Empathy is a key mechanism forming the template we use to evaluate our relationships.  The blueprint for this template forms as brain cells called mirror neurons develop.  These cells enable us to not only perceive but also to feel the emotions another person feels.  Like a mirror, we then reflect back to another that same emotion, through facial expressions and body language, tone of voice and words.

While genetics provides necessary information for this system to function, the environment around us turns those genes on and incorporates the rest of the blueprint.  From the physical/emotional/biochemical surroundings in the womb to the atmosphere of a newborn’s first interactions with people after birth, the patterns for relationships are absorbed by each little person.  For example, if this hunger and instinct for connection are met with neglect, the template may become hypersensitive, while abuse may lead the template to develop minimal or absent empathy. The quality of connection between baby and primary caregiver determines much of this relational template’s shape.

Dr. Lindsay C. Gibson’s (2015) observations have been extremely helpful to me.  She found that children who develop emotional intelligence have been given the opportunity to observe others behaving with empathy.  Parents who long for children who are responsive to them will provide empathy that makes the child feel safe, seen, understood, and enjoyed.  Comforting, laughing, and playing with children provides them space to reflect on their actions and grow in emotional intelligence.

Gibson noted that realistic and reliable children mirror others being consistent, working with reality rather than blaming others, and demonstrating an ability to feel and think at the same time.  Children experiencing others who respect their boundaries, compromise, apologize, make amends, and give back become respectful and reciprocal persons.  Rather than taking everything personally, they become flexible, even-tempered, and truthful, able to accurately gauge when a problem is not theirs to fix and when it is.

Recognizing that relationship misfires may be due to our faulty templates is one step toward emotional growth.  We have hope, too, because human brains continue to develop new neurons and form new connections right up to the moment of death.  I’ve found great resources for growth in reading Gibson’s books (see newharbinger.com)and doing my own work with a counselor.  Here’s to greater emotional maturity and healthier relationships!

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