On Tough Love (and seeking tenderness)
“People are always seeking safety and sometimes they find it: but safety is an end in itself, and life doesn’t have an end… Poets aren’t those who write poetry but all those who have a heart filled with the sacred spirit of love.”
Khalil Gibran, 1915
Readers, my youth was an angry time indeed. I know how common an experience this is, and I don’t believe those angst-filled teen years make me any different than most.
I was in no position to autopsy my situation at the time, but had I the time and space to do so I might have been able to figure out a lot that’s been figured out since. I might have realised sooner that I was absolutely right to estrange myself from my Father. I might have seen my Mother as a human being; frail and mistake-prone like the rest of us, instead of celestial, impossibly perfect, someone I existed to please and was terrified to the point of hysteria at the thought of disappointing.
I might have understood the reason why my Mum insisted my brother and I should continue to have contact with my Dad, despite emotional and physical abuse, and the bailiffs that eventually persuaded him to leave. I might have realised why she felt that tough love was the only way through.
But I didn’t realise any of those things, and I was so angry that my thoughts wouldn’t come to order for a very long time.
Despite my muddled and disordered thinking, I remember there being a minor light bulb moment in my youth, a conversation with a close companion. Fifteen-year-old me and Don’t-Ask-year-old he stopped reading Poppy Brite and listening to Bauhaus long enough to get into some entirely shallow philosophising. He said that we were ‘true romantics’, and it wasn’t until Sociology A-Level that I realised he hadn’t been using a capital R. He wasn’t talking about a response to neoclassicism, or about gestures of love, about hair, or even about our predilection for melancholy (though it would’ve been an accurate observation). I think he was referring to a tendency to idealise, but what he’d really tuned in to was our desire for the ideal. We wanted to be happy. We wanted love.
I’ve often wondered when or where that desire was first planted; when I was very young my Mum represented safety, reprieve, sanctuary. She was the only light in a dark world that I was entirely accustomed to, but life hadn’t been easy for her either and her skin had thickened beyond an ability to love tenderly. Two gentle mother-figures stand out in my mind as possible inspiration: my Nana, an equally tough woman, but with an unconditional softness reserved for Yorkshire Terriers and grandchildren; and a childhood friend’s Mum, who also embodied a soft and unconditional maternal affection.
At (an angry) age 15 I become preoccupied with delightfully self-obsessed alternative Brit-rock miserablists, Gene. In Where Are They Now? (of the wonderfully-woefully titled Drawn to the Deep End) Martin Rossiter crooned a line that stuck with me, I’m ashamed to say, for a very long time: “The smallest gentle gesture keeps the enemy at bay, all I needed was a word…”
Looking back, I see this preoccupation as an early manifestation of my desire for the ideal, for tenderness rather than tough love; but while Martin Rossiter was clear in his demands (“make me safe, take me home”) I never dreamed of being so bold.
I’m pushing 36 now, and there’ve been a lot of attachments in the years since. Somehow I kept gravitating toward tough love, no doubt unaided in my quest for gentle gestures by the convincing appearance of a thick skin that betrayed a painfully soft centre, and my perennial inability to communicate my needs as clearly as Martin Rossiter did.
Nowadays I’m getting a little better at it all and (though my approach is by no means perfect) I would like to share some of my suggestions for navigating an often-unforgiving world when, like me, your prickly exterior masks a tender core.
Figure out your boundaries one person at a time.
I think many of us know instinctively when our emotional strength reserves are low, and you aren’t obligated to share or take advice from anyone. On those days when you are feeling stronger, and your skin is thicker, you might seek out the critical friend, but sometimes you’ll want to seek out a softer sort of companionship, and that’s okay.
Figure out who to go to when you need a little tenderness (and who not to).
Some of my most explosive, intense, close relationships were with tough-lovers, and though I tried endlessly to talk myself out of my own hurt, I just became more and more damaged. I believe such attachments represent a very difficult battle, and one that you do not have to engage in. Seek out friends/lovers/partners who are able to treat you gently when you need it because (see below) there isn’t anything wrong with needing that.
Get your emergency-exit script in order.
I remember once successfully communicating to my Mum that what I needed from her in that moment was safety and support, and not constructive criticism. I somehow articulated that I appreciated her feedback, of course, but that just-right-then I was hurting and feeling very lost and alone and what I needed the most was a kind word. It was a minor breakthrough, and I learned the power of the right words that day. Think about your script, write it down if you have to, and make sure that in vulnerable moments you can still fight your own corner.
Realise there is nothing wrong with how you react.
Our emotions and feelings are what they are; to deny them would be to deny our own truth. It’s important to treat yourself with tenderness, as well as others. How you act on -or react to- your feelings is something you can control, but their existence is not.
Acknowledge ‘bad’ feelings; don’t suppress them.
A counsellor recently introduced me to mindfulness as a way of acknowledging ‘negative’ thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. This technique allows you to feel your feelings without necessarily acting on them. It allows you to safely open the valve on a pressure cooker over-full with hurt, shame, anger, guilt, and more. When your emotions are particularly raw and the tenderness of others is not forthcoming, be kind to yourself and allow your thoughts and feelings safe passage.
Finally, I would suggest that you allow yourself a little boldness in asking for what you need. No matter the reasons why, if a gentle gesture or kind word would make the world of difference to you, then by all means ask. Safety may or may not be so vital as a heart filled with love, but you are permitted to ask that your heart be treated gently, and that your loved ones tread softly.