One afternoon, after I had been typing for too long, I stretched back in my chair to relieve the tension in my neck and shoulders. I was preparing my CV for my website when it dawned on me that I had done a lot of things over many years. I wondered, "Why had I done so much?" As if spoken to by another voice somewhere in my head, the answer came through clearly, "You've been doing all of this to get your mother's approval." The revelation shocked me and I remember a wave of deep sadness wash over me.

I know that my mother loves me deeply but her love is not unconditional. She has always had serious reservations about my lifestyle. Who I am as a person doesn't fit the model of who she would like me to be.

So, what is love, and to what lengths are you and I prepared to go in order to seek another's approval and love?

During your gestation, and for a while after your birth, you are incapable of seeing yourself as separate from your mum. It's only when you were around two years old that you start to get some inkling that you were not an extension of your mother's body. At this very tender age your neurology was crammed full of "mirror neurons". These copycat nerve cells have a strong propensity to mimic anything and everything. It's quite amazing how young infant brains are able to learn so much so very quickly. In no time at all, you learned to label objects, acquire language and negotiate your place in this world. Nearly all of this was done through observation and mimicry. Under the control of your mirror neurons, you were shaped and cloned by the societies in which you lift. Slowly personality and character began to emerge.

But the world is not a place devoid of defect. As little girls and boys, we look up to the authority figures in our world, taking cues from them as to how we should behave in order to meet their approval and to get their love. Ideally, when authority figures behave properly, children are shaped properly. These authority figures comprise mum and dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, schoolteachers, preachers and any other influential adult in the child's life. Through observation and mimicry, children absorb the rules of social engagement from their environments and become by-products of the people around them.

But what happens when things go wrong?

One of my clients is a woman who, when little, was repeatedly and badly sexually abused by the authority figures in her world. As we unravelled her situation together, trying to make sense out of the senseless, she said to me, "When authority figures don't behave authoritatively, a child is incapable of blaming those in authority, leaving the only other possibility: to blame self." From little, she felt that what happened to her was wrong but she was incapable of knowing where it had gone wrong. When the authority figures in her world behaved abominably, she had no context in her young mind to know how to apportion blame. She could only feel that it was wrong but she did not know why it was so. In her tiny mind, the only way she could solve the puzzle, was to blame herself. This led to a tremendous amount of self-loathing, lack of self-esteem and trauma as an adult. Not only did she think that she was bad but her experiences also shaped her concept of love. In her mind she reckoned that if she was to find love, she would have to do the things the authority figures did it to her. She learned to mimic the authority figures in her world and she played this out when she socialised with other children. She kept getting into trouble because her actions were seriously inappropriate for a little girl of eight or nine. Yet to her at such a tender age, it was normal because it was the only programmed pattern she knew to follow. In her case, repeated early abuse shaped a little girl. She had no concept that her behaviour with other children was inappropriate. She did not know why she was punished for the things she did. To her, she was simply imitating what somebody had done to her.

There are two threads that often get entangled: love and sex. They are very different things. Sex is a biological urge; love is an emotion. When sex and love are entangled, the result is often a sad consequence where couples say to each other, "Because we no longer have sex together, we obviously don't love each other."

Sex is often used as an affirmation of love. But it is also used as a strategy to manipulate others to bargain for emotional and material favours. I'm not suggesting that you only see your personal power as a value lying between your legs. Who you are as a person is much, much more than that. Your masculinity or femininity, your intelligence, confidence, strength and character are assets of far greater value. These are best brought into a relationship in addition to good sex.

Let's not limit our conversation to just this kind of manipulation and bargaining with sex, let's focus more specifically about using sex as a tool to take care of one's emotional needs too.

In many cultures, when one performs acts of kindness to another, social etiquette expects that we close the loop by offering something in return. To give a simple example, if I offered you a glass of water, you would probably be expected to close the loop by saying "thank you". If you didn't reciprocate in this way you might be considered rude or arrogant. This social exchange is what we call the Law of Reciprocity. But some people manipulate this law to overcome their emotional neediness. Let me give you an example of this: Let's say that I was a shy and introverted person and couldn't make friends easily. I might adopt a strategy of being very nice to others to win friends, performing favours for them, possibly even at my expense. By doing this I would hope to earn their friendship or, at worse, to simply get their affirmation that I am a nice person. I would be using the Law of Reciprocity to get what I needed. But this wouldn't be the normal application of this law but instead a manipulation of it. By performing these favours for others, I force the other person to reciprocate. Because social etiquette demands that we reciprocate, we might feel obliged to befriend the person offering us favours even though we ordinarily might not have made friends with him or her.

