Frightening Encounters with Emotion
Compassionate Reactions to Other's Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 2016 (Edited November 4, 2021)
Intimate connections hinge on our capacity to process discomforting emotions. True connections share emotions.
Nature gifted us the ability to share emotions. Through multiple regions of our brain, we observe others, examine facial expressions, sounds and accompanying environments. We gather the data and make predictions about their experience, exciting our own neural networks, often firing neurons in concert with theirs—we share emotions.
We can be sad when we observe the sadness of a lover, resonating with their experience. We can feel the pangs of grief with a friend, even though the loss is not our own. Utilizing this incredible gift creates a connection. Biologically programmed with the hardware to share emotion, we can attune to others. Like all evolved system, there are a few bugs in the system, glitches that potentially damage attachment and spike feelings with intoxicants that blur visions and unsteady gaits.
See Emotional Attunement for more on this topic
Childhood and Emotions
Sharing emotions often drive us towards connection but for some, the emotionally aloof, the powerful emotions overwhelm. Childhood introduces youngsters to feelings—the pangs of want, desire and hurt. Children first experience emotion in their homes.
Parents model feelings, give definition, and teach reaction. Many parents gently expose their children to the rich world of feeling, delighting in the aliveness while other parents crush a child’s developing sensitivities, confusing the babe and bewildering the juvenile with adult chaos. Love is mixed with tensions, kindness blended with requirements, and hate covered with smiles.
Biological hardware that recognizes emotion is programed with confusion. The blessed ability to read and respond to emotion is blunted with conflicting information. Many of these children hopelessly falter in adult relationships; emotionally undeveloped, they blindly react to others’ emotions, hoping for connection, but remain awkwardly untrained in the complexities of connection.
Mindful of Our Own Emotions First
To effectively connect with the emotions of others, we first must have a grasp on the emotions bubbling within ourselves. If we can comfortably work through our own emotions, soothing, accepting, and directing, we then can share emotions with others. When our emotions overwhelm, other's emotions will also bewilder. We feel discomfort and seek escape. Momentary feelings of compassion for the pain of another quickly dissipates, replaced by frustration when we have no capacity to regulate emotional upheaval.
We can’t offer connectedness when all we know is detachment.
When personal emotions overwhelm, other's emotions will also bewilder.
Compassionate Response to Other's Emotions
In compassion, we respond with warmth and strength. We comfort those that hurt. We wrap them in our arms, sharing the experience. We feel their sadness and provide support during grief.
This is difficult for those lacking emotional maturity. Sharing a discomforting emotion may intrude on comfort and security. Those in emotional turmoil are often unable to immediately respond, attending to our personal needs of belonging.
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
Frightened By Emotion
For the emotional immature, after providing superficial support, the discomforting emotion frustrates. The emotionally shallow seek escape if they are unable to quickly mollify someone else's disrupting emotion. Almost in a panic, the demon inside screams, "I don't know how to make you feel better!"
I've been here. Emotions scare the hell out of me. My first response to other's expressions of emotions is to jump in and save them. Burnt into my soul is this automatic reaction to an underlying belief that discomforting emotions are bad. They are not.
Solving an emotion that doesn't need to be solved is problematic. We poke the sore wound with our impatience. “You choose to be sad,” we quickly condemn. We condemn, not to help, but to soothe our own discomfort. We need escape.
Co-Dependent Responses to Other's Emotions
In co-dependency, the response is different. The co-dependent take responsibility for the emotion. They feel driven to resolve and cure the sufferer. They feel guilty when others suffer. They place their liveliness on hold and seek to answer the unanswerable. They fear that a partner's sorrow or anger will deepen the distance between them and their partner.
The co-dependent seeks happiness by attempting to force important others to be happy. They get sucked into the dance of everybody’s drama, smiling, solving, and rescuing.
See Shared Emotions for more on this topic
"Make no judgements where you have no compassion."
The Line Between Compassion and Codependence is blurred
The line between compassionate empathy and demanding codependency is complex. Both involve connections and boundaries.
Our active minds constantly strain to define the line between ourselves and others. We don’t neatly fall into one camp or the other. We typically partake in blessings and curses from both healthy and unhealthy reactions to emotions.
Healthy relationships require mindful investigation, slowly moving back and forth to find a comfortable and healthy line, learning how to comfortably share a partner's emotion without being suckered into taking responsibility to cure it.
The Narcissist and Other's Emotions
The narcissist moves the line refusing to feel the emotions at all—counter-dependency. He (or she) is completely indifferent to other’s feelings, as long as they serve the narcissist’s interest. The sadness of a partner becomes an exploitable opportunity for the pathological narcissist. He (or she) gladly provokes guilt, anger and self-hatred when it serves their needs.
The labyrinth of connection will always stymie those unfamiliar with the complexities. Poverty of connection in childhood is not a death sentence. We can develop skills of closeness in adulthood with help, surrounding ourselves with emotionally intelligent friends and models. Perhaps this takes time, not an overnight miracle, but with patience, we grow, learning to process our emotions and the emotions of others with kindness. This gift we have been given through evolution can be coupled with an equally important gift of learning. We, as we emotionally mature, can turn towards our children, giving them a blessing, we were deprived of in our youth.
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