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Unconditional Love


Welcome to my blog, where you'll find substantive, well-researched articles that blend neuroscience, philosophy, poetry, personal reflection, and the latest life coaching tools in service of helping people engage their full potential. 


Unconditional Love

Kirstin Hotelling Zona

Hello Lovelies!

I’m writing this to you from a plane, flying to Illinois from Maine—to heartland from homeland—after a transformative weekend-long Mastermind Retreat with my group clients. I love these retreats. I love how deep we dive together and how, in the process, we condition ourselves to be 100% present to not only the full range of our own selves, but to the wondrously messy wholeness of others. I cannot tell you how rewarding this process is to both facilitate and partake of: when is the last time you felt yourself to be entirely open? Hiding nothing? Fully honest with yourself and others? Totally accepting of yourself and thus able to heal your pain with compassion instead of blame? Responsible for your feelings and actions and able to make amends without being paralyzed by regret, guilt, and shame? When is the last time you walked through your day feeling completely at ease with everyone you encountered? Lit up by wonder and curiosity and a desire to connect across differences? Free of irritability in the face of another’s contrary ways? When’s the last time you truly felt—no, knew—that it’s possible to be a thousand percent your whole, unabridged self without paying the price of rejection? Judgment? Or worse—feeling responsible for provoking another to tamp her- or himself down?

What I learned, yet again, from this weekend is that real harmony among humans isn’t achieved by calibrating oneself to “fit in.” While we, like most animals, have a biological need to belong, belonging by way of crimping or cramping who we really are ultimately fosters bonds among people that are too fragile to withstand the undulations of personal, and therefore cultural evolution. Most of the time, our efforts to belong by “fitting in” backfire, holding us hostage to dead-end tactics like speculation and approval-seeking, or, in contrast, to survival strategies like isolation and resentment.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a mindless free-for-all in which we eschew things like social mores, good manners, and rules of the road—basic agreements we create (and revise) over time to protect ourselves, and each other, from the particularly destructive potential of unchecked human fear.

Rather, I’m saying that something powerful happens when we’re able to be fully present, for real, to our whole selves—from the ugly messes we carry inside all the way to the glorious gifts.

This thing that happens is love.

Real love. Love that takes us far beyond ourselves not because we’ve compromised ourselves or avoided our internal alleyways, but because we’ve embraced ourselves and ventured into those dark places despite—and sometimes because of—what we find there.

I don’t think I’d experienced this kind of comprehensive, truly unconditional love for anyone other than my younger sister and my children until I started my coaching journey four years ago—and that’s saying something, because I’m a particularly open person and have lots of close relationships. But though I didn’t realize it at the time, my love for others—my then-husband, my friends, my students—was a conditional. Not in the obvious sense, as in “I will only love you if you do this, and I won’t love you if you do that,” but rather, in the quality and depth of my loving, in how I felt and showed my love (or didn’t).

I had what I called “high expectations.” And I justified these expectations because I lived by them myself: I was, as my kids will happily tell you, generous with my judgments. I often felt entitled to my irritability with, say, my then-husband because he was, well, irritating! I don’t like to admit it (I’ve deleted and rewritten this sentence about fifteen times), but I found my ex’s native ease and joy at times offensive (that is, I felt inadequate in its presence), and I’d tell him so in myriad ways: sighs, turning down the volume on whatever he was singing along to, focusing on the trail of onion skins and empty tomato paste cans littering the counter instead of the beautiful dinner he’d made.

Now, it’s okay to get annoyed with those we love. It’s gonna happen. Fact is, my ex-husband is a dazzling cook and one of the messiest people I know (we can joke about it now). But the difference between then and now is that four years ago I’d express my annoyance by asking him in one way or another to be more like me. To show his love and appreciation for me by doing things more like I do. Likewise, I would often resolve to do things more like he did, in an effort to find my way out of a dark place together. And this made perfect sense to me at the time. Not surprisingly, my primary complaint with him was that he didn’t appreciate me for who I really am; as a result, I often felt like a victim towards the end of our marriage, though I’d never for a second have identified myself in this way—strong and resourceful woman that I was—and I’d have balked at anyone who suggested as much.

Today, the mess’d still annoy me, but I’m pretty sure I’d respond in a different way. Instead of focusing on the countertop, I’d focus on the table. I’d recognize that I have a choice. Because what I’ve learned is that if what I really want is to feel seen and heard—to feel valued and connected—the best thing I can do when I’m feeling irked is open my heart and turn towards the light in the person I love. To not ask for the thousandth time that he just clean up as he goes, for chrissake, but to ask myself instead how I can soften into his singularity, into what makes him shine.

