Gentleness and Strength

Sunaina’s reflections from sharing Nonviolent Communication with Donovan Correctional Facility residents. Click here to learn more.

Growing up, many Donovan residents learned the importance of being “tough” and providing for their loved ones. There was little space in their lives to connect with their own needs for belonging, care, rest and so on.

“Admitting I have needs is difficult,” one of the residents said, “because I don’t want to appear weak to myself or to others.” 

It struck me that this is true inside and outside of prison. I remember times I judged myself for needing more compassion in interactions with others, or for needing play and rest in the middle of a challenging work week. I would think to myself: I shouldn’t need these things, and doing so makes me weak.

The residents, volunteers, and I explored whether it’s possible to be gentle with ourselves and to be strong at the same time. Is there a relationship between gentleness and strength?

With love in his voice, one resident shared that thinking of gentleness reminded him of the first time he held his precious first grandchild in his arms. Laughter broke out from a group of residents who pointed out that even the toughest “gangbanger,” when you put a baby in his arms, will begin to speak silly baby talk to connect with the infant. 🙂

Another resident reflected on how little gentleness his mother received from his father who ran a tight household full of strict rules. How different would their family life have been, he wondered, if his father had treated his mother with more love, maybe asking how her day went once in a while? And, why did his sister receive tenderness, when he and his male siblings didn’t?

Soon the conversation shifted to the sources of gentleness in the residents’ lives. One man shared that his foster mother was the first person in his life to show him what love meant. Grandmothers were symbols of gentleness in many others’ lives. Though many of these sources were feminine, one resident shared that he was only now realizing that gentleness is not just a feminine trait, as he’d been taught growing up, but a real strength for all genders. 

We are learning in our NVC circles that being gentle with ourselves allows us to see and connect to the sources of our joy and pain. It allows us to connect to our humanity. When we tell ourselves to ignore our needs and to be “tough” instead, we are ignoring our own humanness, which makes it easier to ignore the humanity of others. 

Thus, there is profound strength in gentleness, because it is with gentleness that we can truly see and understand ourselves and each other. My hope is that this understanding will help us to build stronger relationships, more resilient communities, and a more peaceful world.

Our ending meditation concluded with this thought: “You, as much as anyone in the universe, is worthy of your love and compassion.”

A version of this blog post also appears on

Cover Photo by Majid Rangraz on Unsplash

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