I concluded my first year of university by knocking out my front teeth during a dodgeball tournament. Wildly competitive (and moderately inebriated), I “dodged” onto my face… on a gymnasium floor. If anyone ever tries to tell you there’s no way to sober up but time, they haven’t tried face-planting onto concrete. 

After leaving the ER, where I was diagnosed with a minor concussion and my RA (who was probably more traumatized than me) was instructed to wake me up every couple hours that night, I cried under my covers in my residence room. At 18, I’d started dating my first real boyfriend a few months earlier (We’ll call him Craig because that was his name). I figured this incident would surely end the relationship. How could he possibly still love me without teeth?!

Seriously. I wholeheartedly believed he we would break up because I’d knocked my teeth out.

Cognitively, I was mature. I’d been a gifted kid who tapered off when I discovered drinking and boys, but I was still logical to a fault in most areas of my life. My understanding of relationships, however, was limited–based on a hazy compilation of my dad consistently reminding my stepmom to lose weight, and every guy I’d ever “dated” in high school deciding to start dating someone else without telling me. I would usually find out from a friend of their new love interest that we were no longer “a thing.” I’m sure if we had Facebook back then it would have been conveyed in an even less sensitive way.

Thus, I assumed that all relationships were unstable and superficial, and that my pro hockey look was grounds for a breakup and a life alone. It was a good four months, I thought, and prepared myself for a loveless existence.

So when Craig insisted on seeing me later that night (despite shame telling me not to let him in), handed me bouquet of flowers, and embraced me, I was baffled. It was my first experience of feeling unconditionally loved by someone of the opposite sex, and it evoked feelings of both comfort and terror. It felt like I was naked in a hot tub–warm and liberating and healing on one level but shame-inducing, anxiety-provoking, and confusing on another.

I gradually opened up to my feelings of vulnerability, and we continued to date for another year and a half. In feeling deeply loved, I learned to hate myself a little less. My logical mind couldn’t convince me I was unworthy and unlovable in his unconditionally accepting presence, and during that time the war in my mind quietened somewhat.

Eleven years, three long term relationships, and a lot of therapy later, it seems naive and somewhat alarming to have thought my partner would leave me because I didn’t have teeth for a few days; yet many of us (myself included) replicate this dynamic every day with our partners and with ourselves. But instead of focusing on our smile, Fear says, “If you lose your job/gain weight/can’t have kids/become depressed, they’ll leave you!”

or: “Your desirability as a human being depends on appearing and behaving perfectly.”

or: “You’d better not fuck up, or else you’re gonna be alone forever!”

And, if we assume an experience of conditional love in our romantic relationships, it’s highly likely we assume an experience of conditional love in the relationships to ourselves–otherwise known as perfectionism. Which, in turn, fuels depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and (big surprise) problems in romantic relationships.

Where does it come from?

This belief that we are conditionally lovable generally develops from childhood experience of perceiving our worth to be unstable–dependent on…conditions. Regardless of whether or not our parents intended to convey such a message, we interpreted it as “I love you when you win/get straight A’s/are thin/are well-behaved/don’t show your emotions/etc.” We make the connection that when we lose or make a mistake, act out or fall apart, look unattractive or fail a course, it means we’re not not worthy of love; it disconnects us from those close to us and from ourselves.

So how is this information relevant for you?

If any of this resonates, I encourage you to notice where conscious or unconscious belief in your conditional worth might be affecting you. If you’re in a relationship, do you worry about not meeting your partner’s expectations? Do you fear they’ll leave you if you don’t check enough boxes?

And how does a belief in conditional worth affect your feelings for your partner? Do you love them less if they get a speeding ticket, lose their job, say something foolish?*

And how does conditional worth manifest in your relationship with yourself? Are you compassionate and understanding, or inflexible and condemning (or something in between)? How do you respond internally when you let yourself down or feel embarrassed or regretful?

Sometimes, when I’m feeling down on myself for not being productive, or spending too much money, or falling off the clean eating wagon, I think of that night I learned I was still lovable without my front teeth; and from being reminded of those feelings of unconditional love, I can self-soothe, reassuring myself whatever undesirable behavior I just enacted doesn’t take away from my worth as a human being or my current partner’s love for me.

So consider where you might be able to cultivate more unconditional love in your life; for yourself, for your partner, in your perception of your partner’s feelings. It’s really so much more serving for me than the alternatives of self-criticism, self-shaming, and fear :).

*Of course we don’t want to be unconditionally loving in a relationship in response to abuse. Actions that leave you feeling hurt, disrespected, patronized, shamed, humiliated–those should be named and changed. If any of those resonate for you, I encourage you to seek the support of a therapist to further explore your healthiest next step in your relationship.