Source: Krystine I. Batcho
Can you have too much of a good thing? When we talk about negative or neutral things, we have no problem referring to extremes as excessive. If you disagree too strenuously with a policy, decision, or behavior, your response might be criticized with terms ranging from angry through enraged or from hostile to dangerous. Saving or collecting too many things proportional to your available space might be called hoarding and the things you keep clutter.
On the other hand, if you express heartfelt sympathy for a victim of misfortune or tragedy, you might be described as compassionate or caring. If you extend material assistance to someone in need, you’ll be thought of as charitable or altruistic. If you attribute credit and praise to others rather than yourself, you’ll be referred to as modest or humble. Is there a label for “too caring” or “too compassionate”? Can positive traits and behaviors be excessive or unhealthy?
There might be a point where compassion descends into depression and charity into self-deprivation. Can extreme humility devolve into low self-esteem, self-deprecation or even self-hate? Parents who love their children to the point of being overprotective or too controlling are often criticized. Terms like helicopter parenting imply overly intrusive or restrictive behaviors that inhibit a child’s ability to achieve independence. Critics argue that children who are “loved” by such overzealous parents are at risk for becoming so-called “snowflakes,” fragile people lacking in resilience to stress and adversity. Some question whether all helicopter parents are motivated by love or whether some are acting out of self-interest. Some parents might attempt to monitor and control their children to shape them in their own image or in a misguided attempt to compensate for their own unfulfilled dreams. Helicoptering might reflect a self-centered attempt to live through their child. Trying to satisfy their own ambitions via their children, some parents might want to take credit for what their children achieve and who they are perceived to be. Or they might be afraid of being embarrassed by their child’s misbehavior or failures.
Research suggests that parenting styles affect children’s success and wellbeing. Parental behaviors can have unintended consequences, because a child perceives and understands those behaviors from a different perspective and with different cognitive abilities than adults do. It’s important also to recognize that parenting style affects the parent as well as the child. Loving has consequences for the one who loves as well as the one who is loved.
Is it possible to care too deeply? Would loving too deeply mean that it is unhealthy for the lover, the loved, or both? If someone loves to the exclusion of taking care of their own needs, it might be considered unhealthy. But self-sacrifice is an important part of love. Parents who risk their own life to rescue their child from a burning building are considered heroic, not dysfunctional. In ordinary life, balancing the needs of parent and child, both romantic partners, or all family members, can be difficult, especially when a loved one needs substantial attention and care. Preserving one’s ability to be helpful to another is essential to loving over the long run. Self-destruction defeats the objective of nurturing another. If someone is overprotective, excessively self-sacrificing, obsessive, or using another to satisfy one’s own needs, the relationship is unhealthy. Rather than thinking of it as loving too deeply, we might consider it as imperfect love or in some cases, not love at all.
Using the term love to describe an inherently unhealthy relationship might represent a misuse of the label, as we might be referring to a different construct. In such cases it isn’t love; it is something else. Unhealthy ways of loving, then, are not cases of loving too deeply or cases of too much love. It is more helpful to discuss them in instructive terms, such as abusive, manipulative, or controlling. You can’t love too much, but you can confuse maladaptive feelings or behaviors for love. Labels matter, because words influence thinking. Using the word love for dysfunctional behaviors can distort the understanding of love and masquerade as a justification for hurtful acts.
The asymmetry between verbal labels for excesses of good and bad is helpful to society. Society benefits when disparaging terms discourage unfavorable behaviors, and the scarcity of offensive labels for favorable behaviors serves to encourage, or at least not discourage, acts that enhance the quality of life. Recent trends toward discussing positive behaviors with negative attributions might ultimately be hurtful to society. Parents who express their sincere love by “hovering” can feel admonished and embarrassed when discovering that others consider such behavior harmful. Parents who believe they are acting out of love can begin to associate their parental love with negative feelings of criticism, guilt, or shame. A caring person who is referred to as “being taken advantage of,” “seeking attention or praise,” or in other negative ways, may be disheartened and may lessen their nurturing behaviors.
Rather than judging expressions of love from a cynical perspective, we should celebrate efforts to nurture and protect. Misguided expressions of love can be redirected to more productive strategies for enriching loving relationships. More helpful than criticism of excesses or distortions of good behaviors is identifying the most beneficial ways of manifesting love, compassion, and care. It is more constructive to focus on how parents can foster independence and resilience in their children or how a person can reassure a romantic partner or elderly parent that they are respected, needed, and loved. Lives are enriched when love, compassion and caring are expressed in ways that benefit all parties in relationships.
When it comes to our best emotions, we shouldn’t be guided by the maxim “all things in moderation.” When it seems that the more we care, the less our actions are appreciated, it is tempting to retreat. Instead, we should consider the impact of our behaviors and learn strategies that will help those we love thrive. Rather than settling for moderation, we should strive to maximize our mastery of the best use of our ideal feelings. When you love well, you don’t need to worry that you are loving to excess.