The Anatomy Of Feeling Unloved

Buddhist writer Harvey Aronson shone a bright light on a hidden truth:

‘Most of us habitually think this way: “Jayne lost the book I lent her. She is irresponsible and awful.” It is a lot harder to acknowledge this feeling: “I fear I don’t matter in her eyes. I fear she doesn’t care for me. I fear I’m not very worthwhile.”’ (Harvey B. Aronson, Buddhist Practice on Western Ground, Shambhala, 2004, p.122)

I’m angry with her, but my real concern is that she doesn’t care about me. I’m angry because I’m afraid that I’m unloved. Actually, I’m afraid that I’m unlovable.

When a big let-down lands, or when several happen simultaneously, the heart can almost seem to physically sink to a place where dark thoughts of this kind seem unarguable:

‘Nobody cares about me; I’ve got no real support. It’s all politeness, gestures, diplomacy… People are just focused on their own lives. I feel totally unloved.’

This may give rise to an urge to retaliate by withholding our friendliness, communication, love – if they give us so little caring, we’ll give them even less. We want them to experience the same feeling of being unloved.

Of all forms of communication, silent sulking is probably the least effective. Our egos imagine the silence will work wonders – they will see the error of their ways, feel guilt and remorse. But they may not even notice! The result, if they don’t notice? We feel unloved.

The feeling of being unloved is, of course, a key factor in depression, breakdown and suicidal urges. Corey Keyes, sociologist and professor emeritus of Emory University, author of Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down, was interviewed about his own psychological collapse:

‘The night of his breakdown, he told his wife that he couldn’t go on; he was exhausted, nobody needed him. “I remember the pause, and then she said those four words: “But I need you.” I knew she meant what she said. To this day, I’m like, whoa! I feel it right now. Whoa!”’

Anger and resentment have a spectacular ability to filter out facts that conflict with the wound we’re feeling. Although we may, in reality, have plenty of friends and family who care about us, the feeling of being unloved is able to filter out and dismiss all such evidence as bogus.

If we pay close attention to moments when we feel unloved, we will find that our problem, in fact, is not primarily a lack of love from the people around us, but a lack of love within ourselves. We feel that we are deprived of the love of others, but actually we are deprived of our own feelings of love, which may, for example, have been incinerated by a burst of anger.

It’s worth examining why we are so prone to feeling unloved, and why it’s a mistake to imagine that other people are the cause of, or solution to, this deeper problem. Then we can start looking for answers in the right direction.

The Abyss Of Nothingness

Remarkably, our ego – our sense of ourselves as independently existing individuals – is built on an Abyss of Nothingness. It’s not even built on sand; it’s like a cartoon character that has run off a cliff and hasn’t looked down yet. It is the ultimate castle in the air.

The most obvious aspect of this abyss is our transience. It’s something we don’t like to think about, but it’s there waiting for us in times of illness and bereavement, in moments of anguish at night. The undeniable truth is that our health, happiness, relationships, our very life, are fleeting. W.B. Yeats asked:

‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?’

We know this is the final truth – literally everything we love will vanish without trace. This transience inevitably generates a feeling of lack, of insufficiency – we desperately need to find more of something, anything, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and secure. But it’s an impossible task. How can we feel fully loved and supported in a universe that will soon erase every trace of our existence and of those who care for us? ‘My mama loved me, but she died’, as the eponymous, unloved and unloving anti-hero of the classic 1963 film Hud lamented. 

The Buddhist writer and teacher Alan Wallace wrote of his own epiphany in this regard:

‘When I was twenty-three, I was living in India and became very ill with hepatitis. In addition to hepatitis, I was suffering from malnutrition, intestinal parasites, and a cat crawled into my sleeping bag and gave me lice. Each day of this illness was like tumbling down the stairs of life, and I was dying. There were a couple of nights when I figured I had a 50% chance of living through to morning. I was so close to death that the monks in my monastery began doing a death ritual for me. Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, the Dalai Lama’s personal physician at that time, saved my life. My health turned around. I began climbing back up the stairs and knew I was not going to die.

‘What really struck me as I lay on my bed dying was that everything else was just going on more or less normally. If I died, my fellow monks would feel sorry for me and perhaps miss me for a little while, but classes in the monastery would be held the next day. My parents would grieve for a long time. But it would all go on. I came out of that experience with a very clear sense that my life was not so much saved as my death was postponed. Death had just been shoved back. This is true for all of us.’ (B. Alan Wallace, Buddhism with An Attitude – The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind-Training, Snow Lion, 2001, pp.30-31)

Some people might miss us for a while, but life will go on. Knowing this, how can we not feel unloved? It’s a melancholy spectacle to see actors, singers and sports stars who were once household names, quietly slipping away, all but unnoticed and forgotten. A handful of short, formulaic obituaries quoting a few ageing survivors, and they’re gone.

A second aspect of the Abyss of Nothingness is the fundamental insubstantiality of the personal self. As discussed in an earlier Cogitation, our sense of self is comprised of a collection of impressions reflected back at us from parents, siblings, friends, lovers and strangers. We’re told we’re talented, lovable, annoying, funny, eloquent, stupid, and so on. The reflections form an indistinct mass in which we perceive a rough outline of a personality: ‘me’. As part of this, on the basis of what is being reflected back at us, we will decide that we are more and less loved and lovable.

