Sunday, 19 September 2010

Wired for empathy?

Emotions are increasingly recognised as the language our bodies use to communicate. Between cells, between genes, between body processes, the chemicals of emotion trigger, calm, irritate, inflame and soothe.

John Heron, one of my heroes, was the first person I read who talked about our emotional needs. John identified that we have three core emotional needs and if these emotional needs are not met, we develop defense mechanisms.
The core emotional needs that John Heron identified are:

1. To love and be loved
2. To understand and be understood
3. To choose and be chosen.

When our emotional needs are not met, to avoid feelings of distress, we develop defense mechanisms

      Rationalisation – judging, blaming
      Projection – attributing one’s own faults to other people eg gossip, criticising behind backs
      Reaction formation – overdoing the opposite of the emotion
      Dissociation – distancing from feelings by excessive theorising, analysing, measuring
      Substitution – carrying out activities guaranteed to succeed – focusing on minutae instead of addressing big issues (which may fail!)
      Repression and denial of own emotions – intrinsic part of each of the previous defense mechanisms – ‘water off a duck’s back’ – ‘doesn’t bother me at all!’

The defence mechanisms can be seen as the foundations for bullying and violence generally. 

There are, according to John Heron, steps in  managing our emotions, now known as emotional and social intelligence and competence.

Emotion has the central role in determining what we perceive, experience and do (Goleman, 2006). According to the perspective taken by both Goleman and Heron, our power and ability in human affairs is a direct result of our feeling nature. Our deepest feelings are meant to guide us in how to live our lives.  Goleman suggests that the emotional life of an individual underpins their ethical and moral stance and therefore social behaviour. Obviously, if the individual's life has started in the right way, in a loving family with their emotional needs met, then they will be emotionally and socially intelligent and therefore empathetic to the needs of others.

An easy way to understand how we are wired for empathy came into my life this morning in the form of the You Tube video below.

Are we doomed if we didn't have the best start?  No, we can change. However change needs to be sought and new behaviours practiced so that our neurology and the emotional 'codes' are more in alignment with our desired way of being.  Norman Doidge has written a great book explaining how change can happen.

For John Heron, the process requires understanding the four basic skills and practising them continually to become competent.

These skills are: 

1.      Awareness – of one’s own emotions and their effect on behaviour
2.      Choice – between control and spontaneity
3.      Sharing emotions with other people as appropriate
4.      Releasing emotions cathartically (4 aspects)

    4.1 controlled letting go – aware of process and choosing time and place to do it
    4.2 letting go- allowing oneself to let go both emotionally and physically
    4.3 insights – catching intuitive and creative insights
    4.4 decision-making – after moving through emotion and intuition, use our intellect to consider the                learning and make decisions

What do you think of the video? Do you agree we are wired for empathy?  Do you think we can develop the self management skills as suggested by Heron and Goleman? The really big aspect in all of this for me is how to be self managing and stay embodied - to allow ourselves to feel the feelings and cherish the full gamut of what it means to be human.  Of course, like everything, the applications of all this for me is with our work as midwives with birthing women and their families.  Our role in facilitating the best environment so that a woman and her baby can grow well, birth well and enter the early parenting phase well and the woman feeling in control is vital to 'setting' foundational feelings of safety and love for the mother and her baby's relationship.


Chrissy said...

This makes so much sense. The graphics make it very interesting too. It's something that humans have always kinda known but now the research proves it the possibilities for everything are endless.

Carolyn Hastie said...

Isn't it interesting Chrissie how something just 'makes sense', even if the information is apparently newly discovered or recently 'proven' research based knowledge? Our inner sense of what's right or wrong is very well developed and often the subject of 'folk lore'.