Trauma needs to be healed in relationships, because that healthy relationship will help to repair the disruption in connection that occurs during a traumatic event. Attunement is the key ingredient in such a therapeutic relationship, because healing cannot occur without an attuning presence. Just as important as it is to understand attunement, it is also important to understand what attunement is NOT: attunement is not codependency.
Attunement is joining someone in their emotional state. It requires being able to read their emotional state, and being able to have a healthy flexibility in their own nervous system so that they can join in all of the emotional states.
One’s emotional state is really a reflection of their nervous system. The phases of the nervous system, and so reading and joining someone in their emotional state, is actually reading their nervous system and allowing your nervous system to match theirs.
This attunement and matching of the nervous system is the secret factor that makes a relationship a therapeutic one that can heal someone from trauma. Attunement allows someone to repair the destruction of their relationships with themselves, others, and a spiritual power greater than themselves.
Even a therapeutic relationship with attunement creates the environment for someone to heal from attachment trauma and rewire their brain and nervous system so that they can earn a secure attachment style.
Friends, families, and even professionals who are in a place where they could be a healing agent for someone often don’t attune or create therapeutic relationships.
One of the biggest hesitations for people to join someone in their emotional state is the misconception that matching their state through attunement will keep that person stuck in that particular state.
It’s normal to want a person to get out of their pity party state, fear, or destructive behaviors; however, many people think that in order to get an individual out of those states of mind they need to counteract and provide a balance to the emotional state of the other person. Therefore, most believe they should NOT join them when they are experiencing one of their behaviors.
Thus, it’s important to understand that attunement isn’t enmeshment or codependency. Attunement doesn’t result in a loss of mine or their identities or power.
Because attunement in a therapeutic relationship is the only way to completely heal a person from trauma, understanding what attunement is and what it is NOT will help friends, family members, and professionals who work with people recovering from histories of trauma.
Attunement Is Not Enmeshment
Attunement is joining another’s emotional state and nervous system phase; it isn’t losing your sense of self.
An individual who is going to try attunement needs to have a nervous system needs that is in a healthy and secure place, so that they are able to join another person’s emotional state, and not lose themselves in the process.
Attunement is sharing their emotional experience, and enmeshment is taking on their emotional experience.
Attunement is allowing yourself to feel their pain, sadness, joy, or fear. Enmeshment is making their pain my own.
Attunement is two people sharing the same emotional space, where each remains their own unique self.
As the agent of healing in a therapeutic relationship, it’s essential to maintain one’s own identity and boundaries.
Loss of Identity During Attunement Points to a Freeze Response
If sharing another’s emotional experience in the past has led to losing yourself or taking on their emotional state as your own, this is very normal for those whose nervous system still defaults to the freeze response.
There’s no shame in this, and honestly, until your nervous system is more regulated and has a healthy flow and rhythm to it, there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening! It’s a protective behavior of your nervous system and is a subconscious process.
If you’ve notice that this is your pattern, then take it as a gift, because it gives you valuable information that your body is trying to make you aware of to help guide your life and show you the next steps you can take towards your own healing!
If your pattern is losing yourself when in relationships with other people, your next step is to focus on healing your nervous system, especially before trying to heal someone else! If you still have a tendency to take on other people’s emotions, it isn’t the right time for you to create a therapeutic relationship with someone to help heal them, because it won’t be a therapeutic relationship; it will become an enmeshed codependent relationship. This we want to avoid.
Attunement Is Not Codependency
Healthy attunement within a therapeutic relationship is never codependency.
When I attune with someone and join their emotional state, I retain my personal responsibility and power for my life and let them retain their personal responsibility and power for their life.
Codependency is doing something for someone, though it’s their responsibility, that they should be doing for themselves. This action on our part comes from a place of pity for them.
I bring this up, because it’s actually very easy to feel pity and become codependent when working with a person recovering from trauma.
The freeze response does put a person in an overwhelming state where they feel helpless. An event is not traumatic unless it causes this feeling of helplessness.
However, unless the survival response and trauma cycle are able to complete at the time of the event, the nervous system gets chronically stuck in that feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless.
Until their nervous system is able to process and complete the freeze response in which they get stuck, they will continue to feel overwhelmed and helpless, and can make it appear like life is against them, continuing that helpless feeling.
