Connecting though empathy
Troy Murphy| August 2012
A child adapts to the experience of living, with all loves wonders, struggles, rewards and punishments. A baby exits the womb and begins her magical journey of living. The child vulnerable and weak helplessly relies on caregivers for survival, watching, learning and adapting. The beginning years the brain creates the connections and structures that will follow the child through his life. The child’s brain isn’t frozen in time, experience continues to exert force on growth but the massive reconfiguring of infancy quickly closes doors. One of the greatest gifts a parent can offer to the developing child is emotional attunement.
When we greet our child's emotions with empathy, acceptance and reciprocation, the child develops a healthy relationship with their own feelings—a major function of living. Conversely, when we consistently devalue a child’s feelings, expressing rejection, lacking attunement with their experience, the child becomes disconnected from their emotions—emotionally impoverished.
The feelings of experience and the complex integration of those feelings into appropriate action is easily derailed; when a child must navigate this path alone, or worse, the parents’ lack of emotional maturity further complicates integration, the child becomes overly rigid or excessively chaotic. A child needs an example to serve as a road map to decipher feelings and act within the context of those feelings to achieve her intentions. If a child’s feelings are ignored, reprimanded or discounted, they miss valuable opportunities to artfully connect feeling to living.
For most, if not all, reading this article, our childhoods have past. The expansive new exposures to life that create the connections and refining of the brain are completed. For adults experiencing impoverished emotions because of childhood neglect or trauma, the game is not over; a healthy, rich emotional life is still possible. The plasticity of the brain continues. Brain science continues to discover new horizons in the breathtaking inner-universe of the Brain. The window of circuitry connections does not close after childhood. Change, however, requires time, effort, and patience. We slowly add feeling to our emotional poverty through directed attentiveness to emotion. Perhaps emotional poverty has existed in the family for years, passed from generation to generation—parent to child to grandchild in a vicious cycle. Breaking this painful hand-me-down deficiency is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our children and our children’s children.
To break the chain, we must purposely direct attention to our stirring emotions proceeding action, being reacquainted with emotion, kindly coddling the feeling and then make a constructive choice, creating a healthy environment, and inviting growth. We must also implement this compassionate pattern to our child’s emotions, accepting their experience, soothing the hurt, and then directing them towards a constructive response. The child’s angry outburst in the grocery store, met by the parent’s angry response, serves little purpose other than continuing a harmful cycle of automated responses to discomforting emotions—an outburst met with an outburst. The lesson is re-enforced—emotions give license to thoughtlessness. The work to change may require professional assistance. We still may lack the detailed road map, guiding us through the dark alleys of change. But the reward for this work is healthier relationships and increasing sensitivity to the emotions of others and ourselves.
We must start with ourselves.
Attunement to our own emotions
For some, the emotions are loud and obnoxious. Once ignited, they explode taking over the stage forcing other actors out of the light, cowering to the frightening thunder of uncontrolled emotion. Others developed a different unhealthy approach, banning emotion, while safely appealing to logic as their guide. Sadly, the façade of an emotionless logic is a farce. The emotions continue to bubble underneath, motivating action. The actor then summons logic to justify. Whatever our unhealthy relationship with emotions is, we must recognize the pattern to constructively begin change.
We must become active participants in the emotion-action chain, attuning to the feeling, evaluating possible responses and constructively moving forward. For some gentle coaxing of buried emotions that have been customarily ignored is the beginning. For others, sensing the rise in blood pressure, soothing the upset, and avoiding the catastrophic melt-down becomes the challenge. We accomplish either path through mindfully listening to our body—focusing on feeling. If caregivers rejected our emotional expressions in childhood, we tend to internalize the same reaction as adults. As adults experiencing emotions frightens the undeveloped soul; emotions that venture beyond comfortable limits, signal danger, demanding action.
An improved relationship with emotion may require a somatic coach, meditation guide or a therapist. Feelings experienced without burying them or becoming servant to them may be foreign to us; we need help to navigate through the explosive minefield of anger, sadness, fear and disgust (to name a few)—a novel experience of attentive feeling. With practice and guidance, we feel changes in our bodies, without catastrophe and without blind reaction. This is attunement.
The emotions connect the self to experience; we then feel the richness of living. The emotions we previously buried or blindly served still remain but our relationship to them has changed. When we are enemies to our emotions, feeling creates a widening gulf between experience and self. A life built on explosive emotions damages trust and belittles others; a life built on buried emotions limits connections—others can't be understood.