The positive in the negative

by May 27, 2012Empathy, Resilience0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
An interesting paper has just come out in the infant mental health journal [1] which looked at the language used by a group of substance abusing mothers. It showed that the children who did worse had mothers who used more positive emotion words. On the face of it this might seem counter-intuitive but scratching beneath the surface reveals why this is the case. What the researchers found was that of the mums, all of whom were methadone maintained, those who tended to use more positive emotion words were in fact avoidant of any negative emotions and tended to gloss over them. Very interestingly these mums were also the ones who scored lowest on the Parent Development Interview, a score that measures reflective functioning, and indeed lower reflective functioning also came with increased substance abuse and lower sensitivity to the child.

This makes complete sense from the perspective of most psychology research on empathy, and also from attachment theory. We know that adults and children who are easily overwhelemed by experiences that leave them feeling distressed, such as scary scenes or emotionally powerful reactions in others,  are the ones who also struggle to show empathy to others in distress. In empathy we need to be able to manage the other person’s distress and stay with it and only then we can offer empathy and care. If the feeling in the other is too hard to bear then we tend to cut off or turn away. This is what we see very often in avoidant attachment, with adults and children having very positive accounts of their childhoods which in fact have no substance at all, the positivity being defensive. As many researchers (eg Nancy Eisenberg [2]) have  shown, securely attached children tend to have been better attuned to, and these are the same children who are also more likely to be prosocial, to show empathy, and also to be more emotionally regulated and less aggressive. They also tend to have more reflective functioning. Eisenberg and others have found that those most affected by a distressing moment, as measured by skin conductivity or heart-rate, were those who struggled to empathise and were likely to be more cut-off. At a time when it appears that parenting styles in the west, according to cross-cultural researchers such as Heidi Keller [3], have become both more distant and also more sensitive to positive emotions and less to negative feelings, we should maybe take note.

The research about resilience has shown similar things but from another angle. It seems that those who are most resilient are not just those who are more able to have positive experiences, although positive states of mind are very predictive of many health and mental outcomes. Yet another study has just come out from Barcelona which shows just this, that what makes for more resilience is the ability to bear and manage and grow from adverse experiences, and that this is linked to the capacity for emotional regulation, which includes regulating difficult feelings rather than just avoiding them [4]. What is particularly predictive of good outcomes is being able to manage both good and difficult experiences  , basically to make the best of whatever life throws at one. This suggests the need for some rapprochement between the traditional psychoanalytic view which has continued to urge that we bear with and manage difficult experiences, and the position taken in positive psychology, that the positive is what needs to be focussed on. Neither one nor the other will lead to resilience or good mental health outcomes. This indeed seems to be what is so successful about mindfulness based approaches, which enable the propensity to move towards rather than away from experiences, whether positive or negative, to be interested in and curious  and not avoidant [5]. The substance abusing mothers could not manage difficult feelings and so turned away defensively, to the detriment of their children.

[1]        J. L. Borelli, J. L. West, C. Decoste, and N. E. Suchman, ‘Emotionally avoidant language in the parenting interviews of substance‐dependent mothers: Associations with reflective functioning, recent substance use, and parenting behavior’, Infant Mental Health Journal, 2012.

[2]        N. Eisenberg, N. D. Eggum, and L. Di Giunta, ‘Empathy-related Responding: Associations with Prosocial Behavior, Aggression, and Intergroup Relations’, Soc Issues Policy Rev, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 143–180, Dec. 2010.

[3]        H. Keller, Cultures of infancy. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007.

[4]        J. T. Limonero, J. Tomás-Sábado, J. Fernández-Castro, J. Gómez-Romero, and A. Ardilla-Herrero, ‘Resilient coping strategies and emotion regulation: predictors of life satisfaction’, Behavioural Psychology, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 183–196, 2012.

[5]        D. M. Davis and J. A. Hayes, ‘What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research.’, Psychotherapy, vol. 48, no. 2, p. 198, 2011.

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