times in the past. There’s a whole list of things. These are the reasons, the stories we’ve made up, of why we don’t want to make this investment. We don’t have the time. Nobody could love us anyway. We’ve got all kinds of stories that are supposed to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we feel the way we do.

SHY: You don’t really believe those stories, do you?

JS: We do believe our stories. We sure do. But I believe that they’re stories. That we could have experiences, that if people would test these stories. People don’t have to be true believers to read Feeling Loved and to get something out of it. They just have to be willing to try it out. If I do it this way, does something change? I think it does. So very often, we have to go into something…we’re not true believers, why should we be? But we have to be willing to try and we have to put something into, a new effort, to see if this could work.

But I understand why, you know, some of their stories and some of them are stories based on really painful real-life experiences. Of not being loved. Of being mistreated…a lot of people have really painful memories that keep them from trying new ways of being.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

JS: If I were going to say who’s my superhero, the closest would be somebody like Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was President of the United States a long time ago. He didn’t have a particularly impressive presidency. He did his best, but it was hard for him. And he’s done some amazing things. The man now is in his 90s, he has a cancer of the brain and of the liver, but it isn’t bothering him so he’s still traveling all over the world. It probably won’t even kill him because cancer at that age progresses very slowly, and to me, he’s as close as I get to a superhero.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

JS: My greatest strength is that I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to be a superhero. I’m not. And that has allowed me to keep learning. I learn from my mistakes. I learn from the things that are not so super about me. …I’ve been able to face them and do something constructive with them. I’m open, and I’m willing, to this day…you’d think I would have all my ducks in order. I don’t. But that’s my strength – I don’t think I do, and I don’t have to. Because life is really about exploration. And I like the fact that I discover things all the time that I want to change, to make better. That keeps life very exciting for me.

SHY: Something you do every day that you wish you could do?

JS: I look at people. I go shopping. I go to the grocery story, to the cleaners, out to lunch, and the clerk. I look at that person who is serving me or waiting on me as well as of course my friends, I look at people. And I try to send them a message that I’m interested in them and that I hear them. And you can have tremendously satisfying, little itsy bitsy exchanges all the time with clerks, with a checkout person, if they’re open to it and they’re available for it. So that I try to move throughout my day, getting these little blasts of love. That can come to me from all kinds of sources. Not just from good friends. Not just from my husband and my family. But from strangers, too.

SHY: What are some reasons people don’t want to feel loved, or are maybe afraid to admit that they feel loved?

JS: People have lots of reasons. Good reasons. Their memories are full of painful social experiences. And they’ve been burned. And they’ve been hurt. And they don’t – they never felt loved. In fact, what they felt is the opposite. They felt unloved. And they don’t even believe it’s a possibility. They don’t know what they’re looking for. Nobody ever showed them how, what this process felt like, looks like. They never engaged in the process. They have no understanding, no memory of how you make a person feel loved or how they made you feel loved. It’s not in their memory bank. And maybe they had really painful and difficult experiences. Many of us have. Probably most of us. So we’re hesitant. Really, we have to try new things on faith. Not because we’ve experienced it. We have to say, well, this is worth a try. So I’m going to try. In spite of, you know, my disbelief.

SHY: If you could say anything to someone who’s afraid of feeling loved, what would that be?

JS: What have you got to lose besides your misery? The people who won’t try are not happy people. What have you got to lose? You’re not going to be more unhappy than you already are. What have you got to lose?

SHY: Is there anything I haven’t asked that I think is important to know?

JS: There is a great deal of science behind this. I’m not just saying this based on – you know, I have been a practitioner for many many years, but beyond that, there is now science that really explains why what I’m talking about matters so much. We really have a nervous system of the brain and the whole nervous system that constantly seeks the kind of social connection, the kind of social interaction that makes us feel loved as I’m describing it. Feel safe. Because we need it to keep our nervous system on track. We’re designed that way. We’ve evolved in that way.

SHY: So this is scientific fact.

JS: There is a great deal of science today because we can now watch a living brain, which we couldn’t do until the 90s, that’s pretty new for us. There’s a great deal of science that supports this, what I’m talking about. Science is always changing. So 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we’ll have different science than we have today. Even 10 years from now, science will be very different. But from today’s point of view, there is a great deal of science – and really for the past 20 or 30 years, more and more science has piled up. This polyvagal theory that I’m talking about, secure attachment, attachment theory science, emotional intelligence…these various sciences in various fields are saying pretty much the same thing. And that’s a good indicator that something is more real.

