The Power of Therapeutic Attunement

by Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D.

When the client opens up his emotional life to the therapist, he has engaged in an act of trust which links him to the therapist in an elegant, intimate “dance.” The central healing process of psychotherapy is this experience of attunement.

One very important lesson the client learns in psychotherapy is the vital art of simultaneous feeling-describing. Typically, he has “disowned” aspects of his interior emotional life.Therefore, making that connection between feeling-describing in the presence of another person is almost always distressing to him.

When parents have failed to accurately mirror the small child's internal experience, and failed to model the lesson that feeling and expressing his feelings is safe, the child will become emotionally disorganized and emotionally isolated. He grows up learning to distrust his own interior perceptions, and becomes prone to shame-infused shutdowns of emotional relations.

The child’s defenses will cause him to shift his attention back and forth from content to feelings, and then back again to content, but avoiding making the link between the two.

At critical moments of strong emotion, I often need to encourage the client, "Try to stay in contact with me and with your feelings at the same time." Establishing this neural link between thinking and feeling initiates the vital process of unification between left-brain and right brain-hemispheres, between cognitive and affective, between conscious and unconscious, through the medium of human interaction.

Misunderstandings, hurt feelings and hidden resentments are inevitable in the therapeutic relationship. They offer the client an opportunity to learn how to reengage emotionally after a relational breach. Negotiating his way through such an experience shows the client how relationships can survive the critical process of “attunement--misattunement—reattunement” and reveals how relational trust, when lost, can in fact be regained.

Reattunement moments link the client back to the therapist, and also back to himself. Through this process, he gradually increases his capacity to tolerate distress in human relationships. At its best, this emotional reconnection is reminiscent of the earliest, most primal attunement between mother and child.

One never actually “undo” a trauma of the past, of course.Yet a good therapeutic relationship can lay down new, positive neurological pathways on top of the old, traumatic experiences.For too long, these traumas have prevented the person from engaging others through the full sense of personhood that he now longs to claim.

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