When the Law of Reciprocity is manipulated and misused in this way, it might include offering sexual favours in return for love and respect. In some cases it is used to secure a safe place to stay and to be taken care of. I have two examples which I'd like to share with you. Here in South Africa the State provides child support grants to impoverished people. There are many instances where women entice men to have sex with them just to get pregnant. Then they can claim child support to get enough money to live. The other example is of a beautiful young woman who came to me for counselling. She is a singer and a model and intended marrying a man much, much older than she is. She quite blatantly told me that she did not love him at all but that he was a very rich and famous person. She was ready to be his perfect wife in exchange for having her needs taken care of. He did not know of this. According to her, he was not a particularly amazing love maker and so, in a relationship devoid of love and good sex, she had already played around with other men. Her only concern was that he might find out and send her packing with nothing. She had calculated that if she spent about a decade with him, she could sue for divorce and would be left financially comfortable for the rest of her life. These cases might be the extreme examples of the manipulation of the Law of Reciprocity but it does illustrate the point nicely.

In many instances, this kind of manipulation isn't as overt as the ones I've given. Most people might not even know that they're doing it. It can be a very subtle subconscious thing.

Let me give you another example: Suppose that I don't believe that others like me. To mask my feelings of inadequacy, I might engage in promiscuous behaviour, believing that the other person is only prepared to have sex with me because he or she likes me. But the problem is that the less likely I am to believe in myself, the more driven I am to go out and seek the intimate affirmation of being liked by another. The sad thing is that these situations tend to be two-edged swords. Promiscuity might lead to further self-loathing which in turn could increase my need for further positive affirmation. Yet, as my neediness increases it would tend to motivate me towards a more promiscuous lifestyle to satisfy that need. Eventually as this spirals out of control, the noose tightens and I could fall into the deep abyss of despair. It's an intensely vicious cycle.

A young man once came to see me to seek help. He said that it was not uncommon for him to meet up for casual sex several times a day. He said it had become an addiction that was eroding his productivity at work and his ability to concentrate on other important things. He believed that he didn't have a rampant libido but that he had a deeply subconscious obsession to be liked. He got the recognition he needed from his casual partners but his own brain also responded to sexual arousal and climax by releasing huge doses of dopamine. Dopamine is our feel-good drug which he had become addicted to. To feel good, he needed to have frequent sex during the day because he had become dependent upon such high doses of dopamine in order to function. In helping him regain control of his life, we had to address a lot of the issues that arose during his childhood. This man had emotionally absent parents who seemed incapable of affirming who he was. In some sense, he was seeking out casual partners who became his surrogate parents for a moment.

To illustrate how we form tolerance and dependence to our own internal neurochemistry, let me tell you a story of a gay couple who came to see me. These two men were in their 50s and had been in a relationship for many decades. They were worried about their need for very kinky sex.

Obviously still deeply in love with one another, they believed that their sex had gotten out of control. In the beginning of their relationship they enjoyed what they termed "natural, organic sex". But some years into their relationship, they found that they were experiencing difficulty with arousal and interest and decided to introduce some soft porn to spice things up. This worked for a while but it soon was not enough to keep their interest kindled. They somehow adapted to it and it no longer stimulated them as it had done before. They had inadvertently stepped onto a common treadmill that is so common with all forms of addiction. They then chose to stimulate their interest through the use of wilder pornography but the same thing happened and they lost interest with that too. Soon, they were having live cybersex with other Internet users and began sniffing poppers to help things along. But each time there brains formed a tolerance to the pornography and drugs. They started to seek kinkier ways of having sex with other gay men but each time they upped the stimulus they found that they quickly adapted to it and it no longer worked for them. By the time they came to see me, both of these men had become impotent yet their imagination and desires were as alive as ever. This became a real problem for them as their brains acclimatised to the stimulus and there was no viable way to get more of it without stepping into some really murky places. These guys had truly become addicted to their own neurochemistry.

When dealing with issues like these, one has to be so careful that one does not bring moral judgement to these situations. In 1948 Alfred Kinsey published the first edition of his book Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. He was immediately criticised for the way in which he gathered his data. Kinsey new that he needed to balance what he saw as the need for anonymity in order to solicit honest answers on taboo subjects. Regardless of how scientifically sound Kinsey's data collection was, his report surprised the world about the diversity of human sexual expression. As Kinsey discovered, people enjoy a wide range of sexual activities, making it impossible to determine what is right and what is wrong.

In the cases that I've mentioned, one has to look beyond the way people express themselves and to look instead at the framework that drives them. If you have concerns about your sexual needs, you should do a little soul searching to see if you can spot any unresolved psychological issues that drive your sexual experiences in a detrimental way. It would then be wise to resolve them to enjoy a whole and fulfilled sex life.