Liked this? Check out our review of Feeling Loved and buy the book here!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

In 1999, Jeanne Segal and her husband began HelpGuide.org, a website that helps its readers make healthy choices to help themselves. Earlier this year, Segal published Feeling Loved, a book dedicated to showing us why we might not feel loved in our relationships and how to fix that. After reading the book (check out our review here!), we chatted with Segal on how you can feel loved – and help others feel loved – during this holiday season.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write Feeling Loved?

Jeanne Segal: Well, you know, we have a very major website, HelpGuide.org. Something like 81 million people came to the site and stayed on the site to read for a few minutes. So it’s a pretty big site. We’ve never spent a penny on publicity or marketing so this is all word of mouth. Our challenge is to use this two-dimensional screen to really see what we can do to help people to help themselves with a lot of the emotional problems that people have today.

And so the book is a way of deepening that healing, what you can do for yourself, kind of process. There’s just a limit to how much you can put in a written article that has to be around 1500 – 2000 words. A book gives you an opportunity to tell stories. I believe that that’s how we learn. I think we learn best when we’re moved and stories can move us. So Feeling Loved allows me to take what I hope will be a healing process for people to a deeper level.

SHY: If you could have people take away just one lesson from Feeling Loved, what would it be?

JS: That we need to take the time and pay attention to non-verbal communication. To what people are telling, the messages people are sending us through their tones of voice and the expressions on their face in particular. There are more muscles in the face than really in the rest of the body put together. And of course, they’re not weight-bearing. What do they do? They’re very important to the messages to the brain that transmit so rapidly we’re not necessarily conscious of them. But that communication is enormously important if we are going to either feel loved ourselves, feel safe, feel secure — or create that kind of safety and security and acknowledgment for the people that we want to feel loved.

SHY: How can you tell if someone isn’t feeling loved?

JS: Well, I don’t think you can tell. You know, people are pretty good at pretending, making up stories. You can tell if you don’t feel loved. You don’t feel safe. You don’t feel secure. You don’t feel happy.  You may have somebody who’s talking, who’s saying all these wonderful-sounding things, giving you presents and in many ways acting in a way that our culture says is loving. But you don’t experience it. So it’s just kind of an empty experience, and it’s very confusing.

When people are telling you that they love you and in some ways acting that way, giving you presents or calling you up to see how you’re feeling, why is it that you don’t feel deeply? Why don’t you have this experience that makes you feel secure and happy and safe? Why isn’t that happening? So it’s very easy for you to detect when you don’t feel loved.

You’re doing your best to show others that you love them. You’re doing your best. But they don’t seem to get it. When we make people feel loved, they want to be with us. You can’t get enough of that. So when we’re good at making others feel loved, we are in a way attracting them. One way of saying that you’re not good at making, at assessing whether other people feel loved – do they want to be with you? Does it seem like they seek you out and you’re somebody they want to hang out with and want to be with? If that’s not the case, there’s always the possibility that we’re not doing what we could do to make them feel loved.

It’s also possible that they’re not open to our signals. That also is a possibility. There are plenty of people who have never felt or experienced the feeling of love. They don’t look for it. They don’t even know it exists. So they may not look at us. We need to have eye contact. They may never really listen or really look to see that there is love in front of them.

SHY: Do you think it’s possible to feel loved in certain relationships and unloved in others, or is this more of a blanket issue?

JS: No, it’s very person-specific. You know, you can have an interchange with a clerk or a waiter and feel acknowledged and safe and valued and feel that good, happy, mmm feeling that is feeling loved. You feel mmm, I like to be here. I’m having such a good time in this moment. It’s very individual. If someone doesn’t even look at us, if someone’s looking at their phone and having lunch with us, we’re not going to feel loved.

SHY: If you want someone to feel loved, is this a two-person job or a one-person job?

JS: Well, feeling love is a social interaction. You don’t feel loved all by yourself. You know, this idea that I can look into the mirror and say, oh, I’m so wonderful, I love myself, I’m loving, I love myself…that isn’t the way the brain works. Feeling loved is the brain’s or the nervous system’s take on love. The nervous system needs certain signals to feel that feeling, that mmm, falling-in-love safe, good, happy feeling that we associate with love. It has to come to us in these non-verbal ways. It doesn’t happen through words. It happens through non-verbal communication. And if we don’t have that non-verbal communication, if we’re not giving that non-verbal communication, their nervous system, their brain isn’t going to have the experience of feeling loved.

