The most important aspect of a therapeutic relationship, and an essential ingredient in holistic healing is Attunement. But, how is it actually defined?
According to Carl Rogers
Rogers, considered the father of Humanistic Psychology, stated to be “attuned” requires three qualities. 1. It is important that we demonstrate Congruence, or being real and genuine with a client. 2. A therapist shows unconditional positive regard, providing a caring and nonjudgmental space for the client to process. And, finally, 3. we offer accurate and empathetic understanding – we see the world through the client’s eyes, while feeling total acceptance.
Mind and Body Connection
Mary Sykes Wylie and Lynn Turner state, “Attunement creates an attachment experience that the client missed the first time around. It is the ability to hear, see, sense, interpret, and respond to the client’s verbal and nonverbal cues in a way that communicates to the client that he/she is genuinely seen, felt, and understood. It is a highly complex, supremely delicate, interpersonal dance between two biological/psychological systems…the therapist feels the feelings, not merely understands them conceptually.” (The Attuned Therapist )
“A good therapeutic relationship can lay down new, positive neurological pathways on top of the old, traumatic experiences.” Dr. Joseph Nicolosi
Feeling With a Client
So, if attunement is only a cognitive experience of understanding, it falls short. It is a “feeling with” the client. If clients were shamed and abused, they internalize a bully part of themselves and cannot perceive their child as innocent. Instead, they see their child self as, to name a few, “stupid, pathetic, weak, incapable, or whorish.”
One of my true gifts as a therapist is that I can feel a client’s inner child. I see their child part struggling, suffering and bewildered. Inevitably, a tear (or stream of imperceptible tears) will run down my face. Eventually, my attunement to the child invites a recognition of what that child part suffered. The caregivers likely were neglectful, unaware, cruel, ignorant, overly critical and/or tyrannical.
“A child can experience feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her, and supports her. If that person is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother’s love of her substitute in order to feel, then she will repress emotions.” Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self
Kids Who Grow Up Too Early
Renowned psychotherapist, Alice Miller, describes the detrimental effects on children burdened with the unmet emotional needs of their parents. As a result, these kids become highly attuned to others’ needs. Consequently, they lose the ability to be aware of their own emotional experience and needs. The unconscious belief or survival programming requires that the child forgo his own self-care and let others’ needs take precedence.
Therapist as Tuning Fork
In addition, it is important that the therapist know how to take care of their own needs in relationship to a client. In Deborah Lynn Weisshaar’s fascinating dissertation, she reveals that many therapists grew up in families where they felt compelled to take on the emotions of everyone around them. Because that is a therapist’s job, they can miss the fact that their inner child is calling them to clean up those early relationships. Furthermore, engaging in our own therapy, as well as continually educating ourselves about potential pitfalls, benefits clients.
Therapy is a relational experience, and the therapist acts as a tuning fork. Hence, if a therapist feels “out of control” or out of tune, the client may feel a loss of attunement. This can be counter productive. As a therapist seeks his or her own support to increase self-awareness, she is better able to hold space for a client who is re-attuning, reattaching and learning to self-regulate.
Attunement with a therapist teaches a client how to self-regulate. In the book Self-Reg: How to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life, Dr. Stuart Shanker explains, “It is by being regulated a child develops the ability to self-regulate. Regulating a child is not the same as controlling a child. Rather, it is concerned with managing the child’s arousal states until such time as the child can do this on their own.” He uses the metaphor of an engine light being an indicator of the engine getting too hot. “A chronically irritable infant, a child who can’t calm down, a constantly anxious teen: all are indicators of an engine working too hard.”
It is an honor to attune to clients to discover how we can best serve them. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as counselors to consider the impact of our words and actions on a client. We might make mistakes along the way, but the opportunities for repair can improve our therapeutic relationships. Clients honor us with their trust, and we seek all the ways to become more trustworthy.
Miller states, “We don’t yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as people.” Hopefully, as people do deep psychological work and awareness expands, the world will move closer to raising kids who are high functioning. It’s an evolution. We ALL have a responsibility to step up to the plate. There is too much information out there now to remain ignorant.
In conclusion, this is what will help to change the world: 1. Raising children with love and respect. 2. Honoring and articulating children’s emotions. 3. Teaching children to attune to their own needs as well as others’ needs. 4. Modeling clear boundaries for children. And, 5. Making kids aware that they have a right to say “no,” to protect themselves from toxic relationships.