Connecting though empathy
Troy Murphy| August 2012
When we expertly greet our child's emotions with empathy, acceptance and reciprocation, the child develops a positive relationship with their own feelings—a major contribution to healthy living.
A child adapts to living, with the constant flow of love, wonder, and struggle. They internalize concepts with the accompanying rewards and punishments. A baby exits the womb and begins the magical journey of living. The child vulnerable to dangers, helplessly relies on caregivers for survival. They watch, learn and adapt. The young brain develops, creating the connections and networks that follow the child throughout life. The child’s brain isn’t frozen with fixed traits, experience continues to mold and adapt but the massive mapping of infancy quickly closes doors and forms the quality of life. One of the greatest gifts a parent can offer to the developing child is emotional attunement.
When we expertly greet our child's emotions with empathy, acceptance and reciprocation, the child develops a positive relationship with their own feelings—a major contribution to healthy living. Conversely, when we consistently devalue a child’s feelings, expressing rejection or indifference, our lack of attunement projects onto the child, the child also becomes disconnected from their experience—becoming emotionally impoverished.
Emotional Attunement: The artful dance of interaction, recognizing, respecting, and connecting with the inner experience of another person.
The feelings of experience (affect) and the complex integration of those feelings, and a conceptual foundation for understanding, is essential for appropriate response. When a child must navigate this path alone, or worse, taught chaotic and destructive responses from emotional immature parents, the child’s integration of feeling battles with confusion, the bewildering experience of affect rules behavior and the child becomes overly rigid or excessively chaotic. A child needs healthy examples to provide adequate resources to decipher feelings and act appropriately within the context of those feelings. If a child’s feelings are ignored, reprimanded or discounted, the youngster misses valuable opportunities to artfully connect feeling to healthy living.
For most, if not all, reading this article, our childhood naiveite has vanished. We now face life as adults. The large window of exposure to new experience that forms the connections in the brain, mapping strategies to adapt to living, are established. Learning is never completely over. For adults experiencing impoverished emotions from 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 breathtaking horizons in the inner-universe of the Brain. The window of learning doesn’t close after childhood.
Change, however, requires time, effort, and patience. Patterns are stubborn. We slowly improve emotional poverty through mindful attentiveness. Perhaps, emotional poverty has existed in our family lines for generations, passed from parent to child to grandchild—a vicious cycle. Breaking this hand-me-down deficiency is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our children and our children’s children, giving them an opportunity to experience the richness of life.
To break the chain, we must gain awareness of our stirring emotions that proceed action, being reacquainted with the bodily responses to feeling, kindly coddling the feeling, allowing deeper concepts of emotion to materialize, and then make constructive choices that build a healthier environment. Our emotional maturity can then me transmitted to our child’s emotions, by accepting their experience, expertly soothing the hurt without rejecting their feeling. We help them understand the feelings with a wealth of descriptive words and then assist them with a constructive response. The child’s angry outburst in the grocery store, met by a parent’s frustrated response, serves little purpose, displaying the harmful cycle we wish to interrupt—an outburst met with an outburst. A lesson of emotional poverty is taught—demonstrating that feelings give license for thoughtlessness.
The work to change battered and persistent patterns often require professional assistance. We may lack a detailed road map to guide us through the dark alleys of change. But the reward is healthier relationships and increased sensitivity to our emotions and the emotions of others.
We must start at home.
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Attunement to our own emotions
For some, internal pushes are loud and obnoxious. Once ignited, they explode taking over the stage forcing other actors out of focus. These individuals cower to the frightening thunder of feeling, drawn to and from at the internal beckoning of pleasure and displeasure. Others developed the opposite reaction, a callous denial of feeling, banning emotion, while stoically appealing to logic (what they believe to be logic). 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. We must identify our relationship with feeling before we can constructively begin change.
We must be an active participant in the feeling-emotion-action chain, attuning to the feeling, giving appropriate description to what we feel, evaluating possible responses and then constructively moving forward. For some, the gentle attention to underlying body states is sufficient to move in a new direction. For others, sensing the rise in blood pressure, soothing the upset, and avoiding the catastrophic melt-down is a significant challenge. We accomplish either path through mindfully listening to our body—focusing on feeling. If caregivers rejected our emotional expressions in childhood, we often have internalized this same approach to our own emotions as adults. Feelings frighten the undeveloped soul; Body states that venture beyond comfortable limits, signal danger, demanding action; but unaccepted feelings, instead of helpfully labelled, are rejected.
We may ask, “How do I get rid of fear, anxiety, or guilt,” referring to the emotional experience and not the behaviors or environment causing the discomforting feelings. I recently read a question posted by reader on a help network. The question, “How do I get rid of guilt over my spending habits?” The body of the question then detailed a very unhealthy spending pattern of indulgence and debt. Contrary to the question, the spending habits were the problem, not the discomforting feelings accompanying the clash of desires—extravagance and security.
An improved relationship with feelings may require a somatic coach, meditation guide or a therapist. Feelings simply experienced without denying or serving them may be foreign to us; we often need help to navigate through the explosive minefield of anger, sadness, fear and disgust (to name a few)—and delve into the novel experience of attentive feeling. With practice and guidance, we feel the changes in our bodies, without imploding into catastrophe or blind servitude. This is attunement.
The emotions connect the self to experience; we feel the richness of living. The feelings previously unconsciously buried or served still remain but our relationship with them has changed. When we are enemies with inner states, feelings create 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 because others can't be understood.
From Self to Others
Those terrified of emotion employ a variety of defenses to avoid the disruption of feeling. The maladaptive responses serve a function; but at a cost, dodging personal emotion damages skills necessary for connection.
Emotions create a foundation for connection. If our emotions go unfelt, we certainly can’t process a partner’s emotions. The absence of emotion—the underlying energy of life—creates hollow relationships. We may establish functional connections that serve a purpose; but the glorious connection of intimacy cannot exist when bodily states remain an unconscious force.
By attuning to and sharing emotions, we connect. The openness creates new vulnerabilities, exposing the feelings we still fear. Our sensitivities need time and support. Just as the developing child needs acceptance so does the adult newly acquainted with underlying feeling states. We relive our childhood dilemma when openness is ridiculed. Partners matter. Friends matter. We must surround ourselves with those who empathize, not harshly judge or retreat. If childhood emotions were cruelly punished, we must embrace newly established healthy relationships to gently reconfigure our souls with nourishment, acceptance, and openness. The vicious cycle of apathy slowly transforms into cycles of empathy. The more emotional attunement received, the more attunement that can be given, and the more we give, the more we receive—the beautiful new cycle. A cycle we should graciously give to our children.
Like most personal work, transformations require time, slowly— almost imperceptibly—over a lifetime of vigilance, we become something more. Our inherited blunders, confusing felt emotions, formed through tens-of-thousands of interactions. Although our brains remain malleable throughout life, and change is possible, childhood learning runs deep. The habitual approaches to feelings have been unconsciously followed for decades, making even slight adjustments requires serious attentive work.
Be patient; get the help needed, and then courageous work towards change. Empathizing with the self, while simultaneously attending to our children’s expressions of emotion can challenge our strength; But this gift will be an enormous blessing to their young lives, finally discarding the baggage of unmanaged emotions that has been passed on from proceeding generations. Our children will naturally pass the gift to their child, blessing numerous lives for many generations to come.