SHY: So it’s a two-person job then.

JS: Absolutely. Right. It’s social, that’s another way of saying it. It’s a social process. It involves another human being. A lot of people get good feelings from their animals and I’m an animal lover. But you cannot get the same feeling from the sweetest dog in the world that you can from a human being who really loves you.

SHY: Is it possible to fall out of love?

JS:  Our nervous system needs this signal that we’re recognized, we’re safe, we’re valued, appreciated, whatever, you know. Our nervous system is hungry for this kind of communication all the time. We never lose the need for that kind of social connection and interaction. So what happens for a lot of people, especially in romantic relationships, you see a lot of this. At first, people take the time to really have face-to-face communication. They take the time. And then what happens is when they stop taking time, and the only way they communicate with one another is through a text message, that wonderful experience of feeling loved disappears. And people say, oh, I’m out of love. What’s really happened is that the experience they were having, they’re not having it anymore. They could. But they’re not.

SHY: And long-distance relationships don’t work for that reason?

JS: Over time, they don’t work.  If you’re lucky enough to have a very close relationship, you have spent a lot of face time and you really have a deep and loving experience with someone for a period of time, and they go off or you go off, there can be phone conversations. The tone of voice can initiate memories of how wonderful that face-to-face was. And so it can reinforce it. But if it’s the only way that we’re connecting to others, it won’t work. It just doesn’t affect the nervous system. It doesn’t penetrate the nervous system. So it tends to come and go – and it goes very easily.

In the book, I give an example of grandparents who really never see their grandchildren — and the grandchildren have never seen them. They’re trying to communicate and create a truly loving experience on Skype, because that’s all that’s available to them. And I understand that. And to some extent, and to a real extent, the grandparents, because they have all this experience and they love their children, it’s just natural that you love the grandchildren. But from the grandchildren’s perspective, all they get is these flat images. There’s nothing there that penetrates their nervous system.

SHY: Is it possible to change this experience of feeling loved?

JS: I think that we’re learning all the time about new ways that we can make change happen. I’m hopeful. Yes, if it’s really impossible to change, then fine, grant me the wisdom to recognize that. But I tend to be more hopeful. I think there’s really exciting stuff happening in regards to the science that’s telling us how we can connect to other people and so even though we may have never had a real connection experience or don’t have nearly enough of that sense of connection that we long for, I believe that it’s available. We can get it. It’s built into us, and as we have new information and new science that guides us on how to do this, it’s not an impossibility. We don’t have to say, oh, well, just give up.

SHY: What happens if you’re trying to make the person feel loved and they’re not receptive?

JS: Well, there you go. I guess what I advise people to do when that’s the case is to, if they have any kind of relationship at all, is to talk to them. Then you have to say, look, we need to talk face to face. If they can’t find the time, they’re just too busy, too blah, whatever it is, then they’re not interested in a relationship and they’re telling you that. And then, well, you know, it takes two to do this. And if you’ve only got one person interested in doing it, then it’s not going to happen, at least right now, until something changes with that person.

SHY: Earlier you said that feeling loved is a social interaction, and that it’s not possible to fall out of love if you are talking to each other. So that seems contradictory to me.

JS: If we keep that connection… if you’re with someone who consistently over time makes you feel valued, recognized, understood, you’re going to feel good when you’re with that person and you’re going to want to continue to be with that person. That’s how we stay in love. If that relationship, if that social interaction stops, that person gets too busy or we get too busy, and we stop communicating in that way, what’s going to happen is that our nervous system is not going to feel all those good wonderful things that we call love, and it’s just not going to be there anymore. So you could call that falling out of love or you could simply say that we’re no longer continuing a process that generates that experience.

SHY: Do you think there’s a time that it’s necessary to give up? When do you stop?

JS: Well, I think you stop when you recognize they have no interest. If you’ve done your best to communicate to them what you need and what you would like to give them, and there is zero interest or very little interest or no time – I’m just too busy to do this, kind of thing, then you have to say to yourself, I am not going to, you know, at least right now and for the foreseeable future, this person isn’t going to make me feel loved. And I’m probably not going to make them feel loved because the time, the process can’t happen without two people investing some time and effort in it. That’s what social means – it’s an interactive process. It’s not something you can make happen all by yourself.

