Why you will never be happy, part one

One of the more interesting concepts of Freudian psychology is the idea that a lot of our emotional health as adults is predicated on how well we were emotionally nurtured as children, even infants. The book I’m currently reading, “Emotional Intelligence,” talks about the delicate art of “attunement”: how well a parent recognizes and acknowledges (usually through mimicry) the emotional state of their infant. The book states…

Stern [a researcher quoted in the book] contends that the countlessly repeated moments of attunement or misattunement between parent and child shape the emotional expectations adult spring to their close relationships — perhaps far more than the more dramatic events of childhood.

This is interesting — the idea that these subtle, seemingly inconsequential interactions — occurring before a child can even talk — can have a strong effect on a person’s life. The book continues…

Attunement occurs tacitly, as part of the rhythm of relationship. Stern has studied it with microscopic precision through videotaping hours of mothers with their infants. He finds that through attunement mothers let their infants know they have a sense of what the infant is feeling. A baby squeals with delight, for example, and the mother affirms that delight by giving the baby a gentle shake, cooing, or matching the pitch of her voice to the baby squeal… Such small attunement’s give an infant the reassuring feeling of being emotionally connected, a message that Stern finds mothers send about once a minute when they interact with their babies.

Prolonged absence of attunement between parent and child takes a tremendous emotional toll on the child. When a parent consistently fails to show any empathy with a particular range of emotion in the child — joys, tears, needing to cuddle — the child begins to avoid expressing, and perhaps even feeling those same emotions. In this way, presumably, entire ranges of emotions can begin to be obliterated from the repertoire of intimate relations, especially if through childhood those feelings continue to be covertly or overtly discouraged.

Does this mean a person who did not experience attunement as an infant is doomed to a life of emotional turmoil? Are they consigned to be out of sync with the rest of humanity, emotionally mute in times of distress and simultaneously quick to rage over minor incidents? Does their negligent emotional upbringing cast them into an unstoppable spiral of rage, pain and fear destined to lead to a tragic act of violence either against themselves or others?

According to the book, no, these imbalances can be corrected later in life.

There is hope in “reparative” relationships: [Stern says] “Relationships throughout life — with friends or relatives, for example, or in psychotherapy — continually reshape your working model of relationships. An imbalance at one point can be corrected later…”

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