Making Sense of Our Lives

When you were young, which of these did you feel more often:

  • No matter what I do, my parents love me.
  • I can’t seem to please my parents, no matter what I do.
  • My parents don’t really notice me.

The answers to such questions reveal more than about our childhood: they also tend to predict how we act in our closest relationships as adults.

Our childhood shapes our brain in many ways – and so determines our most basic ways of reacting to others — for better and for worse. If we felt well-loved in childhood, we tend to be secure in our relationships – but if not, then we’re more prone to chronic problems. When it comes to the engrained self-defeating habits that we bring to our adult relationships from childhood, understanding why we have these habits in the first place is a first step toward becoming free of their grip.

In Chapter Twelve of Social Intelligence I wrote about how the emotional patterns we first form with our parents survive into adulthood and influence how we behave as parents, lovers and spouses. My thinking relied heavily on the work of Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist at UCLA, who has founded the field of “interpersonal neurobiology,” which explains the brain basis for our habits of bonding with others. His work has dramatic implications for how best to raise a child and for psychotherapy. In my book I was only able to explore Dr. Siegel’s work in brief. But I’m happy to have had the chance for an in-depth conversation with Daniel Siegel that was made into an audiotape. This dialogue let me delve into a range of topics that extend what I could write in Social Intelligence. Among them:

  • How a person makes sense of what happened to him in his childhood (and not what actually happened) best predicts how he will treat his children. This is good news for parents who had miserable childhoods. On the other hand, failing to make sense of our unhelpful patterns means we will just go on repeating them.
  • Consistent empathy from a parent – that is, tuning into the way a child views and feels about her world – has the optimal impact on the growth of that child’s neural circuitry for empathy and for a sense of security. But a parent who is dismissive of a child can leave an imprint that distances emotions.
  • When we see how our habits of mind were shaped in childhood, it helps us free ourselves from their grip. If your parents did not tune in to your feelings or views, and you realize how this in turn shaped your habit of attuning (or not), that very insight can help you be different as a parent yourself.
  • Self-awareness and self-management need to be in balance. Managing rocky emotions well does not mean suppressing them – better to be able to experience our feelings fully, while managing how we react to them.
  • Our relationships as adults can “reparent” us: for example, if someone who was not given a secure base in childhood marries someone who was, that shaky person will gradually become more secure. We can become rewired to connect better.
  • As Daniel Siegel says, “the interactions between a parent and child actually are neurally active ingredients in the wiring of the brain as it’s growing.” And this remains true in our major relationships throughout life.

11 thoughts on “Making Sense of Our Lives

  1. Deseo enviarle este mensaje…

    Se que en el universo de internet, es dificil atrapar una estrella fugaz…

    yo soy estudiante de postgrado y deseo realizar mi tesis en base a su teoria y la inteligencia intrapersonal… soy educadora y tengo 4 babies, esto me ha llevado a buscar la tercera opción, como madre e investigadora.
    No se si usted me puede asesorar…
    soñar no es imposible
    Gracias …
    Lic. Ingrit Bustamante

  2. Daniel,

    No comment on the above, I just finished reading the first half of your book and have really enjoyed it. I commented on my site about your research with tickling. That has to be one of the most enjoyable things to do with a little child and creates such laughter. Reminded me of some fun times with neices, and of myself as a little child being tickled to the point of tears! I’m glad I found your site and I plan to check back often.


  3. Your work has raised awareness of professionals to take into account their own emotional intellingence when dealing with the emotional difficulties of children. This has meant a huge shift from “doing something to children to put them right!”. Hopefully the phrase, ‘generation gap’will become redundant as social interactions become open, respectful dialogue.

  4. Since I read your ’emotional intelligence’ I am looking out for your writings. I just finished reading ‘destructive emotions’ (as far as we can ever ‘finish’ reading text of such depth) and I just want to say thank you for the inspiring way you translate deep and complex concepts for readers whithout a strong scientific background.
    I am a violin teacher, working with kids from 3 till 18, also teaching parents and teachers. I use musical education as a very strong tool in developing loving, caring beings. On almost every page of your book I find information that is usefull in my work. I also find inspiration. It is great to see how scientists of the highest calibre are involved with the things that really matter: love, compassion, emotional balance.
    Very interested to hear more about your projects.

    Thanks a lot,
    Koen Rens, Belgium

  5. I think this article is music for the soul. I have read emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and primal leadership, and garnered many positives from all three. I am inspired by the plasticity of our emotional intelligence and the capacity for change that we share as human beings. However, as I read Pinker’s, The Blank Slate, I am brought to light the evidence of our innate predispositions. The fact that we are strongly shaped by our genes, genes handed to us by our parents, begs me to ask, don’t some parents parent a certain way because they are ‘built’ that way? And wouldn’t we, as future parents, be more likely to repeat the same problems as our predecessors, due to nature? How capable are we really of rewiring ourselves in adulthood? Perhaps, I should reread these books, but if anyone can shed light on the situation it would be great.

  6. It’s a shame that Dr. Goleman doesn’t include discussions about sexual identity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I have enjoyed reading his books, but he is very heterosexist. It’s surprising because the American Psychological Association is very supportive of LGBT people at present. You really need to be thinking about issues of difference and how people deal with difference and how for example two males or two females interact romnantically and how the problem of homophobia plays out in LGBT people’s lives, and racism in those who are not white, etc.

  7. Dear Daniel,

    In your book, Social Intelligence, you talk about how some people have dyssemia, having never learned how to interact with others. On page 92, You state that there are remedial tutorials for adults available. How and where can you find these? Is there any social intelligence workshop for adults who did not learn social intelligence skills as a child? How can a person learn these skills with only a book? It seems to me that you would have to have real in-person human interaction or at the very least a pretty smart computer program to teach these skills. From what I have noticed, it is when a person is at a social party gathering that it becomes most obvious when they do not have these skills. A person could be good with one-on-one social skills, but then in informal group settings, end up standing in corner somewhere without these skills. I hope you will start workshps in most parts of the country to help people who are socially isolated because they never learned social intelligence skills.

  8. First I want to thank you: your book on emotional intelligence has explained many things about myself that I could not understand in almost 25 years. I become a parent and I found myself lost in this territory: how and what shall I teach my child so that he will be a complete and balanced adult. I did not know how to reply to this urging question. I did not know how to be a complete and balance adult myself. Well today I know what I definetely missed in life are the precious lessons ofemotional intelligence. In spite of my IQ I have collected several failures. I am not just a reader interested in your writings; I am in urgence to correct myself in many areas so that I can then teach the right things to my child.
    But how can I do this ? As V. Bentley, another participant to this blog, wrote you
    I need to enter into practical trainings because I am really all dedicated now to become a better me !
    thank you for reading me
    Thank you for reading

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