“To listen is to be vulnerable. You allow something outside your body to come inside. To be open and impressionable, to hear everything, is dangerous. You can be damaged all too easily.” ~ W. A. Mathieu
From my very first post on this blog back in 2007, most everything I research and write here has one primary central aim: to increase the awareness of, and to reduce the amount and degree of suffering in people’s lives. Recently I received an email from a friend informing me and a number of other close friends about the death of her mother after a three-year, extremely painful struggle with pancreatic cancer. Not surprisingly, many who received the note responded back to my friend and also to everyone else on the list. What was surprising is that many of those responses barely acknowledged my friend’s loss. Instead, they immediately began waxing emotionally about the difficult death of a relative of their own, or their own struggles with painful illness. It was like they’d been looking for the perfect invitation to let the world know of their own suffering, and this was it.
Only it wasn’t. Not being heard, emotionally felt and understood, dismissed and superceded by someone else’s needs is the exact opposite of the “contingent communication” which research has shown to be supremely instrumental and essential for lifelong learning and neural plasticity; and for cultivating the empathy circuitry absolutely necessary for forming close connections.
When I discussed this incident with my wife, she clarified that if we haven’t been on the receiving end of authentic empathy, then it’s going to be very challenging for us to consistently be on the transmitting end. In other words, other people have to model, reflect and express authentic empathy to us during our emotionally trying times – ideally, in childhood – in order for us to grow sufficient neural circuitry to be able to genuinely express it to others later on down the road.
But what if this experience hasn’t happened much in our early or later lives? I think the response to my friend’s reaching out for compassion, consoling and condolences (from the Latin condoleo ,“I feel another’s pain”) perfectly illustrates what happens – people’s own story, the need to express their own pain and grief takes over. The result, most often, is an emotional miss or disconnect. In other words, there’s unfortunately, no believable sign of an open heart.
The Theory of Feeling Felt
Attachment researchers and social and cognitive neuroscientists have long recognized the critical role that having others respond to us in ways that let us know they “grok” us plays in unfolding human development. When it happens, we “feel felt.” Specifically, children grow critical brain network circuitry that allows them to develop a robust Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is the research field that investigates how children grow up and develop authentic empathy. They can genuinely feel another’s emotional reality. Empathy operates on a continuum, of course. Too much and people become emotionally enmeshed. Parents are especially susceptible to enmeshment. Too little empathy and you’re more likely to become the CEO of a corporation or be remanded to a locked facility.
It’s Never Too Late to Have a Heart-felt Adulthood
I’m in the process of organizing an offering designed specifically to address this developmental need in our culture, not for children, but for adults. Have you experienced a great need to be understood, only to have it get pre-empted by other people telling you their story? I’m researching skillful remedies and replies to this kind of communication and I’d really love to know if this experience of mis-communication happens out in the real world as much as I think it does. Feel free to comment below.