Obviously, a sense of self based on the reactions of others leaves us highly vulnerable to feeling unloved. Someone made it clear we were needed yesterday, but – who knows? – perhaps they’re feeling different today. Maybe they’re fed up with us. Or perhaps we’ve changed and become less lovable. Any positive impressions have a short shelf life – we will always need new reflections to reassure us that we’re lovable, because nothing is guaranteed when everyone and everything is changing. If a close friend, or even a complete stranger, treats us harshly, it is all too easy for us to absorb this as credible evidence that we are now unloved and unlovable.

The truth is that we are transient phenomena dependent on other transient phenomena. Osho described the result, which we habitually deny to ourselves and others:

‘Inside himself every individual feels weak, ineffectual. Inside he feels shallow and empty, as if he is nothing. He feels a kind of non-existence, an emptiness. And it is this emptiness he is trying to escape…’.

We are vulnerable, wounded beings. We are wounded by our insubstantiality, by the impending loss of everyone and everything we love. Of course we are prone to feeling unloved.

Everything we’ve discussed so far makes one conclusion clear: there is nothing anyone ‘out there’ can do to permanently heal this wound, to satisfy this feeling of being unloved. No amount of external support can fill the Abyss of Nothingness. We cannot fill the leaking rust bucket of a needy self that is constantly being eroded by perpetual change.

So, if it’s not just ‘their’ fault, what can we do to remedy the problem?

Thought-Free Awareness – Sublime, Sweet And Happy

The Buddha offered this very strange comment on the practice of paying attention to the sensations of breathing in and out:

‘Monks, this concentration through mindfulness of breathing, being cultivated and practiced, tends to the peaceful, the sublime, the sweet and happy: at once it causes every evil thought to disappear and calms the mind.’ (Quoted, Wallace, op.cit., p.82)

Why would paying attention to the sensations of something as trivial and boring as the breath have any impact at all, let alone induce feelings that are peaceful, sublime, sweet and happy?

Alan Wallace again:

‘The breath itself is not a pleasurable object, nor is it a virtuous one. It is simply neutral, like a stream of pure water uncolored by any additives. Yet when the attention is focused on the breath, by the simple fact of the mind abiding in a state of clear awareness, disengaged from perceptual and conceptual stimuli that arouse either craving or aversion, a sense of sweetness and joy begins to bubble up and afflictive thoughts disappear… like the polluted river that quickly purifies itself when toxins are no longer introduced into it, the mind quickly reasserts its intrinsic equilibrium, joy, and serenity. This is one of the most astounding and significant discoveries about the mind that anyone has ever made, and it deserves special attention in our society.’ (Ibid., p.83, my emphasis)

The good news gleams and glitters from the word ‘intrinsic’: amazingly, it is the very nature of awareness ‘disengaged from perceptual and conceptual stimuli’ – that is, from thought – to be effervescent with ‘sweetness and joy’.

This merits emphasis: however it might feel to be standing with a headful of thoughts and a hatful of rain in an empty raincoat at a grimy bus stop on the Monday morning commute to work, awareness, simple consciousness, is inherently overflowing with ecstasy.

And the key word that is missing from Wallace’s description: love. When we watch our breath, or our sense perceptions, or our emotions, gaps eventually appear through thought streams that dry up through lack of attention. When this happens, sweetness, delight, bliss and love bubble up. Ultimately, we don’t merely experience love, we experience ourselves as love. Ramana Maharshi put it well:

‘Only if one knows the Truth of Love,

which is the real nature of Self,

will the strong entangled knot of life be untied…

The experience of Self is only love,

which is seeing only love,

hearing only love, feeling only love,

tasting only love and smelling only love,

which is bliss.’ (Sri Ramana Maharshi)

Ramana supplied the key: only when we perceive ‘the Truth of Love, which is the real nature of Self’, will we realise that we can never really be unloved because we are ourselves made of the ‘stuff’ called love. It is just that this reality is obscured by clouds of thought. Our focus, now, is on unveiling, unblocking and sharing this love, not on begging others for love.

We don’t need to be enlightened masters like Ramana to get at least a taste of this truth. As discussed, the feeling that we are unloved is dissolved even when doing something idiotic like watching the breath. As we pay less attention to the mind, thoughts fall away, and the sweetness and love of awareness start to shine through. Even paying close attention to the teeth we are brushing or the back we are scrubbing will generate a subtle lightening and sweetening of our mood. If we are not lost in thought.

The feeling of being unloved, then, is not a reflection of Truth, Reality, of ‘the cold light of day’. It is a symptom of the disease of overthinking.

We have misunderstood the problem all along. Others may or may not have loved us, may or may not have let us down. At the deepest level, the reason we feel unloved is that an excess of thinking has blocked our own source of love and bliss. Our heads have let our hearts down.

David Edwards is co-editor of medialens.org and author of the forthcoming, ‘A Short Book About Ego… And The Remedy of Meditation’, Mantra Books, 2025.

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