There is in all of us a center - a core self, "a real me." In many this core is underdeveloped and obscured by a protective shell that hides one's "real self" from the world. In fewer people the core is well developed and firm, unprotected by an outer covering.

At one extreme the core self is a dormant seedling; at the other, a human being in continuous full bloom.What makes the critical difference in these two styles of behaving and relating? It is in the tending of the core. Sometimes the tending comes from others. But it foremost must come from ourselves.

Tending to the core requires first that we recognize we have a right - perhaps a responsibility - to invest in ourselves. We are ultimately our own guardians, in charge of our own lives and outcome. There is no one else to assume that task.

There is a basic difference between being "self centered" - tending to the self to the exclusion of others - and being "centered-in-self." "Centered-in-self" essentially involves tending to the self in the context of relationships.

It is to say, "You count and I count. I need to take care of me so there is enough of me to take care of you."

To "center-in-self" is also to value the development of yourself simply because a foremost task in "being" is "to become." You exist, as Martin Buber has said, to actualize your "unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities." For that mission, there need not be any defense, any apology. You are entitled to develop all of your uniqueness simply because you are.

Tending to the core is to begin filling yourself from an inner spring. Essentially, it is to say: "Recognizing that the value determinations of others often correlates with their capricious moods and their limited visions, I take charge of determining my own worth or value. Here I will draw on my knowledge of my intrinsic worth and I will depend on me, for I am the stability in my life."

Tending involves concentrating on defining who you really are rather than telling yourself who you should be. The world is full of "shoulds" and "theys" who know what the "shoulds" should be.

The shoulds come from so many diverse and contradictory sources that the only way to decide which values or stances you yourself embrace is to change the word "should" to "choose."

If you can comfortably say, "I choose to do . . . because this action makes sense to me," you are developing or defining a value that makes up your core. And if you use such language with others, you are defining yourself to the world.

Tending to the core is deliberately to gather current and accurate information about yourself at any one moment in time. It is to focus on your own feelings and thoughts and to share them genuinely with others.

Tending is never waiting for someone else to make you happy. It is to initiate opportunities and experiences that fill you up and fill you out. And it is also to refrain from blaming, for blaming defines you as a victim acted on by others rather than someone in charge of your own life and choices.

Tending is to lower your barriers to others. "Loneliness is the prison of the human spirit," says one author. Releasing the spirit means reaching out warmly to others, to show them the windows of your soul, and to gently invite them in. In the giving of warmth, you give a gift that often dismantles the protective shell of another.

Tending is to find the richness in others, who are their own unique combinations of wonder. Caring eyes will find in others what non-caring eyes can never see.

Finally, tending to the core is to free the child within. "There is something about me that wants to be gregarious and silly and ridiculous," says one woman, referring to that child.

To stand alone, free of a protective shell, representing yourself to the world without apology, is to have a sense of well being. It is, in essence, to be free.