SHY: That’s easy to say in a romantic relationship, but what if it’s a family relationship?

JS: Again, it’s really the same thing. Once you know what it takes to create this sense of safety and happiness and good feeling that we call feeling loved, you can ask for it. You can describe it. Again, I wrote this book – maybe you give your family member the book for Christmas, you know, and you start a dialogue. We don’t interact this way. Could we? One of the purposes of the book was to try to help people who are in these situations, particularly with family members. Now Christmas is coming up and it’s, “Oh my god I’m going back to my family, and there are going to be people there that it’s really difficult to deal with.” And I’m hoping the book can help. Because maybe those people just don’t realize what’s involved and what they can do and what’s possible. Maybe they’ve given up. And as I said, there’s a roadmap, there’s things they can do to create this feeling loved experience. If, and you can certainly invite it, you can give people a roadmap and see if that helps. Not everybody follows, you know, there’s no guarantee they’ll do it. But it sure makes it a lot easier.

SHY: Can you talk a little bit about stress and feeling loved?

JS: This feeling loved experience is the nervous system’s definition or take on love. In the book, I talk about Dr. Steven Porges and polyvagal theory and the fact that within the last 30 years, a whole new pathway in the nervous system has been discovered. Now that we have better and better brain technology. That is totally a social pathway and has to do with the inner ear and the sound of the voice. Particularly high sounds, like a female voice sound. Low sounds make us scared. But the feeling and the muscles in, all of the muscles around the eyes, nose, mouth, jaw…this pathway, when we engage people in this way, we have the capacity to override stress. Even when we’re in fight or flight. Even when the sympathetic nervous system has been activated and we’re just ready for a good fight or to run out of the room, you can tell. People are like charged up, ready to respond to a threat, that is often more imaginary than real, but nevertheless they feel threatened. If this social pathway is engaged, it’s so fast that it can actually override that reflex. That’s pretty huge when you think about it.

So the way the nervous system evolved, human beings always lived in at least small groups. Always. A lone human was a dead human. We’re not that big and tough and hairy. So we’ve always depended, we evolved in groups of 10-12 people at least. And so the nervous system evolved in this way that we expect to be surrounded by people, and if those people signal safety, we immediately calm down and our stress returns to a comfort level.

I can give you an example of this. This happened just a few weeks ago. I had a friend visiting from New Zealand, who is from Christchurch, and you know, they’ve had all these horrible horrible devastating earthquakes there over the last couple of years. And so she’s sitting in my house, I have a 2-story house, and the housekeeper has dropped a load of bedding from the top floor to the bottom floor and the floors are wood so it goes thud…that kind of sound. I’m sitting with my friend having coffee, we’re face-to-face, and I see that she kind of goes white. And she’s looking around for something to jump onto like a table. But I know – I immediately know, I’ve heard the thud too and I know it’s laundry. It’s not an earthquake. And she looks at my face, and I probably, you know, I wasn’t smiling, but there were probably muscles around my cheek and mouth that said, and the expression in my eyes, that said there’s nothing to worry about here. And instantly she broke into a smile. She’s OK. Another example of that is if you’re in an airplane and there’s turbulence, I don’t know about you but I always look at the steward or the stewardess. Do they look upset? If they don’t, then I calm down. It’s that kind of thing. And it’s very powerful. And that’s very stress-relieving.

The quickest way to relieve stress, instantly, is through reassurance from another person. Nothing brings us back into a comfort zone from stress faster than that.

SHY: In your books, you talk a lot about failed relationships that failed because of people’s inability to feel love or to recognize love from another person. Is it possible to change that?

JS: Of course, it’s possible to change that. And many people…I was a therapist for many many years, 35 years, a long time. And so I’m dealing with people who are coming in with a problem, right? They’re not coming because they have a great relationship. They’re coming because they have a broken up one. And so I have lots and lots of examples about how things fell apart in the first place. But I also have lots and lots of examples of OK, this is what they came with, but they started to do things differently. They changed the way they felt and thought and acted, and you know what, it had a whole different effect on their lives. And there are people who’ve had just the most god-awful relationships that you can imagine, who have fabulous relationships now. You’re not stuck. But you need to know what you’re looking for. If you’ve got a roadmap that’s taking you in the wrong direction, you’re not going to get there. But if you have a roadmap that’s moving you in a direction that produces this sense of safety in the nervous system, your chances are pretty good.

