While many of us are well-versed in love languages and attachment styles as ways to improve the relationships in our lives (romantic or otherwise), there's another component of interpersonal relationships that can take our connections to another level: tenderness. Unfortunately, though, tenderness is not a concept many of us are familiar with. To help with that, below trauma therapist Kobe Campbell, MA, LCMHC, explains what tenderness is, why many people have a poor understanding of it, and how to incorporate it into relationships.
Tenderness vs. kindness
Tenderness is not to be confused with kindness. Campbell defines kindness as being nice to someone. However, just because you're nice to someone doesn't mean there is genuine affection for them. People can be nice to others for many reasons, such as to be agreeable or avoid conflict or chaos, which isn't a bad thing. It's just not tenderness. Tenderness goes much deeper than that. "Tenderness is gentle affection that's deeply personalized; it's vulnerability," she says. "It's kindness that defies the bounds of logic."
Another way to look at it: "Kindness is about giving to you out of the goodness of who I am. I value generosity, so I give to you," Campbell says. "Tenderness, on the other hand, is about giving to you because of what you value. And not just giving anything—giving to you in the way that gives you the most meaning and least stress, even if you don't need it." In other words, tenderness doesn't just meet someone’s need; it exceeds it.
For example, Campbell shares: "My son loves for me to lay in bed with him and sing 'Twinkle Twinkle' to him. Many times, after he falls asleep, I'll stay in his bed, rubbing his back and singing. He's asleep. He probably can't hear and may not even notice me rubbing his back, but I stay because I know if he were awake, he'd want me to stay longer. My hope is to be tender—to meet needs he hasn’t voiced and may not be able to show gratitude for.”
Why many people are unfamiliar with tenderness
So why is tenderness a difficult concept to grasp and practice for many people? According to Campbell, one big reason is that it's extremely personal and requires intimate knowledge of ourselves and others. Many people lack this deep intimacy because their time is consumed surviving the hardships of life, leaving little to no space for attuning to the specific and personal needs of themselves or others. And again, tenderness requires a profound level of vulnerability, which can be challenging for some people.
However, the benefits of acceptance and peace that come with practicing tenderness are well worth the effort of being vulnerable and getting to know ourselves and others more intimately. "We're all less anxious when we know our very specific needs will be met," Campbell says of the benefits of tenderness. "We feel even better when we know our needs will be exceeded by someone who is pleased to love us."
How to incorporate more tenderness in relationships
Practice being tender with yourself
Incorporating more tenderness in our relationships begins with practicing being more tender with ourselves. "Most of us will fine-tune our ability to experience tenderness without skepticism when we begin to explore what it means to be tender with ourselves," Campbell says. To do so, she recommends starting each day by tuning into what you need instead of what you have to do and then meeting and exceeding those needs for yourself.
Exceed the needs of others
To foster more tenderness with the people you love, Campbell advises treating them in a way that exceeds their needs and is personal to who they are. Remember, tenderness is personal, and what is tender for one person may not be for another.
Expand your capacity for tenderness
Once you get comfortable with tenderness, the work doesn't end there. "Make a habit of asking yourself and your loved ones, 'What positive things do you want to experience that you think are just too much?'" Campbell says. This is a powerful way to expand your capacity for tenderness with yourself and others.
Remember that tenderness is rooted in affection
Lastly, Campbell emphasizes that whether you're practicing tenderness towards yourself or others: "It's important that we remember that it's rooted in affection, always. Anything not rooted in affection isn't tenderness. Other things can come along that look like it (like sacrifice), but the why of caring for someone has to be because we deeply care for the person, and we want to care for them or ourselves based on who we are, not on what others will affirm."
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