When we are hurt, when we are feeling lost, when we feel isolated and depressed, something is missing. Something big. Something old. For some of us, it’s been missing our whole lives.
The way we often describe this need is that we want to feel seen and heard. We want to be acknowledged for who we really are, to be held by a person who can look into our eyes and understand us. It’s the feeling of being got, of being felt by someone who cares about us depthlessly.
When we are lonely, we aren’t just craving company. Loneliness has been a major theme this last year, with many of us grappling with it more than we ever have before. We’ve missed dinner parties, meeting friends for coffee, going to the neighborhood hole in the wall. But loneliness isn’t about being in a crowd. I’ve had some of my loneliest moments at a party I’m throwing, filled with people who are supposed to be my friends. Loneliness is a call from the heart to be seen and loved in that sacred space where you can be your whole self, with truth. Loneliness is a craving for attunement.
The word attunement is often used in the context of attachment theory, a psychological concept that explores how we form relationships and manage stress within them.
When a parent is attuned to a child, she is feeling with the child, able to understand what the child needs and able to meet those needs reasonably well. When the baby looks for the parent, reaching for the parent, the parent responds. When the child looks away, needing space, the parent stays quiet, allowing the child to take a break. When the child is sad or angry, the parent acknowledges that emotion, staying calm and compassionate while acknowledging the child’s feelings. The parent is present, physically and emotionally, even in the child’s worst moments. This allows the child to feel safe. Someone is with her, watching out for her, listening to her needs before she’s able to name or try to explain them.
Most parents love their children deeply—more than they’ve ever loved anyone before. But attunement is about more than the reflexiveness of love—even unconditional love. True attunement requires a much bigger challenge: loving with and through all emotional states, including negative ones. It’s easy enough to match our infants in joy: When they are smiling and laughing, we want to smile and laugh too. But when children are irrationally afraid, crying incessantly, or throwing a tantrum, it’s much harder to hold them with the complete emotional presence that they really need in that moment. When faced with crying, frustrated, angry, or even simply annoying children, it’s easier to shut them out, ignore them, or yell at them than to meet them on their emotional level while also somehow managing to staying calm and kind.
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