The Way to a Deeper and Sweeter Connection with Ourselves, Each Other and Mother Earth
Faith Bethelard, Psy.D.
What’s Driving Your Choices in Life?
Could It Be An Unacknowledged Hunger?
The emotional wisdom of the heart is simple. When we accept our human feelings, a remarkable transformation occurs. Tenderness and wisdom arise naturally and spontaneously. Where we once sought strength over others, now our strength becomes our own; where we once sought to defend ourselves, we laugh.
—Jack Kornfield, best-selling author and Buddhist Practitioner
The English language fails us when we talk about the kind of love we most crave. How do we put into words that feeling when you have a partner who understands exactly what you need from him or her in a moment of sadness or desperation? Or that rush of support and expansion when you’re able to solve a problem cooperatively and creatively with a coworker? Or, if you’re in therapy, and leave a session feeling as though you’ve been understood, the world feels like a beneficent place, and you are capable of doing good things in it.
In my first book, Cherishment: A Psychology of the Heart, written with my co-author Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, we got close to finding the right words to convey what that feeling is. What we identified is a basic human need that manifests early in all of us and bonds us with our mothers. We discovered that this bond is a urgent need for love, a desire to be cherished, and that it is best captured by a Japanese word, amae, which essentially means “a wish or expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved.” “Ahhhh” as one of my friends sighed upon hearing the definition of amae, “that is what I’ve always wanted!’ I will go more into amae in Chapter One, but for now I want to clarify that this wish for sweet love, since it stems from our earliest infancy, lies deep within all of us. Being cherished is the emotional equivalent of nourishment. It is indeed Soul Food.
Unfortunately, our culture teaches us to very quickly repress this need in order to save face. And this repression then gets passed down through families, doing harm from generation to generation of individuals. Because so many suffer from this frustrated or thwarted need it also risks doing harm to the world we live in. Our Cherishment book was an effort to raise a warning signal, to ask people to wake up to the kind of warm affectionate love that helps us all to survive and thrive emotionally, to heal ourselves and others, and prevent us from creating further damage to this world that’s been entrusted in our care.
When we’re feeling cherished, or cherishing someone, the heart feels soft, kind, delicate, considerate–and yes, sometimes also sensitive, easily bruised or vulnerable to distress. As my thinking has evolved, I’ve arrived at another English word that best approximates the meaning of amae and can similarly represent that gentle jolt we feel when not only are our needs met, but our hunger for our needs to be met is met. That word is Tenderness.
As you can see, the examples above all involve other people. That’s important: Tenderness is fundamentally interpersonal and this book will show that through stories from therapy and from life. But it is also vibrational. The energy of tenderness functions through harmony, resonance and attunement. It always operates in relation to another, yet the other need not be a person. When an energy exchange takes place, a unison happens, two energies vibrate together. Our hearts can feel tenderness while watching a film, listening to music, looking at a sunset, tending a garden, creating an art work, hearing a news story that’s heart-warming or tragic . And sometimes that other is ourselves, as we are called upon to tend to ourselves, nurture ourselves, feel compassion for ourselves, treat ourselves kindly.
One of the special treats that I give myself is high quality cotton linens for my bed. My friends are surprised when I tell them that I iron my sheets, but there is nothing quite like the feeling of slipping into smooth luxurious sheets that caress me and lull me to sleep. Skin to skin. I get to feel like a precious baby being cradled every night!! You will create your own special tenderness treats and rituals. The possibilities are endless. But the feeling of tenderness, birthed in our infancy when we are completely dependent on tender care from others, whose only wish is to make us feel secure and well- loved, is our root condition.
Tenderness is a note that we can learn to play every day. Being in resonance to someone or something, vibrating in unison with the world, makes for many sweet feelings and occasions. The aim is for us, who are no longer babies, to become open to depending on others, to ask for help, to believe in tender feelings from others, and most important, be open to receiving that tenderness. However, in the Western world we’ve come to believe that we cannot or should not ask for help. We have fetishized independence, and haphazardly improvise our way through projects rather than allow ourselves to be seen as vulnerable, dare to ask for help, or even acknowledge the need for help from others. In so doing we also run the risk of shaming people who are more in touch with their cherishment/tenderness need.
A person with repressed tenderness develops a bias, a prejudice, against this need in others. When you are hating and hiding something in yourself you can’t tolerate seeing it in others and typically let them know it!! So this need for sweetness that you and I sorely deserve to live the optimal joyous life that is our birthright, goes underground and remains unfulfilled. This book is my effort to help break this inevitable generational transmission, release people from hiding and feelings of shame, and show the transformational power that lies in being able to feel openly tender towards others, towards communities, towards the world-at-large–and yes, in the process, also towards ourselves.