Manipulating the Law of Reciprocity can be full of danger. Even though the social law expects that we reciprocate the generous actions of others, it doesn't always work out that way. There are many, many sad examples of people going out of their way to be kind and generous to others just to find themselves snubbed. When reciprocation is withheld, the giver often becomes angry and feels abused, saying things like, "After all I've done for him… this is the kind of thanks I get!" But, if the favours were done mainly to satisfy one's emotional needs, the plan could backfire and the lack of reciprocation would then increase one's neediness.

In all these cases, well-being is always placed in the hands of another person. Somebody else owns the key that unlocks your treasure chest of self-worth, acceptance and love. The problem is obvious. If somebody else holds the key that unlocks your happiness then you will do anything in your power to make sure that he or she doesn't stray too far because , if that person strayed too far from you, they would take your key away with them. How then would you unlock your own happiness and fulfilment? This sort is very threatening and frightening. If you and the other person fell out of favour with each other and if the key to your happiness and contentment was in that persons possession, he or she could wield the power to decide whether to use the key or not. Might it not be a better idea for you to hold onto your own key? It is important for you to realise that love is a capacity within you that can be unlocked at any time if you chose to use your own key. It would be far safer never to surrender the key to somebody, controlling it at all times.

There is a cliché full of truth which says, "You can't truly love another person until you fully love yourself". Let's unpack it for a moment. To fully love yourself is not a narcissistic statement. When we speak of narcissism we refer to individuals whose grandiosity soars to such heights. They are manipulative and easily angered, especially when they don't receive the attention they consider to be their birth right. These are people who believe in their own hype. The word narcissistic comes from Greek mythology. Narcissus was a hunter who was known for his handsomeness. He was proud, conceited and loathed anyone who loved him. When Narcissus noticed his own reflection in a pool of water, and not realising that it was merely an image, he fell in love with it. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live and stared at his reflection until he died.

So when we say that we need to fully love ourselves we do not mean that we should fall in love with our reflection in the mirror, obsessively fixating over ourselves and our physical appearance. It does however mean that we need to be fully aware and accepting of who we really are at the highest level of our being. A spiritual person who is fully in love with who he or she is, has all the hallmarks of grace, compassion and wisdom. These are not psychologically or physically needy people. They know who they are and are comfortable with themselves. These amazing people seem to radiate unconditional love. It is an outpouring. An overflow of their Joy of Being. The cliché then turns into quite a profound statement which implies that when one is whole, complete and content within oneself, one is never needy of the other person's affection or affirmation but instead and can enjoy interacting and forming a relationship with the other person as if it were a dance.

These kinds of relationships are amazing to observe because they show no signs of possessiveness or ownership. The sacredness of the tender interface between these people is the cement that holds their relationship together. Neither person is needy of the other. Both are self-sufficient. Sex between them is the catalytic use of their bodies to facilitate heightened states of awareness which constitute an offering to the divine in an act of bliss and oneness. Intimacy for them becomes a whole-body prayer to the divine within.

So we've seen that sex can sometimes be used as a tool to seek the affection, respect and acceptance of another in an insatiable spiral of emotional and material wantonness. But it can also be a hideous weapon of abuse when people have lost sexual continence and seek to use it to satisfy their unbridled lust, often in the most heinous ways. Love on the other hand is your internal capacity which you develop over time in order to connect with the world around you.

We learned that love and sex are very different things. While sex is about having a good time with somebody else, love is something you give to yourself. When you are full of love, you can then let it flow abundantly to others.

Rules about proper sexual conduct are generally embedded in common law. It is generally accepted practice that sex be consensual amongst adults. Sexual expression can easily span a wide swath of activities from deeply conservative to very liberal practices.

Our capacity for love, on the other hand, is boundless and takes on many forms: there is familial love, the kind of love that family members have for each other. We show love towards our pets. There is the love that friends have for each other, and there is erotic, sensual love that attracts people sexually. We should not forget about divine love, which is not something we feel but is manifest by what we do.

In Book 2 of the trilogy Conversations with God, Neil Donald Walsh, speaking with God, asks Him, "How may we best express this thing called sexual energy?" And God, replying to Neil about sexual energy, says that we should use it: "Lovingly. Openly. Playfully. Joyfully. Outrageously. Passionately. Sacredly. Romantically. Humorously. Spontaneously. Touchingly. Creatively. Unabashedly. Sensually. And, of course, Frequently."

Neil goes on to probe God's thoughts by making the statement, "There are those who say the only legitimate purpose of human sexuality is procreation."

