“I had a good childhood. There was always food on the table and a roof over my head. So why do I feel stuck all of the time?” Do you wonder why you often feel unsatisfied in your relationships or why your professional life goes nowhere in spite of lots of effort? Or why you never feel seen? What if during your early years you experienced lots of misattunement?
Huh? What's misattunement? Here’s an example. I went to a very crowded garden show the other day and while looking at zinnias I witnessed a mom with her 4 year old daughter. Daughter says “Mom, I’m hungry.” Mom quickly grabs the little girl’s arm and angrily says “You’re not hungry. Let’s go. You are always telling me you’re hungry.” She then pulled the little girl behind her off into the crowd. My heart broke for this child whose mother dismissively misattuned with her daughter’s very basic, physiological need for food.
So what happens inside little ones who frequently experience this sort of misattunement? They stop expressing their needs, learn to unconsciously reject their needs and then shut down and disconnect from their needs. Dr. Laurence Heller, author of Healing Developmental Trauma says that children who experience this sort of deprivation give up their demand for caring and love. They decide unconsciously that there’s no hope that their needs will be met. Giving up becomes a common way they respond to stress.
As such a child matures, she becomes used to living with these unmet physical and emotional needs. She develops survival strategies, like being really helpful to others and needing very little for herself. She has an unconscious belief that her deepest needs don’t matter and that she doesn’t matter. She may feel erased and empty, like she doesn’t exist. When she risks expressing a need, she gives up easily if someone doesn’t respond.
For many of us the misattunement began in infanthood. Picture this. A mother feeds her baby who then falls asleep in her arms so Mom puts the baby down in her crib. Then a little while later the baby starts crying. The well-attuned mom goes to the baby and holds her until she falls back to sleep. This mother is tuned into and responsive to both the physical and emotional needs of her baby. Mom’s attunement helps the baby feel safe and secure so she can rest easily. When the baby signals distress, Mom responds with love and caring.
The misattuned caregiver might just let the child cry herself back to sleep. No big deal on the surface, right? In fact, parenting books advocated this for years. But let’s go one layer deeper. A baby can’t talk, so her only form of protest is crying. When a baby cries and no one responds, she gets frustrated and cries louder. If still no one responds to her frustration, she gives up and stops crying and eventually falls asleep. The baby gives up, shuts down and disconnects from her distress because no one responds to it. This misattunement interferes with the child’s sense of safety and fosters a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
The Harvard Center on the Developing Child describes how this misattunement affects children’s brain architecture. When caregivers consistently attune to a baby’s needs, neural networks are built in the brain that support the development of communication and social skills. When there is consistent misattunement, a baby lives in a state of constant stress due to unmet needs creating significant emotional and physiological issues. This is why I believe misattunement is an invisible ACE.
Here’s another example of misattunement that’s really prevalent in today’s culture. We misattune to our children’s’ capacity for stimulation. In our hyper fast, loud world, we as adults can barely stand the endless packed schedules, traffic, and deadlines. Many of us feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the fast pace and the constant stimulation and input in our lives. We don’t attune to our own need for down time. Now imagine the nervous system of the developing child. Brad Kammer, Director of the NARM Training Institute, often talks about how we label children as “fussy” rather than getting curious about what’s going on inside the pre-verbal child who can’t simply say “this is all too much for me” or “I’m scared right now.”
I feel antsy as I write about this because I was punished several times as a child for being “fussy” in loud, unfamiliar places. My mother managed my behavior and misattuned with my emotional needs for safety and caring. I learned to be a good girl. As an adult I learned to endure situations well beyond what was good for me. I often felt really stuck. Those are the survival strategies I unconsciously adopted in my family environment.
Are any of these survival strategies familiar to you? Do you pride yourself in needing as little as possible? “Can I take care of that for you?” “Whatever works for you. I’m fine.” “Sure, no problem.” In rejecting our own needs we often chronically misattune to ourselves. We don’t sleep when we need, we don’t rest when we need to and we don’t follow our hearts.
Many of us with these patterns go into the helping professions, putting our needs so far ahead of others’ that we burn out. We can’t say no even when we know we are stressed to the max already. We also tolerate disrespect from others. As much as I wish these strategies just fall away when we become adults, they don’t. These strategies continue into our adulthood until we get curious about them.
None of the Adverse Childhood Experiences questions specifically points to what I’ve described above and yet chronic emotional misattunement in childhood is an invisible ACE that can have devastating effects on our physical and emotional well-being later on. We often feel unseen and really empty on the inside as well as chronically dissatisfied in spite of trying really hard to make things work. If you resonate with any of this and you often feel stuck, I invite you to get curious about your relationship to your own needs. What if underneath “I feel stuck” is actually “I need help” or “I need some nurturing.” Consider if you are aware of your own needs and if you weigh them appropriately with those of others.
If you feel disconnected from your own needs or you often feel unseen, maybe it’s time to get some help with this. The NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) specifically helps people become aware of and unravel these old strategies so that we feel much more free, alive and at ease. We learn to attune to ourselves so that we create the life we want while creating deeper connections with others. You are not stuck with these patterns. They are just patterns. They are not you. If this resonates, let’s talk.
Stay tuned for part two of this conversation about misattunement where I will talk about what happens inside us to all the frustration that builds up.