Tending others is as fundamental to human nature as self-protection - especially for women.
Caring for others can calm both the receiver, and the caregiver. Offering nurturance to others often reduces stress, facilitates growth, and strengthens attachments. Old people live longer by just caring for plants.
Women's neurocircuitry is especially geared toward altruistic and nurturing behavior. When tending others, women may be rewarded by oxytocin (the so-called love hormone). Men, on the other hand, are more likely to need coaching to learn how to enjoy giving care; tthey may experience a reward from the release of vasopressin, but this remains unproven.
In her book The Tending Instinct: Women, Men and the Biology of our Relationships, Shelley Taylor Ph.D. (one of my professors from graduate school) suggests that “tend and befriend” is a highly adaptive response to change and chronic stress. She supports this claim by citing fascinating research showing how tending others reduces reactivity, increases positive emotions, and improves overall health.
This traditionally feminine approach to stress reduction is an effective alternative to “fight or flight".
Dr. Taylor shows how “social relationships forge our biology, even at the level of gene expression.”
Our nurturing instinct is driven largely by biology, but can be suppressed or encouraged by experience. The better tended we are, the more easily we can tend others. What does it mean to to take good care of someone else? According to Dr. Taylor, good care involves “attentiveness, nurturance and warmth”.
In my experience, good caregivers usually have secure attachments. They devote themselves to someone else's physical, social, and/or intellectual needs while remaining tolerant, responsive, supportive, affectionate, ... and even playful.
This helps us understand why all happy families are alike, to paraphrase Tolstoy. Happy families are those in which children are well tended and secure. Such families encourage growth while offering the support and benefits of a group.
How lucky to be born into a happy family! Although we don't get to pick our families, we can take another option and try to find someone or something to lovingly tend to yourself.
If you are new to tending, start small.
Consider caring for a plant, pet, or a neighbor in need. If you are going to try to tend a neighbor or member of your community, you might think about what they cannot do easily for themselves, and think about what ways that might be sort of pleasant for you to offer to help. For example, offer to bring some food over to an elderly neighbor, or take out their garbage bins on trash day, or offer to do an errand for them.
Alternately, you can try offering care to a friend, lover, or family member in new ways. This might include talking less in your interactions and letting them take center stage. Or perhaps it might involve becoming more patient with their shortcomings, or offering a back rub when they are stressed. It is best to offer to do things that you kind of enjoy, or else to hold back on doing things that you know are disturbing to others.
The benefits of tending to other people are far-reaching, as long as you keep yourself in balance. As you care for others you may:
Develop a more loving heart
Fall a bit in love
Feel proud of your sacrifice
The good news is that you can help yourself as you tend others.