Nurturing environments foster psychological flexibility. People are not rigidly attached to their beliefs and so are tolerant of the things other people do. They are clear about their values and act in the service of those values, even when doing so feels difficult or frustrating. They tend not to criticize or complain about other people’s behavior. Because they are less judgmental, they are less likely to punish or hurt others and more likely to praise, support, attend to, and care for others.
The best example I can think of is the patient mothering of an infant. I watch my daughter-in-law Jen with her five month old infant, Ashlyn. Ashlyn cries frequently and lately has been hard to get to sleep. Jen certainly feels frustration at times. But although she sometimes feels impatient, she continues to be soothing. Thanks to her patient teaching, every day Ashlyn develops new behaviors that are alternatives to being distressed.
Recent work in mindfulness therapies, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, shows that when people are helped to adopt this type of acceptance, they become more flexible in making their way in the world. Rather than being focused on feeling good, they focus on acting in the service of their values. Research shows the benefit of this approach to life for people with all kinds of problems, including anxiety, depression, diabetes, cigarette smoking, hallucinations, and even epilepsy.
What I find most interesting, however, is the evidence that when people become more accepting toward their own thoughts and feelings they become more caring toward others. There are at least three studies showing this, two by Steve Hayes and his colleagues and one that I did with colleagues at Oregon Research Institute and the Early Education Program.
What happens is that people first become less judgmental about themselves. Most people (myself included) harbor doubts and criticisms about themselves. If you believe these things, you have to struggle to control them, deny them, work harder to prove they aren’t true, argue with yourself and others when any criticism comes up.
But once you get the hang of this accepting, nonjudgmental stance toward all the self-criticism that comes up, you are really adopting a more accepting and caring stance toward yourself. Yes, I have the thought that I cannot write well (a current one for me) and I can have that thought and not hate myself. I can accept that I am this struggling human being, trying to make a difference in the world and write something anyway.
And once you become more caring toward yourself, it becomes easier to care for others. If another is angry with you, you can accept the feelings that come up for you when you are criticized and not struggle with whether they are really true—and with whether the other person is “right.” In that context, you can be in better contact with the other person.
I am convinced that our families, schools, workplaces, and communities will become more nurturing, if we can encourage this kind of mindfulness. As people learn to hold their thoughts and feelings more lightly—to accept them not as reality, but as thoughts and feelings they are having–and as people dedicate themselves to living their values, we will have less punishment and coercion and more caring and support.