The ability to put words to feelings isn’t a simple matter. Even to recognize what you are feeling can be difficult. Many of us are unable to do this easily. I remember the first time when I was able to tell a friend how I felt in a tough situation and she related a corresponding juncture in her own life. At age 16, it was a moment of discovery for both of us, an excited recognition that it was possible to be accompanied and deeply understood. Hearing another person say I know what you mean is one of the most important kinds of solace in human life.
Developing the capacity to look inward comes from being cared about and beheld. A mother who sees and verbalizes her child’s distress – “Oh, you’re really upset that your big sister took away that toy you were playing with” – grants the child attention and words for feelings all in one moment of compassionate focus called attunement. This contrasts greatly with a stressed mother who hears a child cry and tells her to shut up.
I have several friends who were raised by mothers incapable of recognizing their children’s feelings. When they became mothers themselves, they were determined not to repeat the past. To do so, they had to reckon with the legacy of having grown up in a chaotic, non-attuned home environment – their reactivity to stress, their tendency not to seek help from anyone, and most of all their numbness toward their own inner emotional state.
There are gradations in this inquiry, rather than all-or-nothing narratives. Some children in these households are lucky enough to encounter pre-school and kindergarten teachers who manage to provide this kind of focus, despite their having many children to attend to at once. Others accrue the right kind of attention from coaches, friends’ parents, grandparents, and other key adults who become beacons of what it is to be seen, heard, cared about, and given words to attach to emotions. Home may still be dismal, but outside these children grow towards the light of the attuned figures in their lives.
Those who do not receive corrective attention often resort to yelling and stomping, pushing and punching in the absence of words for feelings. Then the burden of being labeled a problem kid makes everything harder. Others fall silent in the absence of anyone to draw them out, sometimes becoming overly pleasing and self-negating in the effort to overcome their predicament. Both strategies can lead to the great loneliness of the walled-off inner self.
As childhood verges on adolescence, when our first deep friendships might be made, the benefits that accrue from having experienced attunement become even more valuable and the lack thereof becomes more painful. To be able to describe your inner experience allows you to compare perceptions and feelings with another person. To be unable to do so leaves you in a position of mounting isolation.
Friendships in adolescence and early adulthood often become templates for forming an enduring relationship with an intimate partner, the next level of being known. In this context, those who have not managed to practice attunement with a friend may have great difficulty doing so with a partner. Emotions run higher at this level of intimacy. Without the capacity to say I feel this when you do that, a person may only be able to yell and stomp, push and punch, thus earning the label “abusive.” Others may come to believe that they have to remain single due to their speechlessness that frustrates those who try to get close to them.
Fortunately, the capacity to look inward and name feelings can be learned at any point in the lifespan, so long as the person in need of this skill isn’t stuck in a pattern of blunting their feelings with substances or distractions. Allowing difficult feelings to rise up in yourself enough to be felt, recognized, and communicated is the basis for being able to offer attunement to others. This capacity grows with use and with the delighted relief of experiencing its rewards.
Having compassion for someone else’s suffering helps us see our own more readily; thus, we may gain a faster fluency in the language of feelings through interest in the emotions of others. This reflexive process often leads to regret, the wish to have been doing this all along for a partner or friend, son or daughter; yet even belated attunement is often treasured despite having been long-awaited.
Pain and the remnants of trauma pass from one generation to another if we don’t dedicate ourselves to paying attention inwardly. We can always choose to work harder to stay alert to the emotional reality of what’s going on beneath the surface of ourselves and others, thus striving for one of the crowning capacities of living well.