When we are born, we cannot conceptualize of ourselves as different to other beings. Our ego is not formed yet. We experience the distress of others as our own. But as we grow, we begin to conceptualize of ourselves as having our own autonomous feelings and desires. This is when the table flips. We still don’t fully conceptualize of other people as different to ourselves. But instead of seeing ourselves as an extension of the world around us, we see everything in our world as an extension of ourselves.
I want you to imagine a two-year-old child. The average two year old perceives that the world revolves around him or her completely. Essentially, we have an egocentric worldview. This is why we take everything personally as children. For example, if mom and dad get a divorce, it’s because of me. This two year old does not practice external consideration yet. He does not think about how his whining or crying effects his mom. He simply whines and cries because that is the truth about how he feels. The two year old does not think about the perspectives or feelings of a kitten he encounters. He picks it up by the neck because that is the most convenient way for a two year old to pick up a kitten. When the kitten screams in pain and terror, he does not understand what the kitten is experiencing. So he does not put the kitten down. Potentially the kitten will die and then the two year old will be confused about what happened. The two year old killed the kitten because he was not attuned to the kitten.
Attunement is being or bringing into harmony. A feeling of being “at one” with something. The best way to imagine attunement is to imagine sitting in your car and reaching out for the radio dial. If you want to hear the music being played at a specific frequency, like 98.2 FM, you need to tune your radio dial to 98.2 FM. And then you will hear the music. Your own radio dial needs to be brought into harmony with or become one with the radio channel you want to receive in order to perceive that radio channel.
It’s no different with other beings, including people. To be able to perceive other people and to feel and see and hear them and understand them and communicate with them, you need to attune to them. You need to tune into them as if you are them so as to be able to feel or imagine the other person’s emotional experience and to understand what they are feeling . This is what allows you to know what to do in any given situation to end conflict or improve a situation or to assist someone.
Attunement is what gives rise naturally to empathy. The most dangerous people in the world are people who are in an egocentric bubble. They are essentially toddlers in a grown up body holding kittens by the neck. But those kittens are other people. And even though it would be great if all people just naturally developed out of the egocentric bubble and into attunement, the reality is that some people do not. They stay in a reality built for one. When you are in a relationship with this kind of person you end up feeling lonely, unseen, unheard, unfelt, misunderstood and abused. You will feel like you are living in an entirely different reality than the other person. You will feel this way because, you quite literally are. You and this person are on entirely different frequencies and they are unwilling to tune into yours. It’s the same as trying to find harmony when you are on the 98.2 fm station and your partner being on the 94.5 am station.
So much about the development of attunement and healthy empathy along with it has to do with how we are raised. We learn by virtue of example primarily. We learn attunement by virtue of other people being attuned to us. Ask yourself the following questions… Do I feel like my parents understood me when I was little, or even tried to understand me? Did they see into me and feel into me and have empathy for me and adjust their behavior accordingly or not? Did they acknowledge how I felt or did they invalidate it, telling me I shouldn’t feel that way? How did my parents treat me when I was cranky, frightened, or upset? For the sake of your own understanding, once you finish this episode, I want you to watch my video on YouTube titled: The Emotional Wake Up Call.
When our parents were not attuned to us, we went one of two ways to cope with the terror of that experience.
- We learned that our survival depended on disconnecting from them and retreating into a narcissistic bubble where all that was real and all that mattered was our individual experience.
- We learned that our survival depended on being hyper attuned to the people in our lives so that we could perceive them, anticipate their behavior and make adjustments to our behavior accordingly in order to avoid harm.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both coping styles. Neither state is healthy. It is not a fulfilling life to spend all your energy obsessively trying to keep yourself safe by attuning to other people. To do that, you end up tuning out to yourself. But the destruction on this planet owes itself to those people who have learned to cope by retreating into the egocentric bubble. This is in fact what creates both the obsessively attuned and the narcissistic bubble polarized personalities.
You cannot be attuned to a child and have them grow up narcissistic or codependent. You cannot be attuned to someone and drop a bomb on them or shoot them. You cannot be attuned to someone and say the wrong thing to them. You cannot attune to someone and stay in denial about his or her reality. And the bottom line is, unless you learn how to attune, your relationships will be riddled with conflict and painful for everyone around you, eventually making it painful for you too.
- Attunement begins with a choice. The choice to attune. Similar to the choice to turn your car dial to 98.2 fm. You are not going to understand this concept at an emotional level yet. So instead, think of it as awareness and watching the world around you and the people in it. Consider that you are living your life in a bubble where nothing can come in. There are layers and layers in between you and them. You’ve got to pop that bubble so you can see them and feel them and hear them and really tune into their frequency. Start making a practice of really watching the world as if you are an FBI agent whose job is to perceive every single thing you can perceive about your environment and the people in it. Make a game of it.
