My work in the area of tenderness, as in “tending to each other and to ourselves,” is a kind of therapeutic intervention not terribly dissimilar to the science of Positive Psychology—a major trend in psychology today. In contrast to focusing on illness, weakness, growth stagnation, Positive Psychology focuses on the strengths, virtues and competencies in individuals and communities that allow them to grow and thrive and lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Think about what we are all experiencing now, and how you in particular are reacting to the pandemic. Ask yourself whether you are a glass half full or a glass half empty person. Do you see a silver lining in every dark cloud? Do you believe that when bad things happen there is something to be learned? Do you trust, as did Little Orphan Annie, that “the sun will come out tomorrow?”
Or, has a negative mind-set been taking hold in you, coloring your hope for a good future? It is no exaggeration to say that the convergence of the virus, the intrusion of technology, the environmental crisis, the political and societal divisions, are all creating a malaise that is undermining us from the inside out. It’s happening insidiously day by day, bit by bit. Small increments of self-neglect and incessant breaking news alerts are wearing many of us down and risk adding up to a big dose of anxious instability and decreased well-being.
In this way of thinking, the only relief from a downward spiral is to consciously, tender act by tender act, attend to not only self-care and care of others, but care of space, care of belongings, care of details, care of our skills, care of our vision for our lives. When we notice ourselves slipping in getting dressed or cleaning the dishes or house, letting the yard become overgrown, not bothering to run the spell check, or forgoing internet dating, we have an instant mirror into what is happening in our depths. Our external neglectfulness is the appearance of our untended internal world, and an important symbol of a slowly but surely dimming and dulling of our effectiveness and hopefulness for the future.
The Concept of Learned Helplessness
While studying depression at the University of Pennsylvania in laboratory experiments in 1967, psychologist Martin Seligman, and his colleagues discovered what they termed “learned helplessness,” a serious symptom that, left untreated, can lead to clinical depression. Even if the helplessness appears to affect some behavior and not others, the danger is that the condition can seep into more areas of functioning and become a learned hopelessness: a belief that one’s entire life is worthless, and that one is powerless to change things.
Learned helplessness can show up at any age and life circumstance. When a child or adult needs help and reliable helpers are unavailable they begin to develop a belief that there is nothing they can do to attract to themselves what they need. They learn to no longer ask for help or show effort, with thoughts like, “Why bother—help won’t be available” or “Why try—it won’t make a difference.”
Many children across the world have been deeply confused and disconcerted by the sudden end of in-person school last Spring combined with a devastating cycle of dashed hope as the dates when school would resume kept getting pushed further out. Summer brought little relief for kids as camps never opened, and playgrounds and swimming pools remained closed. Many children tried valiantly to remain hopeful only to discover in September that school would not resume in person. Adults have also been grappling with their own losses of events and opportunities or the absence of co-workers and supervisors to assist them in their work. No one is immune to feeling helpless and hopeless, trapped in the current moment without a vision for when change will come.
Martin Seligman later popularized the concept of “learned optimism.” In other words, by deliberately explaining events to ourselves in a constructive manner, and developing a positive internal dialogue, people can break themselves free from feelings of helplessness. Here it may be useful to offer two clinical examples and how tenderness practices can help.
In an early morning session, a regular therapy patient of mine was eager to talk about her concerns with her pre-teen daughter, Claire. I was already aware that Anna, a middle-aged professional woman, wife and mother, and her entire family, not just 11-year-old Claire, were all suffering, understandably, from some degree of collective burnout after the pandemic had dramatically altered their lives. Anna had been telling me for months that they were pretty much just slogging on, but were basically “okay.” Recently however, things had taken a disturbing turn.
Claire, a good student and mostly confident young girl, was now not doing well. “It’s quite a change,” Anna said. “Last Spring, when the virtual school first began, she seemed to be taking it in stride, but now she falls asleep at her desk instead of looking at the screen. She spends way too much time on her cell phone and is hard to wake up in the morning. She is also not doing well at her studies. She had a test yesterday and got just two out of 18 questions correct. It’s as though she’s trying to fail and I’m so worried.”
The same day another patient of mine, Emily, in her late twenties and happily working a job and getting her MBA virtually, expressed near panic that her office had requested all employees to attend a meeting in person after the now seven-month shut down. “I don’t know if I can cope with going back out into the world, commuting into the city, interacting with co-workers and meeting new people,” she related. Despite her usual confidence, she was now frightened at the prospect of once again facing the outside world.
What was going on? I knew that Claire might be experiencing a combination of virus fatigue, teenage hormones and rebelliousness, and that Emily was an anxious worrier to begin with, but in both cases, I seemed to be hearing about behaviors that hadn’t previously existed. Specifically, I began to wonder if they were both experiencing the onset of learned helplessness.
For Claire, without the physical structure and routine of school and friends she was learning to be helpless at home, while Emily was imagining herself as helpless the moment she might step out the door. So what could I do to help Emily, and also Anna, so she could help her daughter? I could hear Anna sigh when I spoke of a need for more order and discipline. “Not more work for me, please. I can barely manage as it is,” she pleaded. We went around and round on what could be done to make improvements for not just Claire but all of the family. As we talked our suggestions kept getting smaller and more modest. We are living in a moment when even the slightest efforts can feel elusive. Millions of us can barely get out of sweat pants, comb our hair promptly, clean the dishes, or put on make-up. We’ve collectively said, “Why bother, what would be the point?” “Why try, because no one is there is notice?”
Anna and I started to talk about the risk of neglecting ourselves during the pandemic, and how even a small act like “tending” to the family dogs Zoe and Zeus might be a good topic to bring up with Claire. Learned Tenderness, as it were, could also be as simple as suggesting she lather herself in a warm bath with a favorite scented bubble soap, or Anna and Claire doing a 60-second fun stretching dance together a few times each day. With Emily we zeroed in on small gentle steps toward re-entering social life and dating.
Keep in mind that there are many people struggling enormously in your midst, and that in our culture a majority of people are afraid to show they aren’t okay or to ask for help. So in my approach utilizing tenderness principles to overcome confusion, sadness, depression and paralysis, another aspect of expressing your power is what I’ll call tenderizing. If you’re talking with someone who is having trouble getting back to work, school or dating, simply soften your tone of voice as you speak with them. If they are out in the world with you but need extra care to avoid crowds or don’t want to try a restaurant or even an ice cream parlor, be gentle and understanding. Not everyone has been as resourceful as others through this unending pandemic, which does not make them weak, wrong or bad.
I suggest that if we learn “to tend” and “tenderize” with small acts it will help us put a positive spin on today by controlling the little things we can. Treat yourself tenderly. Get out of bed with a smile. Get dressed in real clothes, and stay appreciative of small victories: a positive phone conversation, a meal with a friend, or a job well done—even a clean house or reorganized closet. Ask a friend to be your partner to help get both of you back on the dating apps. Make engaging in helpfulness a high priority. We have a duty to help one another to prevent a culture of learned helplessness developing in our midst and undermining the future of society.
One last thing—and this is advice I have taken myself to great effect— you may want to turn the TV down, or even better, completely off. The news will find you. For now, concentrate on finding yourself. And always keep this in mind: small acts of tenderness are good medicine!