There tenderness it seems like a feeling that needs no definitions, from how we take it for granted in our behavioral kit: who doesn’t happen to have a moment of emotion in front of a sweet image, a child taking its first steps into the world, to an elderly person who has difficulty crossing the street? Common, recurring sensations that we often experience as ends in themselves. The psychiatrist Eugenio Borgna, however, in his latest book Tenderness (Einaudi) widens the circle of the question, investigates its semantic meaning, and arrives at stronger and more intense conclusions than that generic empathy, that evanescent emotion, that vague solidarity that we label as tenderness. To make it the tool that opens us up to the world, improving it. Here’s what he said to Feel good.
Professor Borgna, where does tenderness come from?
From our interiority where, as St. Augustine writes in Confessions, inhabit the truth. It is a state of mind, an emotional situation that arises from the awareness that we are all called to the same destiny. It is part of individual and community life, as it responds to one of the unavoidable needs of each one: not to be alone.
What is its characteristic?
Tenderness, the most fragile and evanescent of emotions, is not innate but is born and dies within us whenever it wants. A kind of “wax” that changes shape depending on what happens inside and outside of us. It arises when we relive in ourselves the happy or painful vibrations that touch others, and it puts us in a position to listen to them in a profound way.
It is a bridge, then, between us and the world…
In tenderness the barriers that separate people from one another are broken down, creating relationships of reciprocity, kind, sweet and welcoming. Its immediate effect is that it makes us feel like a person and not a thing. And, therefore, it allows us to go beyond the confines of our ego, of our subjectivity and frees us from selfishness, from the craving for success, from envy, from superficiality, to put ourselves in the shoes of others. If we followed, more often, the impulse of tenderness, which essentially makes us feel the human side of situations (and as such full of imperfections and pain), we could save ourselves many discomforts, misunderstandings, disappointments, for example.
And what effect does it have on us?
It’s a feeling that helps to know and soothe the wounds of the soul, in a universal sense. Tenderness, in fact, behaves like a magnet that recalls expectations, pains, friendships and indifferences that are in us. Therefore, it also widens the boundaries of our psychic life, reawakening emotions, thoughts, silent suggestions that easily crumble in contact with such destructive everyday life.
How is it grown?
It’s not easy, in the sense that tenderness requires us to always do a lot of introspective work within ourselves. Only when we first recognize our frailties do we feel closeness and solidarity with those of others. Seen this way, tenderness is a revolutionary emotion: it undermines those famous rational “certainties” that we all build to defend ourselves and makes us understand the originality, richness, multiplicity, complexity of life that dwells in all of us.
Often, we tend to confuse it with kindness, but…
Many delicate feelings flow into tenderness, from sweetness to meekness to fragility, which is why it is not so easy to define it. What resembles her most is kindness: they are twin sisters, but different in their DNA. Kindness has polite gestures and behaviors, but it is not interwoven with deep interiority, like tenderness is. One can be kind with a heart of stone, but it will never be so in tenderness, which brings body and soul together in a continuous alliance.
Tenderness is not expressed only with sweet, good-natured or indulgent words but also with body language: a look, a smile, a tear, a handshake, a caress, a hug. It is that emotional manifestation that makes us experience the body as living, and not just as an anatomical body. Because of this, it’s easier to be kind than tender. Tenderness, which is always an interweaving of spirit and heart, often needs listening, attention, silence, waiting to understand those requests for help that come from sentences but also from faces, looks, expressions that others throw at us .
So isn’t it so obvious to be tender?
No, we need an education in this sense, imagining what words we would like to hear from others, if we were the ones who are feeling bad, and need words that open us up to hope. It costs time, commitment, effort, to seek the encounter between our heart and that of others.
And then it’s so delicate…
Yes, it breaks easily, just one wrong look and it is irreparably injured. But we must never get tired of looking for it. Without tenderness, life dries up, freezes. Because we expose ourselves to the risk of being devoured by the shadow of fear. Incapable of rediscovering the hope that only generosity, brotherhood, hospitality can give. And destined to live in the dark, and not in the light.
4 ways to express tenderness
THE TEARS. They should not be repressed, as a sign of weakness. Welcoming those of others, and our own without feelings of impatience, discomfort or shame, is an important test of sensitivity and openness. Real tears, in fact, testify that we have released ourselves from the control of our rationality to give voice to interiority, the first source of tenderness.
THE WORDS. We always reflect on the fate of the expressions we use, and the ones we should use. Being tender, the first line, is thinking carefully about what you say (and don’t say) to avoid wrong and unmotivated, inconsiderate and indifferent words, which are always the cause of pain and anguish, sadness and despair in the other.
THE SMILE. In the face of a situation of despondency, of anguish there is also a smile, as an expression of tenderness. In a certain sense, this gesture is a prelude to the return of joy after pain, as if announcing its recovery. Thus allowing a person to experience her suffering in a different way. It’s like letting her see a glimmer of hope, of a better future.
THE LOOK. The encounter between us and the others is essentially played out in the wake of a glance. There is not one equal to the other, the language of him changes in us from moment to moment on the input of our real but different states of mind. Therefore, we always look into the eyes of the people we meet: to understand if someone needs help, to give comfort even with just a tender look. Alone it inspires that trust that restarts.