I am not dismissing autonomy. There is of course a time and place for solitude and independence, but one has to wonder how we got to this juncture where it reigns supreme. Have we become so terrified of being seen as needy or over-emotional that we’ve cut ourselves off from one another? And not only from each other—but also from ourselves, as this unmet urgent need gets repressed so that it most often operates destructively on a subconscious level. Even if we are brave enough to reach out a hand for help, there is still that stigmatic shame, ready and waiting in the back of our minds, telling us that this request is foolish, that we don’t deserve it, and that the need probably won’t be met anyway.
Deep within each of us is a secret longing to have others understand exactly what we feel, to telepathically just “get us,” like a mother who is perfectly attuned to her infant’s every need. We also yearn to better understand what those we love feel. However, as I said, we now live in a time where frustrated tenderness reigns. Instead of making efforts to attune to our own and others needs we have acclimated ourselves to a world that actively suggests those desires are worthy of scorn or contempt. This tendency to suppress or deny this need and just “buck up” makes us prone to isolation, to seek self-comfort in unhealthy ways: in unsatisfying relationships, in anxiety, depression, and even serious self-medicating addictions. This hyper-independent stance is also seen in over-work, over activity, worrying, general busy-ness. My mentor, Dr. Robert Myers, had a favorite maxim: “Activity is the Antidote for Anxiety.” This is a vast generalization, but certainly always keeping busy can be a crutch, not a cure.
Make no mistake, anxiety is at the core of this unmet and urgent need for tenderness. A lack of tenderness –like a key vitamin that our mind and body needs for survival –has not only dampened our individual contentment, it has also prevented us from fulfilling our birthright of human interdependency. Unfulfilled, it leaves us with an anxious feeling in our core. We feel unbonded, untethered, unlovable and insecure. When we are allowed to fulfill our dependency needs very early in life we become relaxed and secure, and trust that the world is benevolent and will provide.
I genuinely believe that we are languishing in a world without the kinds of interpersonal connections we desperately need. These are made even less attainable when so many of us are seriously addicted to our electronic devices and can hardly look up from them long enough to have an actual ‘eye to eye’ conversation or interaction of any depth and meaning with others. As a result, we are seeing an epidemic of depression, anxiety and a number of severe addictions, including overeating that results in rampant obesity, abuse of alcohol and drugs, workaholism, and sexual addictions. It is my professional observation that most of these are harmful self-soothing addictions and are due to a frustrated lack of tenderness in our lives.
Alcohol, drugs and overeating sugar-laden, non-nutritious foods provide an easy if fleeting escape from feelings of loneliness, anger and abandonment. This discomfort compounds itself in those who are already wounded. In the depth of their denial, what they truly need is not that oversized bowl of pasta, series of cocktails or mood-changing opioids—not to mention rampant overwork and ego-driven pursuit of “success” for its own sake. Sadly, caught in this vicious cycle, people often can’t or won’t allow themselves to receive tenderness from others, whether in the form of a compliment –an expression of admiration they fail to take in—or even broader: accepting someone’s wholehearted affection or love.
The good news is that amae–tenderness— is not an exhaustible resource. Quite the opposite. It is all around us, in endless supply. However, it does require enhanced self-awareness and brutal honesty about our individual lives and how we may be putting up firewalls. In other words, it does require a wake-up call. When you are able to consciously recognize your need for tenderness from others and their need to feel it coming to them from you, the experience regenerates. When this happens there’s a recognition that tenderness can be a lovely exchange. But, along with this recognition for graceful sweetness in your relationships, comes the awareness of all the defenses you’ve erected around your tenderness that’s prevented you from receiving it and giving it. And you can be 100% certain that others are wearing their armor, too!!
This is where it all breaks down. Instead of gracefully entering into a flow with others, we’re all sitting on the sidelines, arms crossed, feeling rejected, unlovable, or judging others as unworthy. But we have to start somewhere. Do you possess the courage to be the one to start? Are you willing to feel that bit of shyness and awkwardness that comes with being vulnerable? Can you teach tenderness by example? As you begin to reach out, to ask for what you need, you will see how your request gives permission to others to do the same. And if you sense that someone else is in need or could use a helping hand, in spite of their air of self-sufficiency, just provide something. You may be surprised when your care engenders a softening in that person and increases good feelings between you. This is how tenderness reproduces itself, how the experience regenerates. When you ask for it, you’re asked to give it. When you give it, you’re open to receiving it -in even greater measure!
