A meaningful life is a quality life. It cannot be measured in social status, money, or other measurable attainments. It is measured more so by the continual integration of our internal, self-aware experience with the external shared world of reality. When we can connect with that reality through relationships and work that has a sense of purpose directly tied to our need to grow, we might be said to be living a quality life. The interplay of connecting my feelings, emotions, and thoughts with other people and other types of expression produces a sense of connection that generates a unique feeling of connectedness. Experiencing this type of connection is vital to our movement towards self-actualization, or, the realization of our personal potential.
The ability to connect is known as “Attunement” and is basically understood as being “in tune” with another person’s emotional states. This function of our brain is crucial to relational success. It is a critical experience to have, especially early on in our lives with our caregivers, because it is through the quality of experienced attunement that our emotional regulation system is calibrated. The self-regulation system is like a thermostat that keeps the temperature in order and provides what will be our “normal” range of emotional stasis. Of course, we are all susceptible to external stressors and traumas that throw off our balance. Still, a generally regulated person has higher resilience to external stressors that keeps them from going too high or too low even under stress. Attunement provides the sense that, “I am loved,” and “I have intrinsic value.” The importance of understanding this concept can not be overstated as many adults are living without a baseline of a sense of what it feels like to be “attuned to.” The sense of having been “tuned” into sets up our neurological system to receive love and sets the tone for future connection to the world.
Some people, because their caregivers did not provide consistent attunement, even if the caregiver were generally loving, never had their self-regulation system settle into a healthy, resilient baseline. A healthy baseline allows room for relational and general life stressors to happen without feeling a sense of loss of control. Unhealthy attunement is typically provided particularly during the first 0–9 years of life in environments that are governed by a parent(s) whose ability to attune to the child is circumstantially based on their own ability to self-regulate. Meaning that the child is only provided attunement if the parent is ok. In turn, this person who was not afforded consistent attunement learns to look to their environment to provide control for them. They may develop a controlling nature themselves or engage in compulsive behavior that becomes a means of self-soothing.
Furthermore, this will imply that seemingly small issues in the environment will feel like huge problems. When I am constantly focused on details in my situation to ensure that everything is in order, I tend to miss the big picture. The big picture in life is where other people and potential future opportunities exist. Being tied to the environment for regulation is to live in a vicious cycle of dependency. I am at the mercy of the environment, and if the environment, meaning those around me don’t line up with my expectations, then my entire emotional system is thrown out of whack. This is what we mean by the term dysregulated.
Self-Regulation and Empathy
The reason why self-regulation is such an important skill to develop is that, without it, a person will struggle in the department of empathy. If my system is continuously driven to self-soothe and self-protect, I will not have the ability to understand and engage in another person’s world. My need to understand myself and/or be understood by others stays in hyperdrive. Relationships become based off what a person can do for me and how they fit into my need to control. People who challenge me, even in honest and meaningful ways, are seen as “non-compliant” and quickly discarded as perpetrators.
One can not be self-protective and empathetic at the same time. A well regulated emotional system allows me to access my executive functioning. From a secure emotional base, I can be creative, curious, and comprehend something outside of myself. However, as self-regulation decreases, the stress system kicks in, and I become “Limbic,” meaning I am in “Fight, Flight, or Freeze.” The more dysregulated I am, the more stressed I am, and therefore the survival parts of my brain are taking over, and the thoughtful parts of my mind are shutting down. Empathy ceases to be possible, and potential relationships and personal growth are therefore stunted or destroyed.
Genuine empathy is the glue that binds us. The relational dynamic between ourselves and the rest of the world is hard to establish for many people. Many people who are struggling to connect meaningfully in the world are lacking empathy because they have not really experienced it themselves. They had never experienced a sense of being understood, mainly when they were vulnerable children. The parenting relationship is where the glue of empathy is put in place through the attunement process.
Unfortunately, many parents lack awareness of the individuality of the child. They seek to get the child to fit into a box that makes the parent comfortable. When a child is compliant, they are a good kid; when they are not agreeable, they get put on medication. In either case, they do not get the full experience of empathetic connection. Their success in life becomes based on how they fit in, both into the box of the parent’s life and then into the drab box that society has waiting for them.
It has been said that “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.” It is a level of understanding between people and in experiences that is wholistic. It goes beyond, “I can logically see why it could be important to you,” into, “I actually understand on a personal level, why that is important.” A person who is experiencing a lack of connection and meaning in life may benefit from learning to develop empathy. This will require personal responsibility on their part to take on being vulnerable in order to do so, but a disconnected life is miserable with no purpose. Why not take on the pain of vulnerability with the intention of growth in mind?
If you see yourself in this light, it is not a death sentence to your relationships and future. It is a window into self-awareness and acceptance. The world does not seem ready to offer empathy, and some people’s need is far greater than their daily relationships seem to be able to provide. What that means is that you can not sit around and wait for it. You will have to be intentional in addressing your attunement needs through engaging safely with a helping professional, clergy, coach, or mature friend. An objective party in your corner providing attunement can can lead to self-regulation, and self-regulation leads to comfort in one’s own skin and the ability to be empathetic which, will set you up to engage meaningfully in the rest of your life.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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