I just finished a very readable and helpful new book by Jeanne Segal, PhD, “Feeling Loved: The Science of Nurturing Meaningful Connections and Building Lasting Happiness.” (2015, BenBella Books)
Her simple, but powerful thesis: “Feeling loved depends on our ability to communicate emotionally.” (p. 18)
I see problems with emotional awareness, expression, and attunement all the time in therapy. It is especially noticeable with couples and families. Even when in a relationship it is possible to feel lonely, ignored, and misunderstood if your partner lacks the ability to attune to and respond to your emotions or if you lack the ability to properly express your real emotions.
Segal makes an important distinction when discussing her daughter’s suicide death. “Our daughter’s death made me recognize the gap that can exist between being loved and feeling loved. Morgan Leslie was deeply loved by her family and by all who knew her, but I don’t believe she felt loved.“ (p. 10)
“You can tend to someone and provide and care for them, but if you don’t slow down enough or know how to create an emotional connection, you won’t experience feeling loved. Someone can go out of their way to meet your every physical and intellectual need, yet completely miss opportunities to notice and respond to your emotional needs. If they don’t look at you, they may miss the fact that you’re feeling sad. If they don’t hear the frustration or fear in your voice, they may respond in ways that make you angrier or more fearful. When this happens, you realize that you’re well cared for, but you don’t feel loved. Without the facial, body language, and other nonverbal signals that convey emotional understanding and connection, you won’t feel loved and be emotionally fulfill.” (pp. 23-24)
Segal’s work is based on attachment theory, a concept that is essential to me in my work as a psychotherapist. Attachment theory is a very well-researched and well-accepted concept that explains that humans learn relationship patterns starting at birth based on consistent emotional attunement, responsiveness, and empathy of primary caregivers.
A “secure attachment pattern” teaches a child to accept care and develop a sense of connection with others. This helps the child learn a positive model of how another person feels about him and an abiding belief in self-esteem. It predicts that a person will likely grow into someone who has healthy, loving relationships with others and with himself.
Secure attachment also gives a person the experience of trusting relationships, which underlies future behaviors involving empathy and control of aggression.
In contrast, if a parent is emotionally unavailable and unable to develop a strong, nurturing bond with an infant, that child can develop deep-seated fears that he is inadequate and unlovable. “Insecure attachment” in childhood leads to fear and emotional reactivity when a person perceives he will be abandoned or rejected, even later in life.
Those who have insecure attachment often do not learn skills, such as emotional awareness, emotional regulation, self-acceptance, or self-compassion, which are key to self-attachment and good emotional health. In severe cases, because they fail to learn healthy emotional giving and receiving, they fail to learn social reciprocity skills and appear with flat affect and lack of emotionality.
With lack of attachment, a person fails, in some measure, to learn to speak the language of emotions — the unspoken, heart-felt way that humans seek and achieve a deep sense of belonging and acceptance. If you fail to learn this language, you may struggle to connect to your emotions, losing self-acceptance and self-understanding. You may also struggle to connect with others, thereby losing the potential healing power of attachment and emotional connection with others.
With the loss of both connection to self and others, this can cause of an important source of human suffering – loneliness.
Attachment even has implications for the development of neural connections in the brain during infancy.
As Segal notes: “[W]hen an infant feels loved, he or she undergoes profoundly positive effects in brain development. These studies also support the idea that feeling loved has beneficial impacts on our physiology, making us more resilient and nourishing our nervous and immune systems so we can better face life’s challenges. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that much of the loneliness, sadness, anger, and anxiety we feel are reflections of the emptiness we experience when we don’t feel loved.” (p. 2)
Seal’s book is based on current neurobiological research on the power of oxytocin, the “love hormone;” polyvagal theory; and the threat response. But it is eminently readable for the general public and is loaded with short case studies to illustrate her points.
I especially liked her emphasis on the need to slow down in order to feel loved.
“When we get too busy or too preoccupied to accommodate the slower pace required for emotional communication, we lose the hormonal rush that makes us feel loved. If we are always on the go, planning the next step, multitasking, or just too exhausted to notice, we will miss opportunities to feel loved or to make others feel loved.” (p. 31)
She offers a meditation for improving emotional awareness, a toolkit for change, and chapters on work and family relationships.
I’m looking forward to the book that is next up on my nightstand — Segal’s book “The Language of Emotional Intelligence: The Five Essential Tools for Building Powerful and Effective Relationships” (2008, McGraw Hill).