Attunement is joining them in that emotional state of feeling overwhelmed and helpless. This attunement with the freeze state is important so a person can feel understood and connected, rather than crazy and alone.
Codependency further reinforces the belief that they truly are helpless by giving the message, “I feel so bad for you; I need to do something.”
However, attuning and joining them in the freeze state doesn’t mean taking away their personal power or responsibility. Healthy attunement keeps their problems and finding the solution to their problems as their responsibility.
Again, if you find this type of codependency pattern in your life, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, but just recognize that this is a sign of your own nervous state being dysregulated and leans toward a chronic state of freeze.
Example of Healthy Attunement Without Codependency in Parenting
A classic example of this type of attunement without codependency is in the therapeutic parenting of a child with Attachment Disorder.
A therapeutic parent keeps the child’s destructive behaviors as the child’s problem, while attuning and aligning with them emotionally.
Once a therapeutic parent has provided the way for the child with Attachment Disorder to get what they want, they can completely align with the child and make it their mutual frustration that they haven’t been able to get what they want.
Say a child wants to go to school or have a playdate with other kids. A parent can say, “Yes, I want you to have that too!”
The parent keeps it the child’s responsibility to get any destructive behavior under control that would make going to school or having a playdate a positive thing for them and the other kids.
The parent gets to maintain the boundary of the child needing to show by their behavior at home and with the primary attachment parent that they are ready for the responsibility and freedom. The parent knows that if they do something their nervous system is not ready for, it will be a disaster and be hurtful to their healing.
Because the parent just gets to maintain the boundary and keep it the child’s problem, the parent is able to emotionally attune and join the child when they feel sad or frustrated when they don’t getting what they want yet.
Any parent who has worked with a child with Attachment Disorder knows that the child will do anything to be in contrary to the parent! The child wants it to be them against the parent! The child will say all the time, “It’s your fault that…!”
Utilizing healthy attunement rather than going to codependency, the parent gets to be on the child’s team, and continue to build the bonds of attachment in the therapeutic relationship.
Attunement Is Not A Loss of My Personal Power
Just as attunement is not a loss of the other person’s personal responsibility and power through codependency, it’s also not a loss of your position and personal power either.
Typically, if you’re the one creating a therapeutic relationship for someone else, you’re a parent or a professional. This role is a position of authority, and authority and inner strength are important qualities in a person creating a therapeutic relationship.
Attunement, authority, and inner strength can all be simultaneous, and need to be in a therapeutic relationship that is going to heal someone from the effects of trauma.
It isn’t attunement or authority, it’s the simultaneous expression of both.
I don’t step out of my role as a parent or professional when I attune with somebody and become their buddy on their level. I maintain high respect for myself and my role while pouring into them understanding and acceptance that will help them build self-respect.
Thus, even in attunement, the same personal or professional boundaries that are a part of your position of authority will continue. These boundaries don’t stand in the way of attunement, and in fact, maintaining those boundaries will result in the other person feeling safer to share and build trust.
People with a history of trauma feel safer in your strength, because they will only allow themselves to trust and attach to you if they know you’re internally stronger than they are.
The lack of structure and the perception that you aren’t a strong person will cause them to see you as a person who will let people mistreat you, fool you, or take advantage of you. This is the fastest way to lose the trust of a person with a history of trauma.
Thus, attunement isn’t losing your position of authority, nor does it require you to loosen any boundaries, but maintaining boundaries actually helps facilitate the healing effects of attunement through the building of trust.
Since attunement is one of the most important qualities of a therapeutic relationship that will heal someone from the effects of trauma, it’s important to know how to do it!
Attunement is not a loss of identity nor is it a loss of personal responsibility, power, or position.
Attunement coming from a person with a position of authority is extremely powerful and healing; it’s the simultaneous expression of both to which a person with a history of trauma naturally responds.
What are your thoughts between attunement and codependency?
Is it difficult for you to connect with someone emotionally and not lose yourself in the process?
I look forward to your thoughts on attunement and codependency while working with someone with trauma!
To Health and Healing ~
Cozolino, Louis (2014). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company.
Herman, J (2015). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books.
Hoskinson, Stephen. Foundation for Human Enrichment, Somatic Experiencing Beginning 3 Training Lecture, San Diego 2015