Tenderness requires a significant willingness to change. For so many of us that are subconsciously hooked on independence (“Thank you very much but I can do it myself”) this can be a terrifying transition. When a firefly is trapped under a glass and deprived of the oxygen it needs to live its light begins to dim. This can be seen as a tenderness metaphor. Tenderness is our oxygen. The give and take, the reciprocity of mutual dependency, is the core dynamic of human emotional growth. When we’re not growing—one could even say “glowing”—we find ourselves brittle and irritable, stagnating in many areas of our lives.
How do we conquer our fears, refuse to isolate ourselves behind glass and stay open to the world, to others, to tenderness? Again, it takes an active awareness to cultivate a tenderness consciousness. Without this daily cultivation, typically change will only come about in crisis mode. People often find that when life forces them to battle with a health issue, or find their way through the cloud of grief that envelops them after loss of a loved one, face divorce, lose a coveted professional position, or have to cope with any other major challenges, they begin to operate on a different frequency. Suddenly, in the face of loss and change they vibrate with greater aliveness, recognizing the preciousness and transitory reality of life.
We should not need to survive a deadly illness or deal with a major loss of any sort in order to become fully alive. By choosing to foster tenderness where we are right now we activate our ability to do better for ourselves and for the ones we care about, personally and professionally. As a result we receive more from each other. Little by little, person by person, we are doing our part to make the world a better, more tender, place.
I was living in NYC at the time of 9/11. These tragic events were followed by about six months of a unique atmosphere of tenderness in the city. It was a palpable feeling, how changed interpersonal relations were—on the street, in stores, in taxis, among friends and family. ” RIP” was painted on a vast number of crosswalks–a daily reminder to choose loving over hatred, and connection over divisiveness and strife. It was a very uplifting time, at least for those who did not experience the direct loss of a loved one. Sure enough, as the RIP art wore away over time, so did the consciousness of tenderness. Most people went back into their isolated worlds, once again armored in self-absorption and armed with hair-trigger moodiness. This was a regression to the mean, literally and figuratively.
How did we get to such a wounded place? How do we raise the frequency of the mean? The word tender is often used to express vulnerability, as in soreness, hurting, being bruised. Those who present themselves to the world without protection may easily bruise. An infant is tender at the very beginning in life—in the sense of utter helplessness and dependency on others. The fragile delicacy of a child inspires others to great care and protection, and a beautiful dance between cherisher and cherishee takes place. As we grow, small bruises, little disappointments, are inevitable. These actually help the child to develop and be resilient. Everyone wins when these hurts are not enough to destroy the confidence the child has that the world is kind, generous and protective.
We do have to expect some bruising in life. It’s when traumatic injury or neglect take over, and the child loses trust and connection to their heart that kindly helpers are needed to assist them in their healing and re-ignite their development that was derailed. This opportunity for renewal most typically happens when that child is an adult. It’s the child in the adult that needs the kindly care. It’s a truism that it requires a tender heart to heal a tender heart.
In reality, the ethos of tenderness—a tender, loving culture—offers us a safe place to recover from the inevitable hits we take from life, since life is not easy for anyone. As we nurture our own self-esteem and sense of amae we become more secure and confident. We discover that the world is generally a benevolent place. We become hardier creatures. While the large and small setbacks of our daily lives can still hurt us, they will no longer have the power to take us down for the count permanently.
At the core of tenderness is a sense of peace and contentment—that safe, sweet blissful feeling a baby feels at his mother’s breast, or in her father’s sturdy arms. Of course we all have to leave this earliest dawn of our lives, grow and venture out into the world. When the journey toward autonomy is gradual rather than traumatic and abrupt, this peaceful quiet joy has a better chance of remaining with us. We then have a wellspring of good feelings to draw upon. We can aspire to approach life with the smiling eyes of a child who looks out to the world, tenderly, openly, trustingly, invitingly, curiously, confident of receiving in kind.
Most of you will recognize that you’ve had some unevenness in your life journey, some combination of security and insecurity, peacefulness and anxiousness. That’s where daily conscious cultivation of moments of tenderness, peace, joy, can calm and relax you in your anxious periods. Fortunately, you have pathways inside of you that can be turned on to generate growth, and kindness, and the ultimate high vibrational state of “glow” that I will elaborate on later. In the face of our society’s challenges to achieving this desirable state, this book, Tenderness: The Secret to a Sweeter Life and a Healthier Planet offers science-backed strategies designed to show you how to freely give and powerfully attract this new kind of love and affection. It is affection you may not even know you need, even though receiving it–and being able to give it to others–has the ability to change everything.
This is the overall landscape of what I am about to reveal. So now, please turn the page, and enter a new world where that sweet, though all too often hidden ingredient in your life—that amae, that tenderness— awaits.