I was going to say – I’ve had horrible experiences dating online, all right? But I’ve learned now. I’ve read Feeling Loved and I know now that I can’t possibly have an online relationship. I’ve got to meet this person to see if there’s really anything here. And I’m not just talking about chemistry. I’m talking about, is this somebody that is going to appeal to me? That I’m going to want to see again and again and again? And you can tell, even if you spend an hour having coffee? Does this person look at you? It’s the non-verbal communication, because it isn’t the words. There are different percentages, but they say at least 90% of communication is non-verbal. So it’s really about how other people feel in our presence. And if somebody feels really good in our presence, they’re going to want to be around us more.

SHY: What about basic incompatibilities, then?

JS: I don’t believe in incompatibility. I don’t think there’s such a thing. I mean, there are people that are just antisocial. They don’t want anything to do with anybody. You know, they just want to be all by themselves all the time. But if you’re with somebody who wants connection, who recognizes the need that they have to feel safe, to feel valued, to feel loved. If you’re with someone who has that awareness and desire, then what I hope this book will do is to give people the tools — and anybody can do this. Newborn babies do this, so anybody can do this. I mean, what is compatibility? If it feels good to be with this person, if I feel good, if I feel loved, if I feel safe, if I feel valued, well, all of a sudden that is a person who is compatible with me. Incompatible would mean somebody I don’t have any of those feelings with. In fact, I have, you know, I feel threatened or uncomfortable.

SHY: You said you have to be with someone who recognizes their need for connection, but that everybody has this basic need. So what’s the difference?

JS: Well, some people are so traumatized and in such a state of immobility. We have such high pressure going on for a lot of people today, and the screens don’t help. Because one of the things that’s happened as a result of the screens — which I use all the time and I love and I’m not giving up my screens because you don’t need to do that — but if they replace your ability to connect in the way that I’m talking about, you’re going to feel bad and you’re not going to feel loved.

Again, it’s an interactive process. If someone absolutely doesn’t want to do this, even though they need it, but they won’t do it, well, that’s…again, it’s interactive. It’s a social process. At least 2 people have to be involved in this. And they may say, and they will say, I don’t need this. Love is for the birds. There was a book, F*ck Feelings. There are people who will say, I don’t want any part of this. OK. It doesn’t mean they don’t need it. It just means they’re too afraid to get near it. They’ve had such often difficult, traumatizing experiences in their own lives that it’s frightening for them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need it. They do.

SHY: Do you think any relationship can work if you work at it hard enough?

JS: I think any relationship with two people who have the desire and have the interest, and you know, you’re not always interested in any person on the planet. Some people interest you more than others. But if you have two people who are interested in each other, they have an interest, and they have a desire to both have a loving experience with this person and to feel loved in this person’s company, if that’s in place, then yes, I think the chances are pretty great. In my experience, in my 35 years of working with people, I have never found that it was an impossibility if those things were in place. You have to be interested in the other person. If you just think that they’re so boring and dull you don’t want to spend any time with them at all, no, you have to have an interest in both the person and the process. And an awareness of the process. But if you have a genuine interest in the person and you know what the process is and are willing to invest in that process and they’re willing to invest in that process, you will both give and receive experience that feels so good you’ll want to return to it again and again.

SHY: What are reasons people won’t be willing to invest in a relationships?

JS: A lot of people today…first of all, they think, you know, there’s a difference between the stories we make up. We make up stories all the time. Humans like to do that. And so we may have talked ourselves into the fact. We may say, well, I don’t need this. I don’t want this. I don’t want a relationship. Actually, almost nobody does. Even people who are not in a quote-on-quote monogamous relationship, they want relationships with their families. They want relationships with their co-workers. People want relationships somewhere, somehow. Not necessarily an intimate one. But they want relationships – they need them. The reason they want them is that they need them. Their nervous systems are always signaling for that kind of connection. Because we feel good when we have it.

But they wouldn’t be interested because they’ve told themselves a story. They’ve made it up for themselves. I don’t need this. I don’t want this. It’s too risky. It’s too scary. I’ve been hurt too many times in the past. There’s a whole list of things. These are the reasons, the stories we’ve made up, of why we don’t want to make this investment. We don’t have the time. Nobody could love us anyway. We’ve got all kinds of stories that are supposed to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we feel the way we do.