God replied, "Rubbish. Procreation is the happy after-effect, not the logical forethought, of most human sexual experience. The idea that sex is only to make babies is naive, and the corollary thought that sex should therefore stop when the last child is conceived is worse than naive. It violates human nature — and that is the nature I gave you. Sexual expression is the inevitable result of an internal process of attraction and rhythmic energy flow which fuels all of life."

Further on in the same book, Neil Donald Walsh seeks more clarity from God by asking, "This leads me to some other, final, questions about sex. Is any kind of sex between consenting adults okay?… I mean even 'kinky' sex? Even loveless sex? Even gay sex?"

And God replied, "First, let's be once again clear that nothing is disapproved of by God. I do not sit here in judgement, calling one action good and another evil. Now — within the context of what serves you, or disserves you, on your Path of Evolution, only you can decide that. There is a broad-based guideline, however, upon which most evolved souls have agreed. No action which causes hurt to another leads to rapid evolution. There is a second guideline as well. No action involving another may be taken without the other's agreement and permission. Now let us consider the question you've just asked within the context of these guidelines.

"'Kinky' sex? Well, if it hurts no one, and it is done with everyone's permission, what reason would anyone have to call it 'wrong'? Loveless sex? Sex for the sake of sex has been debated from the beginning of time. I often think whenever I hear this question that I'd like to go into a room full of people someday and say, 'Everybody here who has never had sex outside of a relationship of deep, lasting, committed, abiding love, raise your hand.' Let me just say this: loveless anything is not the fastest way to the Goddess. Whether it is loveless sex or loveless spaghetti and meatballs, if you've prepared the feast and are consuming it without love, you're missing the most extraordinary part of the experience. Is it wrong to miss that? Here again, wrong may not be the operative word. Disadvantages would be closer, given that you desire to evolve into a higher spiritual being as rapidly as you can.

God then replied to Neil's question about gay sex, saying "so many people want to say that I am against gay sexuality… Yet I make no judgement, on this or any other choice you make. People want to make all kinds of value judgements — about everything — and I kind of spoil the party. I won't draw them in those judgements, which is especially disconcerting to those who say that I originated them. I do observe this: there was once a time when people thought that marriage between people of different races was not only inadvisable, but against the Law of God. They pointed to the Bible as their authority — even as they do for their authority on questions surrounding homosexuality… I have no judgement about that, or anything. I know you wish that I did. That would make your lives a lot easier. [Because then you would have] No decisions to make. No tough calls. Everything decided for you."

When seeking to get spiritual clarity about love, let's turn our attention to Emmanuel, who is a disembodied being who spoke through Pat Rodegast. When speaking of Love, Emmanuel said, "You will not exhaust the love in the universe if you were to absorb it from now until the end of time. Love is all that exists. Love is the universal communication. It is the energy that has created the universe and is keeping it going. God is love. All matter is formed by love. There is an organic love that speaks to everyone if they could but hear. A leaf holds together for love. Love can turn the world around and it does. What did you think was spinning your planet if it wasn't love and what do you think fires the cells of your body and the stars in your sky and a consciousness in your heart? It is all love. There is nothing but love… Love is the glue that holds the universe together. The greatest need anyone is to achieve [is the] loving of self which will bring about the unity wherein the judgements that have caused such pain are eliminated. True self-love is not ego. True love is great humility. Love and compassion for others cannot exist until there is a goodly supply for self. How can you feel the love of God if you do not love yourself? Are they not one and the same thing? Until you can accept yourself you lock the doorway to the expansion you all yearn for. This expansion comes through your heart. Be kind to yourself. Love requires no practice. Love is. One cannot practice is-ness. One can, however, practice the decision to love. The path to love is found by experiencing what it is like without love just as the path to light is to be aware of darkness. You make the supreme choice. Love is not mastered. It is allowed. Love comes in many containers. It can come through the flowing work of an artist. It can be the magnificent self-sacrifice of a master. It can be the firm resolution of a leader. It can be the touch of a parent. Something as simple as taking the hand of a child crossing the street is a monumental act of love. Every act of kindness and love adds more light and more power to God's truth in your world. To bring the concept of love into your physical reality, delivered as richly as you can, is to answer the calling of the God within that decided to incarnate. Everyone in your world is yearning for that fulfilment. This is not a substitute for God love, but is a nourishing, energising, freeing aspect of the universal plan made physical. There may be fear of dividing love between God and one's mate. I wish to say that there is no conflict. The nurturing that you receive on a physical level is, in fact, beneficial to your spiritual growth. You yearn for love as the flower yearns for the sun, and you have as much right to it."