Everyone knows what it's like to care about someone. Remember being with a friend, a mate, a pet: you feel warmly connected, and want him or her not to suffer and to be happy.
On the other hand, you've probably had the sense, one time or another, of not being cared about. That you didn't matter to another person, or to a group of people. Maybe they weren't actively against you, but they sure weren't for you.
As soon as you recall a time like that, it's immediately clear why it's important to feel cared about – which is to the heart what water is to your body.
Sometimes we feel embarrassed about our yearnings to be cared about. But they are completely normal – and deeply rooted in evolution. Love, broadly defined, has been the primary driver of the development of the brain over the last 80 million years.
Our ancestors – mammals, primates, hominids, and humans – survived and flourished and passed on their genes by learning to find good mates, bond with their young, draw males in to provide for children, create “the village it takes to raise a child” whose brain is quadrupling in size after birth and thus needs a long and vulnerable childhood, and team up with each other to compete with other bands for scarce resources.
In this context, being cared about was crucial to survival. Mammals, etc. that did not care about being cared about did not pass on their genes. No wonder you care about
being cared about!
Studies show that feeling cared about buffers against stress, increases positive emotions, promotes resilience, and increases caring for others. Plus it feels darn good. And over time, feeling cared about today can gradually fill any holes in your heart left over from a childhood (or last job, or last marriage) in which the caring felt like a thin soup.
Let's start with the hard part: opening to feeling cared about often brings up not feeling cared about. Those feelings are real, and they're based on real things, like having a disengaged or critical parent, or being left out in school social situations. It's important to accept those feelings and hold them as best you can in a large space of awareness so they are not so overwhelming.
Then, take a breath, and turn to the other side of the truth: the ways and times you have been cared about. Those really exist! They do in everyone's life. The caring may not have been perfect or sustained, so it could be tempting to discount it or push it away as not good enough. (And we have to watch out for tendencies in the mind to hold on to grievances and reproaches; that harms us more than anyone else – including the people we may want to punish.) But the caring that was present amidst everything else was indeed the real deal. And you, like everyone else, need to take that in as the living food every heart must have.
For starters, recall being with someone who is (or was) caring toward you. Perhaps a grandparent making cookies, or a parent, friend, teacher, sibling, mate, child, or pet. Or 6a spiritual being or presence.
Then, open up to feeling cared about. What does your body do when someone cares about you? What kind of thoughts or attitudes go through your mind? What's your emotional response to being cared about? Know what it feels like to be cared about so you can find your way back here again.
Then, this week, look for opportunities to feel cared about. Most of these will be small, passing moments when someone is sincerely thoughtful, friendly, or concerned. Look behind the eyes of people, and see the human caring for you when it's there – even if it's masked behind formalities, a prickly personality, too many words, or no words at all.
When it's there, take it in. Let the feelings, body sensations, and thoughts of being cared about soak into you, like swallowing water on a hot and thirsty day. And then each night, before you fall asleep, take a moment to call to mind again the sense of being cared about – resting in that feeling as it weaves its way into your breathing, body, and dreams.