About 20 years ago, I was having a really bad night and was furious with my wife, Becky. Not surprisingly, the argument was something about sex.
I vividly remember being angry while Becky sat calmly, looking at me with love and wisdom, telling me I was distorted. Suddenly, I felt something pop and I began to cry, feeling bad for being such a jerk.
In a flood of insight, I realized that Becky’s calm and caring way of responding had put out my flaming fuse. Her soothing wisdom helped me shift away from emotional violence.
All of a sudden there I was, back to my usual, caring self. I resolved to never surrender to such violence again and so far I haven’t.
I also knew at the time that if Becky had lost her temper and exploded, I’d have seen it in her eyes, heard it in her voice, felt even more rotten, and then been likely to strike out or collapse in shame. These kinds of responses are annoying, but inevitable, given genetic hardwiring combined with social development.
Babies are born with 85 billion neurons in their brains, but only 17 percent of them hooked up into neural networks at birth. As a tiny newborn looks into the eyes of his mother, mom’s right hemisphere and baby’s right hemisphere resonate to guide baby’s brain to form complementary neural networks, each with particular functions. These networks literally guide the development of babies’ brains, nervous, immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems. Through eye-to-eye contact and mutually attuned touch, desire, food, care, sound, and energy, a mother’s brain guides her baby’s brain and body in how to grow. Pretty amazing!
In a healthy mother/baby relationship, when the baby is upset, an attuned mommy can look him in the eyes, scrunch up her face, and coo in baby talk, “Ooh, little one, you’re upset, aren’t you? Mommy loves you. Here’s your num-nums. Mmm, so good. That’s my sweet little boy.” Baby’s brain harmonizes with Mommy’s gaze. He basks in her understanding and intent to love and help. He sees the exaggerated marker of her scrunched-up and caring face, hears the sweet and silly tone of her voice, and feels the soothing, comforting embrace of her loving arms. All is well in his universe. He feels empathized with, he feels known and found.
Children of all ages can sense a mother’s moods and intentions and automatically respond. Do Mom’s nonverbal signals indicate she is distracted, upset, or dangerous, or that she understands, accepts, and will soothe kids’ distress?
In the above example, Mommy is safe and attuned, so baby’s brain picks right up on this and relaxes. His mother’s soothing of his momentary angst wires neural networks for care and empathy. He feels secure and connected—just a normal baby who’s hungry with a wet diaper, and has a mother there to love him and attend to his needs.
In other words, a baby who is consistently calmed by a mother who senses and understands his ups and downs will program the memories into his nervous system for the rest of his life.
We never outgrow this capacity to find ourselves in others.
But what if we don’t have calm and soothing people in our lives who understand our bad moments the way an attuned mother understands her baby’s? What if we’re too damaged or closed-down to receive such love even when it’s offered? Then we tend to amp up defenses like raging or collapsing when threatened. This is where most of the world’s suffering comes from.
Instead of judging me and attacking me, Becky responded from the knowledge that both of us are genuinely good people. She knew I was just having a bad moment, the way a baby would have a bad moment if he was hungry and tired. This helped her maintain her equilibrium even while I blamed, attacked, and misunderstood.
Her response devastated me in a good way. I found myself in her knowledge of me being a fundamentally decent guy who was having a momentary pain-in-the-ass blip.
You might want to try this tactic the next time your beloved loses it. If you remain calm and loving in the face of the other person being a total idiot, gradually he/she will be soothed—not always, but often enough that you’ll realize it’s a great place to go in a fight.
He’ll see in your face that you aren’t judging or criticizing him, and might find himself as a good guy who’s having a rough moment. As he does, he’s likely to calm down, feel ashamed that he’d acted badly and apologize or otherwise attempt to make amends.
Through the sheer force of you knowing that you are both fundamentally good people (capable of losing it once in a while), you can help him/her shift from being angry and defensive to being calm and apologetic.
Cue the cliché about how grown men and women are all big babies at heart! It’s helpful to think about how easy it is to instantly click into nurturing mode with a baby who needs us, but grownups need nurturing, too.
Author: Keith Witt
Editor: Katarina Tavčar