Why Emotional Attunement Is So Important, and So Healing
Connecting you to others, others to you, and you to yourself.
Posted February 8, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- As a parent, spouse, or friend, emotional neglect degrades the relationship and causes real harm to the recipient.
- While emotional neglect involves ignoring or dismissing someone's feelings, emotional attunement involves noticing and validating them.
- When someone who grew up emotionally neglected experiences emotional attunement as an adult, it soothes and heals their childhood experience.
I recently attended a dinner party at my friend's house. I walked inside right on time and immediately noticed toys scattered about the living room. My friend's children were running around mischievously, and my friend was frantically trying to put food in the oven. She barely acknowledged my arrival as I entered the kitchen.
"Just put your coat in the closet and go to the dining room!" my friend yelled over the din. She was clearly overwhelmed and had an irritated tone that instantly made me feel as though I was imposing.
Despite the cold greeting, I noticed what was going on around me: Her babysitter must have bailed, and she was in over her head attempting to host a party while taking care of her children.
So, I walked over to my friend and made eye contact. "Don't worry. We've got this," I said with my hand on her arm.
A wave of relief washed over my friend's face. Her annoyance had been replaced with calm.
This example demonstrates the power of emotional attunement—being aware of and empathizing with someone's feelings and emotional needs. If I wasn't emotionally attuned to my friend in this example, I might have easily felt unwelcome and uncomfortable, with my friend still frazzled. But when you see what someone is feeling and feel their feeling with them, even if for just one fleeting moment, the other person instantly feels validated and supported.
Sometimes emotions can overtake us. When you're feeling stressed, hurt, sad, grief-stricken, or anxious, it's easy to let these emotions take the driver's seat. And while learning to regulate your own emotions is important, there's something others can do for you to help you feel a bit more grounded: emotional attunement.
What Makes Emotional Attunement Hard?
It mostly depends on how you grew up. To comfortably give people emotional attunement in adulthood, you will benefit greatly from growing up in a household that provides it to you. Legions of good people who grew up in homes that gave them a shortage of emotional attunement—which is emotional neglect—struggle greatly with it as adults.
When a child experiences attunement from a parent, they feel seen. They feel deeply acknowledged, accepted, and known, and they get some relief from the intense emotion they're experiencing. Suddenly, what they were feeling alone with is shared. This almost-magical moment gives them the message that their feelings make sense and are important and valid. It's key for children to receive enough of these experiences from their parents so that it "clicks" for them how much better emotional attunement makes them feel in difficult moments.
Then, it will click for them how emotional attunement helps and how to do it. Then, it will be much easier for them to automatically provide it years later to people like their spouse, their colleagues, or their friends.
Emotional Attunement in Action
If you, unfortunately, for whatever reason, didn't get enough emotional attunement as a child, never fear. You can learn how to do it now.
- Peter to his boss, Juan: "I wanted to talk to you about the number of projects I'm being assigned. You might have noticed I've missed some deadlines recently. I'm starting to feel pretty burned out with my workload. I want to show you all I can do, but I'm starting to think it's just too much."
- Juan's emotionally absent response: "You missed deadlines?! Why didn't you say something sooner? I need you to have everything done by tomorrow, or else we need to schedule a meeting to talk about your work performance and if this is still a good fit."
- Juan's emotionally attuned response: "Tell me what's been going on. I've noticed that you put everything you have into these projects."
- Sheri: "I've been worried about Steph. She's been isolating in her room a lot lately, and I just have this feeling she's going through something and not talking to us about it."
- Jonathan's emotionally absent response: "You worry too much; she's fine! If she wanted to talk to us, she would." This response minimizes Sheri's feelings of concern. Sheri is left feeling dismissed and alone in her worry about her daughter.
- Jonathan's emotionally attuned response: "You're worried? I trust your gut feeling. Should we try to check in with her when she gets home from school?" With this response, Jonathan validates Sheri's worry. He also lets Sheri know he's there to support her by offering a plan of action. Sheri feels understood and like her husband is with her.
- Will: "I just found out my company is downsizing, and I'm going to be let go. We have a baby on the way. The timing is just horrible." His voice cracks.
- Benjamin's emotionally absent response: "You should check out this website with all these job postings. I'm sure there's one listed that's in your field!" While Benjamin has good intentions to help his friend, his lack of acknowledgment of Will's feelings misses the mark. Will is looking for emotional support, not an immediate solution.
- Benjamin's emotionally attuned response: "I'm so sorry to hear that, man. I know how much you love your job. What's going through your mind?" Benjamin can see that Will is devastated by this news. He asks an open-ended question to give Will some space to continue sharing.
If you received a shortage of emotional attunement from your parents, you might have difficulty receiving it now, and you might also have a hard time giving it, too.
Amazingly, the best way to get better at giving and receiving emotional attunement is to become more in tune with your own feelings. Accept that your feelings always make sense if you think about them enough and that they are valid and important. Pay attention to your own emotional responses to things and get to know yourself on that deep level. These are the steps that fill the emotional gap from your childhood and heal childhood emotional neglect.
Once you are attuned to your deepest self, you'll also become more able to give and accept attunement to and from others. Emotional attunement not only prevents emotional neglect but also heals it. It's the glue that connects you to others, others to you, and you to yourself.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
Facebook image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock
To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.