Well, friends, I just had a baby and started to, once again, experience the daily highs and lows of parenting. It’s a life stage that packs in an incredible amount of emotion — deep love, joy, excitement, exhaustion, anger, fear, and more — often all rolling around in our bodies at the same time. It brings up memories of our experiences as small, helpless beings in a scary, new world. All of this can flood our minds, sending us into fight-or-flight, survival mode. Our need for nurturing skyrockets as we are called on to nurture someone else.
Nurturing Supports Growth
Nurturing looks a little different for each person, but at its core, it is the attending to needs in a nonjudgmental, supportive, and accepting manner. This includes physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. Nurturing involves a softened space, calm and attentive, that holds a need, validates its existence, and allows for expression. To nurture a plant, you would provide soil, water, and sunlight; you may even play music, or speak gently to it. You would notice if brown spots appeared on its leaves, or if the petals wilted, and you would look for what could be done to better support the plant’s needs. It’s the same with a person–noticing exhaustion, emotional capacity, spiritual and interpersonal connection, and asking what the person needs to thrive. Nurturing supports growth and experimentation, empowering the person to achieve higher goals than just survival.
Signs That We Need It
So what do our brown spots and wilted flowers look like? Firstly, it is the feeling of shame. The hot, sinking feeling that creeps into our bodies and overwhelms our cheeks can come up when we have not met expectations, real or imagined. Shame often goes hand-in-hand with fear of rejection. When we’re feeling shame, we feel small and have an impulse to hide or counterattack. We need help finding safety so we can grow again, without fear or constraint.
More signs include defensiveness, stone-walling, body tension, and emotional expression (yelling, crying, stomping feet, smashing objects, dancing, huddling, screaming, etc). These are ways we show that we need acceptance. We need someone to be present with us right where we are, and offer a space to feel how we feel without taking our behavior personally. We need a place to crest a wave of emotion and settle on the other side, resting until we’re ready to venture forward.
Barriers to Nurturing Ourselves
Let’s be honest — it’s not always easy to nurture ourselves. All of those signs that we have a need for nurturing are influenced by how others responded to those signs when we were young. Perhaps there was often a nurturing response–if so, great! Acceptance, gentleness, and presence are already skills that have been modeled for you. However, for some, their parents responded with shaming, gaslighting, or punishment. Some parents may have expected their kids to be able to process big emotions and navigate needs with the skill of an adult, which the kids were not equipped to do. If that was your experience, shame, anxiety, guilt, or anger could be parts of your response to having basic needs. A “self critic” voice may dominate our thoughts and keep us from fully investigating or validating those needs. This doesn’t go away right away, as much as we may want it to. Nurturing can feel like an uphill battle when that happens, and the most important first step in doing so is to have gentle expectations for yourself. You’re learning something new, perhaps unlearning some older and harsher practices. It will be messy work, and that is okay. That gentleness IS nurturing yourself, and it can open you up to more skills.
Ways to Develop Nurturing Skills
In tandem with those gentle expectations, nurturing involves reflection on the words that we use. Just as that self-critic voice uses words to hurt, push, and forcefully protect us, so our nurturing voice can use words to guide, encourage, and hold us. The biggest difference between the two is that the nurturing voice uses nonjudgmental language. Think about it — many of our descriptions of behaviors, needs, and thoughts contain a judgment. “Resting is lazy”, “How selfish of me to want her attention”, “Don’t start thinking this is good enough, you still have a long way to go”. Those judgments are interpretations of our tendencies, thoughts, and behaviors, and can distract us from actually identifying the underlying needs.
Nonjudgmental nurturing focuses on observation before interpretation. For example, instead of those judgment-focused statements above, let’s try “I really want to stop and rest”, “I feel jealous that her attention is on other things”, or “I’m starting to feel good about my progress.” Simple observations like this are about what is actually happening; it’s a pause before adding an “Is this good or bad?” interpretation. Those observations can then cue our next step in nurturing: taking inventory.
“Taking inventory” is a fancy way of saying that we need to run through the checklist of our needs and see what’s missing. There are many ways of doing this, like using body scans, the HALT acronym (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired), or mindful practices. These practices have us tune in with what our body, mind, and/or souls are saying they need. Instead of passing judgment, this tuning in to the need can help soothe the real concern without having us stop and feel trapped in shame. The answers to this will become a pattern, which helps in building a “me map”.
Your “me map” is basically the way you track your needs, preferences, and values. It is literally a map of neural connections, which help tell you where to go when something happens. It gives a sense of what equilibrium or “normal” looks like, and then you’ll know if you deviate. For example, when my body starts feeling shaky, and I start feeling irritated, and loud noises start to bother me a lot, my “me map” tells me that I need food. Once I have food, my body feels settled, I feel neutral, and loud noises don’t bother me quite as much. Building your “me map” takes time, and it will change throughout life. Taking some personality tests can be a fun way to get to know yourself right where you are and start building the map right away.
The Bottom Line
Every human is born with a need for nurturing. Even when those needs aren’t met, they still exist. Opening yourself up to growth, acceptance, and gentleness can be hard. Letting go of judgments and observing ourselves can be uncomfortable.These things can also be liberating beyond belief, freeing us up to become who we are. Nurturing provides safety through total acceptance of where we are. Nurturing sees the effort and intentions, and it holds space for the messy process that growth requires. Nurturing says, along with the Daniel Tiger jingle, “It’s okay to make mistakes. Try to fix them, and learn from them too.” Nurturing believes that you can grow from here and that this is not an experience that has to define you.
I’d like to challenge you to reflect on one simple step that you can do today to notice a need in yourself, accept it without judgment, and make space to meet it. Let’s honor those parts of you that have a hard time getting attention.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.