Three words have caught my attention in these past few weeks; over-nurturing, over-correction and self-nurturing. Three words that add up to the care-taking hysteria that many of us experience in the run up to Christmas and other mid winter festivals. A hysteria that can leave us feeling exhausted and perhaps even a little resentful of the very friends and relatives that we seek to cherish.
Although we know we have no one to blame but ourselves, we just can’t find the ‘cruise’ button on our nurturing impulse, swinging from ‘full on nurturing’ to hitting an exhausted ‘off’ switch, leaving us feeling alone and taken for granted.
If your mantra is; “If they’re happy, I’m happy,” then beware! Your needs are not their needs. Not solely.
And one day, when putting other people first has become so natural that you don’t even notice, you may be driven to hit the ‘off’ switch for good. Cheered on by the revenge of the resentful, martyred nurturer, you may suddenly find yourself over-correcting and are holding back in a feeble attempt to get back as good as you imagine you’ve given. In these blogs I share my own experiences from the trenches and so humbly offer an exploration of my own glaring inability to balance my own needs with the needs of others. I am told it can be done.
Nurturing involves the intuitive ability and willingness to allow ourselves to be used, from the inside out, through the gift of empathy, to truly stand in the other person’s shoes and see and feel the world through their eyes. That act shows us their needs as if they are our own. And to merge in such a deeply loving way you need to suspend your own needs and to some extent lose yourself in the needs of the other. This is the opposite of the often well-meaning but unhelpful support that imposes on the other what you think they need, or what you think would be convenient for them to need.
Some people are so skilled at ‘merging’ that they forget that they’re doing it. Professional ‘helpers’ are a case in point. Our real needs hidden from view we may ‘comfort’ ourselves with food, alcohol, drugs or shopping. But when we become so stuck on seeing to others and neglecting ourselves, or endlessly waiting for that special someone to nurture us back, resentment will inevitably rear its ugly head. The nurturer may go on strike and tell the whole world to bloody well piss off and go and nurture themselves.
But should we have been nurturing in the first place?
The words Nurturing, Nourishing, Nursing, etc, all come from the same root. And all describe the delicate relationship between a mother and her baby, literally the feeding of that infant, to sustain it, to help it grow, to foster its development. A child at her mother’s breast is the ultimate symbol of nurturing, literally, the mother is giving from inside herself, allowing her body to be in service of the needs of the infant. And it is appropriate that at some point the infant stops nursing and begins to take solid food. We may enter into such a deep nurturing relationship with an adult in certain situations, and falling in love certainly recreates that feeling of merging, but at some point, even those that we feel psychologically and emotionally tied to, must become self-sufficient and find their own sources of strength. And maybe they already have!
So why do we cling on if the object of our nurturing is unable or unwilling to reciprocate? A mother fears the death of her baby if it is not nourished. Perhaps those of us that extend our nurturing beyond what is considered reasonable also act from a fear that the ‘other’ and therefore the relationship, will die if it is not nurtured or cared for. Or maybe we continue ‘showing how it’s done’ in the hope of getting something back. Those of us that were lucky enough to receive that kind of maternal nurturing may find there is always a small child in us that longs to be taken care of like that once again.
Fear of separation and loss, perhaps even the experience of actual loss, may tempt us to nurture where the act of nurturing has become far from appropriate. Yet to abruptly abandon the once cared for partner, relative, parent or friend is confusing to them, and solves nothing for you. Loneliness and exhaustion still reign.
However, in the wild lands of selfish abandon there are lessons to be learned. The benefit of over-correcting is that you get to explore both ends of the spectrum. And there are good useful lessons to be learned from that. Sometimes we need to experience these polar opposites to begin to find the middle ground. I imagine that the middle ground is a place where there is no longer an expectation to give, or to receive, the kind of full on nurturing that we once might have been lucky enough to receive as a baby. In the middle ground there is ‘good enough’ loving. Simply to love and be loved, to support and be supported, to care and be cared for is more than enough. There is no greater challenge for a nurturing addict, both frightening and liberating, to practise just being around, just being present and pleasant, emotionally available yet harmoniously ‘boundaried’ within her own space. Perhaps the people around her will also relax, instead of feeling the pressure to reciprocate in a way that they can’t.
But what about me the needy one cries out?
Inappropriate nurturing leads to exhaustion. Being tired and feeling drained is always a big clue to having overspent on the gift of nurturing others. Many of us are still a long way away from true altruistic no-strings giving, but finding our own inner source of nurturing is always a good start. Not self-medicating in the form of food, drugs, or other diversionary tactics such as nursing all ills ever perpetrated to us in our lives. But finding a way of connecting to something beyond the personality, beyond the ego. A sense of Higher or Deeper, the Light in the darkness, that all the religious winter festivals celebrate. For some that is a connection to their God, for others it is a love of philosophy, or nature. Whatever it is, find something that takes you ‘out of yourself’ in a healthy sustainable way.
Giving attention and love from a place of equality, rather than the fear of a severed connection, doesn’t exhaust. I think of trees. Trees don’t try to tap one another for nourishment the way we human beings do. They grow their roots deep into Mother Earth and drink her water. They grow their branches and their leaves in abundance so that they can soak up the sunlight that is freely given. Sure, they may compete a bit for the best place in the sun, but they don’t expect the ‘tree-next-door’ to make them whole. So find your Source. Be it through faith, through mindfulness, through long walks in the mountains. Teach yourself how to replenish. And if your inner martyr-nurturer cries out ‘I don’t have time’, then know you have already gone too far in your quest to nurture the world. So make time.
If you feel put upon, exhausted, taken for granted or just plain resentful this December, then take a moment to gently lay down your tools of the nurturing trade, explore the appropriateness of your nurturing, explore if it is love based or fear based, dial it back a few notches and then go and find a tree. Plant your feet at its base and lean your back against the trunk. Breathe. Know you are supported and truly nurtured by so much more than your immediate relationships. Take a deep breath, smile, and allow yourself to be loved. And then try to be pleasant and present, rather than intense and merging. Just let your love flow as gently as an out breath, and then make time to breathe in again.
I’m going to try, so let’s try together!