SHY: You don’t really believe those stories, do you?

JS: We do believe our stories. We sure do. But I believe that they’re stories. That we could have experiences, that if people would test these stories. People don’t have to be true believers to read Feeling Loved and to get something out of it. They just have to be willing to try it out. If I do it this way, does something change? I think it does. So very often, we have to go into something…we’re not true believers, why should we be? But we have to be willing to try and we have to put something into, a new effort, to see if this could work.

But I understand why, you know, some of their stories and some of them are stories based on really painful real-life experiences. Of not being loved. Of being mistreated…a lot of people have really painful memories that keep them from trying new ways of being.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

JS: If I were going to say who’s my superhero, the closest would be somebody like Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was President of the United States a long time ago. He didn’t have a particularly impressive presidency. He did his best, but it was hard for him. And he’s done some amazing things. The man now is in his 90s, he has a cancer of the brain and of the liver, but it isn’t bothering him so he’s still traveling all over the world. It probably won’t even kill him because cancer at that age progresses very slowly, and to me, he’s as close as I get to a superhero.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

JS: My greatest strength is that I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to be a superhero. I’m not. And that has allowed me to keep learning. I learn from my mistakes. I learn from the things that are not so super about me. …I’ve been able to face them and do something constructive with them. I’m open, and I’m willing, to this day…you’d think I would have all my ducks in order. I don’t. But that’s my strength – I don’t think I do, and I don’t have to. Because life is really about exploration. And I like the fact that I discover things all the time that I want to change, to make better. That keeps life very exciting for me.

SHY: Something you do every day that you wish you could do?

JS: I look at people. I go shopping. I go to the grocery story, to the cleaners, out to lunch, and the clerk. I look at that person who is serving me or waiting on me as well as of course my friends, I look at people. And I try to send them a message that I’m interested in them and that I hear them. And you can have tremendously satisfying, little itsy bitsy exchanges all the time with clerks, with a checkout person, if they’re open to it and they’re available for it. So that I try to move throughout my day, getting these little blasts of love. That can come to me from all kinds of sources. Not just from good friends. Not just from my husband and my family. But from strangers, too.

SHY: What are some reasons people don’t want to feel loved, or are maybe afraid to admit that they feel loved?

JS: People have lots of reasons. Good reasons. Their memories are full of painful social experiences. And they’ve been burned. And they’ve been hurt. And they don’t – they never felt loved. In fact, what they felt is the opposite. They felt unloved. And they don’t even believe it’s a possibility. They don’t know what they’re looking for. Nobody ever showed them how, what this process felt like, looks like. They never engaged in the process. They have no understanding, no memory of how you make a person feel loved or how they made you feel loved. It’s not in their memory bank. And maybe they had really painful and difficult experiences. Many of us have. Probably most of us. So we’re hesitant. Really, we have to try new things on faith. Not because we’ve experienced it. We have to say, well, this is worth a try. So I’m going to try. In spite of, you know, my disbelief.

SHY: If you could say anything to someone who’s afraid of feeling loved, what would that be?

JS: What have you got to lose besides your misery? The people who won’t try are not happy people. What have you got to lose? You’re not going to be more unhappy than you already are. What have you got to lose?

SHY: Is there anything I haven’t asked that I think is important to know?

JS: There is a great deal of science behind this. I’m not just saying this based on – you know, I have been a practitioner for many many years, but beyond that, there is now science that really explains why what I’m talking about matters so much. We really have a nervous system of the brain and the whole nervous system that constantly seeks the kind of social connection, the kind of social interaction that makes us feel loved as I’m describing it. Feel safe. Because we need it to keep our nervous system on track. We’re designed that way. We’ve evolved in that way.

SHY: So this is scientific fact.

JS: There is a great deal of science today because we can now watch a living brain, which we couldn’t do until the 90s, that’s pretty new for us. There’s a great deal of science that supports this, what I’m talking about. Science is always changing. So 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we’ll have different science than we have today. Even 10 years from now, science will be very different. But from today’s point of view, there is a great deal of science – and really for the past 20 or 30 years, more and more science has piled up. This polyvagal theory that I’m talking about, secure attachment, attachment theory science, emotional intelligence…these various sciences in various fields are saying pretty much the same thing. And that’s a good indicator that something is more real.

Liked this? Check out our review of Feeling Loved and buy the book here!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

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