Contrary to what I used to think, this tack is an act of strength and self-love, not an abdication of my own needs by “letting him off the hook.” Because when it comes right down to it, we naturally want to connect and make others feel good when we’re feeling uninhibited, not when we’re feeling judged. In other words, if I’d spent more time finding and feeding the joy in my ex-husband’s way of cooking, he would likely have spent more time finding and feeding the joy in my soulfully ordered kitchen—not because he’d feel obligated to return the favor, but because when we’re allowed to expand into whatever it is we really are, we can’t help but want to share that space with those we care for. And it’s from this place, this outward-leaning, heart-seeking place, that we’re moved to make generous room for others.

When we can do this, when we can pause, and recognize our annoyances and triggers for what they so often are—fear of rejection, wish for validation—we open up a two-fold opportunity for growing (through) love: we get to give ourselves the affirmation we’re seeking, which is an act of self-healing, and having done so, we free ourselves up to see the person before us without the smudge of expectation and entitlement mucking our view.

During my Mastermind Retreat this weekend, I watched with wonder as this process made its point: at the end of the first day, the last of the women in the group took her hot seat inside our circle. As she started to share her takeaways from the day and her top three priorities for the months ahead, I realized I had a choice: keep it comfy, and let her indulge a variation of the story that was holding her hostage to a pattern of reoccurring stagnation, or call her out in no uncertain terms—which, given her passion for honesty and directness, is the language I knew I needed to speak in order for her to hear me. One of the most assertive woman in our group, this client is also the woman with whom I’ve been working the longest: I love her dearly and wanted to help her see the step she needed to take. At the same time, I didn’t want to push her so far that she’d be triggered into shutdown.

As a coach, this is one of the most delicate and critical lines we have the opportunity to walk.

I paused. I slowed my breath. I trained my gaze on her face, steady and open. What would I say? I listened to her speak as if in slow motion, and found myself thinking back on the day, recalling moments when she’d been agitated, physically restless, and unintentionally distracting. Soften, I said inside of my head. Allow yourself to soften. But how? And then I suddenly saw where this word was coming from: I wanted in that moment for her to not only soften but to become more demure. I literally saw, in my own mind’s eye, an image of this powerful woman turning her head down and to the side—

And I snapped the hell out of my trance. I recognized this image as a projection of my own ego—as a fleeting wish, born of fear, to facilitate ease by guiding her into a smaller version of herself, one that “fit” more easily into the group’s soft spots. This recognition was all I needed to self-correct: I let go of that fleeting fear of rocking the boat, centered myself wholly in her radiant presence, breathed in her voice, opened my palms, moved from my head to my heart, and told her, with huge love, to cut the shit.

I’ve been in that place. It’s why we call it the hot seat. Confusion, hurt, relief, anger, hope, resentment, fears—it’s tough. And it’s also, if cradled by love, one of the greatest gifts we can give or receive.

She left, to swim in the ocean. But on her way there, she realized what had been gripping her, what kept that old story spinning. She turned around, walked back into the house, and took her seat again. She cried. Sobs, and more sobs. Body-wracking tears. Years worth of shame, releasing. We didn’t shove tissues in her face. We held the space for her to feel her pain, to let it wash all the way through her.

When she was done crying, her body was softer, far more relaxed, but she was in no way smaller: instead, she was bigger—expanded, fuller. She told us the insight she’d had, how for her whole life she’d felt the need to apologize for who she is: for her powerful voice. For her boundless energy. For her restlessness. For her inability to follow directions the way other kids did. And in realizing this about herself, she was able to finally let it go. 

She didn’t need to become smaller, or more demure. Instead, she needed to claim, once and for all, the full breadth and depth of her unique being. Once she did, a palpable vulnerability and radiance suffused her and, by extension, the rest of us.

She’d softened. Not by shrinking, but by opening into who she is.

At the end of the day, as we sat in our closing circle at the end of the dock, I listened to each woman share her experience, and was overcome with a remarkable sense of peace, what I now know is unconditional love. I felt in that moment the energetic presence of six fully expanded beings, unapologetic in their authenticity. And with this, in this, because of this, pure harmony. I don’t know that I have the words to describe this feeling well. It just was. And we were changed.



P.S. If you want to learn how to release yourself from “high expectations,” from irritability and resentment, and increase the harmony in your relationships, come to The Full Potential Relationship Retreat. It's going to be truly amazing. Check it out here:






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