Inner Tenderness - relearning loveliness



The piece below looks at learning to include ourselves within our field of care in healthy and life-giving ways. I feel a deep sense of passion and urgency about this theme, as it is clear how profoundly a lack of natural inner kindness depletes so many of our lives. This leaves us living in harsher, lonelier worlds than is good for us; there is room in life for inner tenderness...

learning to abide with ourselves…

Sometimes you come across an idea that sheds light on familiar territory and something clarifies from a new angle. This happened me several times reading Chronic Shame by Patricia DeYoung. I want to focus on just one fragment here, in case it has resonance for others: it is about learning to relate to and from ourselves as if our inner experience actually matters. Learning to abide with ourselves.

This probably sounds extremely simple, but it is a source of huge struggle for many of us to take account of ourselves in a natural, balanced way. So the respect for inner experience I am referring to is not about self-obsession, or placing ourselves ahead of others, it is about knowing how to balance our natural capacity to care so that it becomes available to our inner selves in an ongoing, life-giving way.

 a chance to learn both ways of being in the world

The sentence that triggered me looking at this differently comes up when DeYoung quotes Francis Broucek on the importance of parents “reflecting a child as both subject an object, so a child has a chance to learn both ways of being in the world...”  I felt an immediate sense of beauty, balance and alignment when I read that phrase. Since then, a clarity about our need to relate and be related to from both angles has been reverberating through me – we are living, sensitive creatures with inner experience that is precious, and creatures who inhabit a shared, inter-penetrating world impacting life and others, who, hopefully, want to do that with maturity, grace and love.

when the balance leans toward objectification in our early lives,

we grow up vulnerable to forgetting ourselves.

So that’s the territory we are in: how to achieve a balance between these two. The point DeYoung makes next is essential – of these two ‘ways of relating’, in our formative years, the subjective element is most essential: In early life we really, really need it. For, [when objectification dominates] “the child loses the possibility of recovering what Francis Broucek calls primary communion with others….”  In other words, if we are related to chiefly in terms of our outsides, something goes wrong in our capacity to bond from (and with) the middle of ourselves.  When our inner experience is not mirrored back to us as existing or worthy of relating to, we learn, implicitly, that how it is to be us is irrelevant to how the world flows.

This can have big repercussions, because we tend to replicate, ad infinitum, this blindness to our own insides. So, when the balance leans toward objectification in our early lives, we grow up vulnerable to forgetting ourselves. We learn to automatically leave ourselves out, unconsciously believing this is required of us in order to belong, be loveable, or be worthy of contact with others.

It is important to distinguish between this self-forgetting and the mature, nourishing surrender of absorption in service, work or play. This is more like a bias of neglect - an unconscious impulse to over-ride ourselves, as if it is necessary to do so. Natural self-care eludes us.


This instinct toward self-neglect appears to be a foreign country to the people I know who are happiest. They seem to have an organic, warm bond with their own subjectivity – an inner friendship that is primary, affection for themselves and a natural concern that they be happy. They live and relate among others naturally as if they matter – not merely as functioning things who should function well (though many of them care very deeply about this), but as humans whose own happiness is a natural priority for them. They act and move in ways that reflect their sensibilities and preferences without a process of struggle or fraught anxiety about whether they will be punished or rejected for doing so.

ironically, over time, the habit of self-neglect leaves us

at risk of becoming self-obsessed

When I think about those of us who struggle more, we seem inclined to over-ride our subjectivity as a matter of course. We live as if impacts and imprints on our souls should not hurt us, or interrupt our functioning. We do not easily heed signals of distress when they arise inside us, or consider that we might pause to abide with ourselves. We may not know how, or feel that we are ‘allowed’ to. At some very fundamental level, we have not imbibed that our insides are worthy of care, so, at least in company, we unconsciously presume we must abandon them.

Yet in our self-abandonment, it is not just we who suffer: we often end up far more preoccupied with ourselves than those who take themselves into account. This makes sense: neglect is not good for anything. So, ironically, over time, the habit of self-neglect leaves us at risk of becoming self-obsessed in complex and demanding ways, swamped as we are by the distress of our own unsupported, ravenous-to-be-related to inner states.

how can we learn to care?

So, how can we learn to care? It is often said that what is formed relationally needs to be healed relationally. Probably the most potent way initially to address this deficit is to cultivate relationships (whether therapeutic or personal) in which our inner selves are related to with interest and love. Many of the most powerful moments in healing occur when we are caught in some form of despair about ourselves (where at some level we are experiencing ourselves as failing objects), and another mirrors back to us something more raw, tender and acknowledging of our insides. Something in how they hold us allows us, however briefly, to be nourished there, to temporarily abandon the objectification, to be merely, unhappily human, but abided with, embraced, offered, in Broucek’s term, primary communion.

Moments like these are miniature trainings, recalibrations wherein we learn, viscerally, that we are worthy of being related to, just for our sakes.  We feel the goodness of this. It touches us deeply, and may shock us in its intimacy and tenderness. This tenderness may surface new layers of sensitivity and pain. But it also begins to ignite a new interior capacity – to notice and respect ourselves with a parallel commitment, to care for what we find inside ourselves, to abide with our own interior without moving away. One of my favourite statements by one of my favourite analytic writers, Christopher Bollas is that one of the most valuable outcomes of psychotherapy is its capacity to ‘transform a person’s relation to themselves as an object of care’ – in other words, being intimately cared for and related to with true respect can, over time, transform how we treat ourselves. As Galway Kinnel writes: 'sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.'  May those of us who have misplaced it, begin remembering our loveliness  in ways that nourish our inner and outer rhythms, and soften the hard moments of our lives.


This piece dovetails with a few other pieces I've written: It: Thou after Buber on another way we forget ourselves in service to others; reflections On Love by Milosz - a stunning poem about this balance of care for self and world; and a book review of DeYoung's book on Shame). Below, the full poem by Galway Kinnell.

St Francis and the Sow

The bud

stands for all things,

even those things that don't flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;

as St. Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of

the tail,

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking

and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

by Galway Kinnell

resources for self-care