The Kind of Hunger People Don’t Talk About

During this time of isolation, small moments of tenderness can help us feel more connected than ever.

GaudiLab/ Shutterstock
GaudiLab/ Shutterstock

During the quarantine, I’ve noticed a lot of recipes being shared on social media. It makes sense: people are home with extra time to cook. Home-cooked food is a way to cope with these difficult times. But, as a psychologist, I know that even the most sumptuously prepared meal cannot feed every part of us. From my professional experience I can tell you that there’s one type of hunger that has nothing to do with the stomach, and it’s recently gotten a whole lot more pronounced. In this unprecedented time, when all of us are warned to keep our distance from each other or face the potentially dire consequences, what is that unnamed hunger?

I believe that what is too often missing in people’s lives is the satisfaction of a fundamental need that they have not fully grasped or understood. The Dutch have a word huidhonger, meaning “skin hunger,” the feeling people develop when they are disconnected from one another. Let’s add to that another word that relates to emotional hunger: a Japanese everyday noun amae, loosely translated as “the expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved.”  

Doi discovers a word

In an effort to better understand and help his patients, Japanese psychiatrist Takeo Doi noticed something that surprised him. Hidden in the everyday language of his culture, he discovered, was a key to unlocking the mysteries of many of his patients’ psychological and emotional distress.  Amae, the need for sweet care, originates in the earliest bond between baby and mother, and remains in us like a kernel of goodness all our lives. Its usage in Japan is commonplace, amongst people of all ages and in varied situations. Most interestingly, there are a large number of Japanese words to describe all kinds of troubled mental states that arise when this need is frustrated or denied. 

Amaeru is the verb that describes a host of behaviors when a person seeks indulgent affection from another. Doi went in search for equivalent words in the Western languages and found none. One day he approached the head of his psychiatry department remarking that the concept of amae and amaeru seemed to be distinctive to the Japanese. The professor mused for a few moments and then said, “I wonder, though—why even a puppy does it.” Amaeru-ing for someone’s love, it seems is a universal phenomenon. We just don’t have a word for it!

Dr. Doi’s perspective is that this “dependent love,” is not immature, to be outgrown as quickly as possible, but is in fact the very foundation of human connections. Unfortunately, we Americans grow up in a culture where being “independent” is held up as a supreme achievement, while dependency is widely considered a liability. Thus, we routinely miss the pleasurable reciprocity of the emotional world of amae

When I co-wrote my first book with Dr. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, we used  the word cherishment to translate Doi’s amae. But to explain this silent hard-to-talk about emotion in even clearer terms, I kept searching for an even better equivalent English word. How do you speak about something that is non-verbal, something that is received into us, or simply given outward from us, not talked about? Indeed, cherishment loses its special power if you have to ask for it. 

Then — I found the word, which had been staring me in the face all the time, because it is, literally, everywhere. Tenderness

Tenderness is a birthright 

The roots of skin hunger, amae, cherishment — tenderness — begin at birth. It is our birthright to be tended to and preciously loved as we once were by kindly caretakers. They are the ones who made our well-being their utmost concern, our needs and wants their heart’s desire. Their only wish was to be attuned to us and administer to our needs. The ability to tend others all comes from that kernel of tenderness inside us that was instilled there by our kindly tenders.    

What exactly is tenderness? To me it is essentially a vibration, a positive energy, transmitted from person to person, telepathically. It is a communication of caring and affection that, in the healthiest form of transmission is silent, wordless and soft but supremely powerful. 

A friend of mine who lives across the road from the ocean in Pacific Palisades was telling me that she recently noticed a parked patrol car. The officers were there to keep an eye on the people on the beach, to make sure they were social distancing, but also to have their lunch. In a spontaneous moment she decided to take them an apple pie that she had purchased from Urth Caffe, a celebrated bakery in West Hollywood.  

Urth had been involved since the beginning of the coronavirus with an initiative to provide free meals to local first responders, so, it was a natural impulse for my friend to take the officers the pie. When she handed it to them, she told me, delightedly, she felt an overwhelming positive energy flow between them. Words of appreciation were exchanged, smiles, and some laughter, of course. Mainly it was the shared feeling that went through all of them like a gentle jolt of warmth that was unmistakable: an exchange of caring and being cared for. This was a true tale of Tenderness, Mom and Apple Pie!

But wait, you may be thinking right now, we are no longer babies! Why should we need to be tended to? As grown-ups, aren’t we supposed to do it all ourselves? I see this unconscious conflict in my patients all the time. Men are vested in looking strong, invincible. Women want their men to love and understand them without asking, and feel let down when their men prove clueless. Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of disconnect at home and at work. Who needs to make the first move toward better connection and greater vibrational attunement? How do we tend to each other? 

Recognizing the tenders 

It has not escaped me that the essential workers right now are those people who are caring for our health, our bodies, our nutrition, our safety.  We see in the news every day that the pandemic heroes are tenders: people who literally attend to our care generously. These can be the kind doctor, nurse, delivery man or other parent type person, and even friends forwarding us a funny video to help us feel better. That’s the world of tenderness.

I remember, as a child, loving the special care I received when I was sick and my mother would bring me a breakfast tray in bed, with orange juice, toast, a soft-boiled egg and a cute little plastic flower with a smiley face for decoration. It felt like revisiting my babyhood for a day or two, and it made me heal faster. I hope you have a special memory of this kind of sweet care that was happily provided to you and that you still bask in now when you receive that kind of tenderness from someone.    

Why this scarcity of tenderness?  

Like Dr. Doi, I have observed, professionally and personally, that when tenderness is missing in a person’s life, their behaviors can devolve into numerous states of mental and emotional anguish. Unfortunately, tenderness is in too short supply most of the time. And this has disastrous effects on people’s lives. That’s because most of us are taught to work mightily to defend against our tenderness, to bury it, reject it, denigrate it, in order to “save face.” This repression gets passed down through families, doing harm from generation to generation. It makes us prone to isolation, anxiety, depression, or has us seek self-comfort in unhealthy ways: in unsatisfying relationships, self-medicating behaviors, addictions and mind-numbing busy-ness.

The antidote to this trouble is tenderness. It is the necessary salve to our wounds. If we find a way to treat ourselves and each other 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.

Tenderness is front and center now as we witness the Tenders in action, those kindly gods and goddesses of the crisis, selflessly doing everything in their power to help nurture us terrified and, tender little kids. Tenderness is the great lesson of the pandemic that will help the future of wounded humanity. Only tenderness can heal tenderness. So ask yourself, “Is tenderness a missing ingredient in my life? Am I hungry for something, and I don’t even know what?”

I invite you to visit my website, TheTendernessWay.com, where you will learn more about how to cultivate a tenderness mentality, and consciousness — a form of intelligence I call “TQ”. It is my hope that after that visit you will feel called to join our growing community of those who want to increase their TQ and become part of this tenderness rising moment, opportunity, and movement! 

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