Loving Yourself through Affectionate Presence

When my seventeen-month-old nephew, Zachary, is having trouble sleeping at night, my brother pats him on his back gently and says, “I know, I know.” The other day, Zachary was awake and alone in his crib saying to himself, “I know, I know.”

From a very young age, kids learn how to soothe themselves. They recognize affection and imitate it, nurturing their own bodies. Adults have a much harder time doing this.

Drs. McMahon and Campbell, ordained Jesuits and psychologists, explain that we all have “affection teachers” in our lives that help us to nurture the hurting places within us. They write:

“Your Affection Teacher can become the practical, physically felt Loving Presence of God in your own body….With a quiet inner presence, you can talk to your body in pain…expressing to your body how sorry you are that it hurts so much. Allow your pain-filled place to know you won’t neglect or abandon it. Promise to be a good friend, remaining as long as it needs you.”

Dr. Edwin M. McMahon and Dr. Peter A. Campbell, Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality, Minneapolis, MN: Tasora Books 2010.

In my last blog, I wrote about the gift of presence — and how sometimes just showing up and being present can be the greatest form of comfort to those who are grieving. In the same way, we can offer that gift of loving, attentive presence to our own bodies.

Zachary’s “I know, I know” has been my affection teacher these days:

When tightness came in my chest as I went to a grocery store for the first time in the pandemic, I put my hand on my chest and listened to the anxiety there and, said “I know. I know, Kel. I see you.”

When I woke up multiple times in the night with itchy and swollen ankles, rather than trying to understand why this was happening, I just put a loving hand on my ankles and said, “I know, I know. I am so sorry.”

After extending much leadership to a grieving team in a suffering world, I put a hand on my shoulders and said, “I know. I know. The world is a mess. This is so heavy.”

What is an affection teacher in your life? Maybe it was a moment when you noticed a parent holding their screaming child. Or you saw a plant being watered. Or you held onto a stuffed animal that gave you a sense of safety. Try to remember what that did for you in your body and bring that same kind of affection, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to your innermost parts.

There is nothing magical about this practice. It’s something that we were created to do. Kids do it instinctively. But sometimes we have been so out of touch with the kindness of our creator that we need a little re-training.

Published by K.Aalseth

Kelly J. Aalseth is the Coordinator for Leadership Development for InterVarsity in Greater Los Angeles. She is an author, coach, preacher, and trainer.

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