- Face your resistance to coming out of the bubble. The egocentric bubble is a coping strategy that helped you survive childhood but that is now harming people around you and ultimately this harms you in the long run. It’s holding you back instead of helping you. But you have to be honest with yourself about why you don’t want to attune to other people. Ask yourself, what would attuning to other people mean? What would be so bad about really seeing them and feeling them and understanding them and perceiving their reality? The bubble is about controlling your own reality. Ask yourself, why do I need to control my reality? It is tempting to think that the egocentric bubble is a good thing because it feels better than becoming aware of things that don’t feel good to become aware of. But do not confuse this with deliberate creation of your reality. There is a difference between creation of reality and resistance to reality. The egocentric bubble is the opposite, like an addiction, it is an escape. It is a resistance to what is. This is why inevitably, it leads to negative results like failed relationships and aloneness.
- Attunement requires that you understand that other people think in ways that are both similar to and different from the way that you do, and that they also have emotions they associate with those thoughts. A person who is not attuned will project. For example, you might imagine that if you were in someone else’s position, you would not feel how they feel. You will tell them purely how you would feel if you were in their situation. But you do so from the egocentric perspective of your past experiences and your privileges and your current level of awareness instead of theirs. Instead of this giving rise to true empathy, it is merely projection disguised as empathy. This is why if you are a person who has never experienced serious consequences as a result of being criticized, you might say, “If I were in your position, I wouldn’t take what they said personally”. In other words, imagining how you would feel in their shoes is a perfect thing to do up until the point where you are forgetting that you stepping into their shoes with all of your perspective, is not you getting out of your egocentric bubble and into their shoes, it’s you taking your egocentric bubble into their shoes.
- Notice the aspect of you that only cares to please others so you can avoid conflict and discomfort yourself. When you don’t genuinely care about how other people feel, except in that them feeling bad creates problems for you, realize that you have the tendency to rush from problem to solution. Know that the right or wrong thing to do in terms of action comes second to fully having awareness. When it comes to attunement, you cannot rush into action. In fact you cannot even see the right action to take or the solution unless you are fully attuned. Imagine seeing a fish in a tank that is sick. If you rushed into a solution, you might feed the fish. Because you simply guessed at what was wrong and assumed the solution was to feed the fish. You were not attuned enough to see that the fish actually needed you to change the old water out for new water. The same is true for people. Become fully attuned and aware of the other person and from there, a solution will naturally arise and this time, it will be the right one.
Tune into your own emotions. If no one properly attuned to you when you were little, you do not grow up attuned to yourself. It’s tempting to think that if you are in an egocentric bubble, you are tuned into your own emotions, but you are not. Your mind hijacks you out of your emotions and you tend to delude yourself that you feel how you want to feel, rather than how you actually feel. When you experience things that either do cause an emotion or that you think should cause an emotional reaction, ask yourself the following questions and be as brutally honest about them as you can…
What was my perception of what happened?
What was troubling to me about what happened?
What were the emotions that I felt at the time it happened?
What emotions am I feeling in this exact moment?
What do I really need from other people in this circumstance?
- Do a perspective exercise that I call The Octopus Technique any time you want to understand someone. To learn how to do this exercise, watch my video on YouTube titled: The Octopus Technique. Explore how the other person feels. When you come back from the exercise, ask yourself what was their perception of what happened? What was troubling to them about what happened? What were the emotions that they felt at the time it happened? What emotions are they feeling in this exact moment? What do they really need from me?
- Practice connecting with people one on one. To do this, watch my video on YouTube titled “How To Connect With Someone”. Give the person you want to connect with your undivided, unconditional, focused presence. Use body language that is open to them. Become interested in them. Ask them questions. See into them, feel into them, and listen to them. Seek to understand them and receive them exactly as they are instead of seeing them how you would prefer to see them.
- Be willing to be vulnerable enough to really feel strong emotion, including what other people feel. Attunement causes you to experience strong authentic emotions as opposed to emotions related to suppression, avoidance, denial or defensiveness. For example, feeling the sadness inside someone may make you cry. Let this process happen. If you are concerned with staying strong and not being vulnerable, you will not let yourself attune to anyone when they are in a state that threatens your own sense of peace.
Think about how good it would feel for someone to completely understand you. Think of how good it would be to be able to have them be so perceptive of your internal world that they know exactly what you need and exactly what to say. Think of how good it would be to have harmony in your relationships instead of conflict and for your relationships to feel secure and safe. This is the kind of relationship that is available to you if you practice attunement with one another.
If you are not naturally attuned to the people and things around you, you will have to consciously think about attuning. You will have to practice it in the same way that someone has to really concentrate to do the backstroke when they first start swimming. But with enough repetition, it will become natural to you. It will become second nature and the disconnected, isolated, individual reality that is in denial of the world around it, will begin to feel like what it is, a prison. You will see that instead of the place that keeps you safe, it is the place that keeps you and the world around you unsafe.