We have feelings. Hard-wired emotions come with the equipment: anger, sadness, disgust, grief, joy. The list is longer, but you get the idea.
We also have an inborn blueprint for “building” the house that will hold our feelings. The blueprint doesn’t designate a value on the feelings. There is no rolled-up page that, once flattened, delineates in architectural graphics which feelings are unacceptable and which are OK. Our wiring just is.
What do we do with all this emotion that sometimes comes with such profound intensity? Sometimes feelings are simple and easy to experience. Sometimes they grab us in such forceful waves that our whole being feels tossed about and flooded. When we are born, we don’t yet have the capability to have feelings and stay on course within ourselves. The compass that directs us back down out of any intensity of internal experience isn’t fully online. We need that regulating of our internal state to come from the outside. We need adults who notice that we are having these internal experiences, which show up as distress: Hunger. Too cold. Wet diaper. Lonely. Stomach hurts. When we have adequate attunement from the adults in our world, our needs will be sufficiently addressed. Our caregivers notice. They take care of us. Our feeling of distress calms. Our nervous system is learning something very important. Connections are getting made in the wiring in our neurological circuitry, and pathways are being established that will be important for us throughout life.distress. Our brains and bodies become wired in accordance with our experiences, and things then are automatic.
When we are not yet developed enough to do things on our own and have adults who are responding, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, we are learning from this. If we are being calmed and our needs are adequately addressed with caring attentiveness, our neurological system is learning various important things. It is learning how to travel the pathway out of distress and into a regulated state. We are learning that help feels good and reaching out is a positive action. We are also learning that feelings are permissible experiences and can be negotiated with a feeling of internal support.
When attention from caregivers comes from a constantly distracted, careless, rough, or otherwise misattuned place, we are also learning. The lack of attunement to our need and state of distress can set up a pattern in our wiring of pulling in rather than our continuing to follow the impulse to reach out. When this becomes rehearsed, we no longer feel connected to the impulse to reach out from need. It goes off our radar screen, and we potentially don’t recognize that others are sources of comfort and help. We also are not having the experience of what will help us learn to best regulate our own states.
None of what I’m talking about is immutable. We relearn and develop different patterns in our neurological circuitry all the time. We can learn how to drive a stick shift after having learned to drive an automatic transmission. We can develop the awareness it takes to notice the impulses of which we’ve lost conscious connection. The impulse to reach out can come back into our conscious awareness. The ability to reduce and calm our own state of distress can be more effectively learned.
No parent is perfect. No life travels a path of never facing either difficult childhood dynamics or critical incidents like birth shock trauma (which can include loss of biological mother at birth), car accidents, surgeries, or horror and pain from service in the military. Having good attunement from our caregivers helps prepare us for whatever gets placed on our path. We can learn, with this early help, how to have feelings and needs in a comfortable way. We can learn how to regulate our feelings of distress from all those circumstances we will confront throughout life. We can learn that our internal states are experiences, not problems. And when we’ve not adequately had the opportunity to learn this or our wiring has been interrupted by critical incidents along the way, we can learn how to rewire. We can make possible the ability to more fluidly traverse those sometimes tumultuous waters of life.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sherry L. Osadchey, MA, LMFT, SEP, Somatic Experiencing Topic Expert Contributor
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