Attunement

18 Mar

Gladys sits expressionless, locked in her Alzeimer’s world of little memory and human disconnection. She has become virtually nonverbal. Naomi, the therapist, draws close to her, speaks gently, sings songs from Gladys’s childhood and as Gladys begins to tap out the beat of the song with her hand, Naomi matches her tempo to Gladys’ rhythm. Naomi breathes in the rhythm of Gladys’ breathing. Naomi moves to mirror Gladys’ moves. Naomi caresses Gladys’ cheeks and we see Gladys’ face light up with recognition of affection and caring. Gladys reaches out and pulls Naomi closer. Naomi says in her narrative, “For a split second, we became one person.” To see this video of “Validation Therapy” and its beautiful ending, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrZXz10FcVM

Naomi Feil is demonstrating to us a vivid picture of attunement, when one person is “in tune” with the inner world of another person. Gabor Maté, in his insightful book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” describes the importance of attunement in the development of every child. He is explaining the causes of addiction in so many people who were not overtly abused as children. In my last blog I described how the parent’s caring behavior brings relief to the child’s earache even before the Tylenol kicks in. The parent’s caring starts the flow of endorphins in the child and the mechanism of that caring is attunement. When the child experiences his/her own pain reflected in the face, tone of voice, and body language of the parent, the child’s connection to the parent starts the endorphins flowing. Without attunement, the child has little assurance of caring or of relief of the pain. Without attunement, the child may hear from the parent, “I told you not to interrupt me. Now get back to bed.” No attunement, no compassion, and then no Tylenol. With attunement comes the flow of the endorphins, the warm hug, the expressions of caring, and an attempt to use medical remedies to relieve the pain. Without the attunement, the child is left to seek for some other kind of quick relief, perhaps rocking himself to sleep or masturbating to self-comfort.

Maté writes that it is not a lack of love that sets a child on the path of addictive pursuits for comfort, it is often the lack of attunement from ones parents. He writes: “Stressed parents have a difficulty offering their children a specific quality required for the development of the brain’s self-regulation circuits: the quality of attunement.” That is, can the parent be emotionally engaged in a way in which the child feels understood and cared about? And as lack of attunement (or worse yet, overt abuse) is the pathway into addiction, the development of attuned relationships is the pathway out of any addiction, including sex addiction. This can begin with an understanding therapist but must grow to the development of a caring community in which one feels understood and cared about. For many years I see the most recovery among men and women in our psychotherapy groups who take the risks of letting others into their lives. It requires courage to come to a group and admit, “I have a problem” when so many experiences has sent the message, “If you make yourself vulnerable to others, they will hurt you.” When people risk being known and find others who are attuned to them, they embark on a new path. It is a path of connection, love, and belonging.