Tenderness is a vibration. It is an energy that communicates caring and affection. It is silent, wordless and soft but also, magical, like a rainbow. And it’s powerful. If we are honest with ourselves, most of our problem areas and stress arise from situations and circumstances that we don’t like, can’t accept, judge, fight against, try to control, begrudge. We end up feeling dull, disconnected and not fully awake. I propose that tenderness is the antidote to our anxiety, separation, forcefulness and apathy. It is the needed emotion to be a salve to our wounds. If we find a way to treat ourselves and others tenderly, as we would a small child, we will be far healthier and contented. And if you learn to identify it, work with it and channel it, tenderness will powerfully uplift and expand your life.
Japanese psychiatrist Takeo Doi, in his book The Anatomy of Dependence (1971), reports that in Japan there is an everyday noun, amae (pronounced ah-mah-ay), which is best defined in English as “the expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved.” The verb, amaeru, is to wish for this kindly love with the confidence that you will receive it, and the adjective, amai, means ‘sweet.’ Doi describes amae as a universal human emotion, originating from the earliest vulnerability of the infant and the bonds they form with kind and loving caregivers. All babies come into the world in tenderness, presuming that the world will comfort them and benevolently provide.
And for Doi, all humans continue to seek sweet, caring relationships and experiences throughout their lives. What struck him as unique (and puzzling) was that the Japanese have an elaborate vocabulary for this earliest, most intimate of human emotions, including numerous states of mental and emotional anguish when amae is missing or the desire to amaeru frustrated, whereas the Western languages are silent.
From Doi’s perspective this “dependent love” is not immature, to be outgrown as quickly as possible—but more essentially it is the very foundation of all love and the essence of human connection. Unfortunately we Americans grow up in a culture where being “independent” is held up as a supreme achievement. Having lost its association with “dependable” we consider “dependency” a liability not an ability. Not surprising then that there is no closely equivalent English word for this sweet form of affection—even though when we encounter it we all say “Oh, that’s what I always wanted.”
Indeed, tenderness is the emotional equivalent of nourishment. So ask yourself, “Is tenderness a missing ingredient in my life? Am I hungry for something, and I don’t even know what?” In truth, tenderness isn’t lost or missing so much as hidden. That’s because we are taught to work mightily to defend against our tenderness— reject it, disavow it, denigrate it—in order to save face. This repression gets passed down through families, doing harm from generation to generation. Frustrated, thwarted, and buried tenderness causes a great deal of suffering in individuals. It also risks doing harm to the world in which we live. Until we deal with these internal constraints and allow tenderness back into our lives we will not be living a truly fulfilling, “whole” life.