Think of a shy child being asked to perform in a school program in front of a large crowd, including the families of all of his classmates. Imagine what thoughts may be going through his mind: What if I mess up? What if everyone laughs at me? Then, just when he is about to step on stage and recite his lines, he looks out and sees his parent waving at him. Suddenly, he feels a sense of relief. His anxiety and fear begin to subside. He experiences a sense of safety, knowing that no matter what happens, he’s loved and supported. This is just one example of how we may experience nurture in our lives. True nurture lets us know that no matter what may occur, we can be appreciated, supported, and cared for.
What do you think of when you hear the word nurture? Perhaps you think of a parental hug or the embrace of a romantic partner. Maybe you recall a warm meal prepared by the hands of someone who cares deeply for you. Or, you may even call to mind a memory of receiving a gift, just for you. There are many ways that we may experience nurture.
Often, when we think of what nurture may look like, we think of actions. But, at the heart of it, when we talk about nurture, we are talking about the emotional connection of love. This does not mean the kind of Valentine’s Day love that brings to mind hearts and cupids. Rather, we mean a deeper love. We mean the experience of love that makes you feel safe to go out into the world and face whatever challenges may come your way.
Through nurturing love, we experience a healthy attachment to others and a better sense of ourselves. We are, at our cores, relational beings. We understand ourselves based on our experiences with others. Emotional attachment is essential to feeling safe enough to relate to others. When we feel safe, we are more inclined to be vulnerable about our needs and are therefore more likely to develop trusting relationships with those who meet our needs. For example, when a baby cries, a nurturing parent will soothe the child by attending to her expressed need. By attending to the child’s need, the nurturing parent begins to teach the child that her needs are valid and that she can trust others to love her. As the child ages, this type of nurturing love models for the child how she also may meet her own needs and the needs of others.
If our need for nurture goes unmet, we do not develop the belief that we can be vulnerable. If we cannot be vulnerable then we are unable to relate to others and do not develop a full sense of ourselves. It is the significant, loving relationships, or lack thereof, that shape our worldview and dictate our patterns of relating to others. If we feel loved and accepted then the world, however harsh and frightening it can be at times, may feel safer. With nurture we have the foundation to explore and the means to overcome challenges as they are presented to us. Without nurture, we don’t have a foothold because our Nurture-Play-Structure stool is out of balance and we struggle to form meaningful, healthy relationships with others.
Because of it’s tie to safety, nurture can be one of the most frightening needs to name. If by nature, nurture makes us feel safe, to name the need for nurture would be to admit that we feel unsafe. It must be noted that our nurture-needs cannot be met 100% of the time. However, for healthy relationships with others and with ourselves, these needs must be met enough of the time to develop a sense of trust.
Think of that child we discussed earlier, the one who was anxious about performing in front of a large crowd. He needed reassurance (nurture) and sought it by looking anxiously into the sea of faces in front of him to find the familiar. Nurture is the foundation of healthy relationships, and provides us the means to feel secure, even when the world is not.
Each of us sometimes face challenges in naming our own nurture-needs and in addressing the nurture-needs of others. Play offers a sense of excitement that can assist in alleviating this vulnerability. In our next article, we will introduce the role that play has in our lives and how it can help us achieve balance on the Nurture-Play-Structure stool.
Kristin Mastro, MA, LPC, NCC Phillip Bass, MDiv, ThM, MA, LPC, NCC