Sometimes “Our Stuff” Isn’t Ours!

December 5th, 2012

By: Candice Wu with Billy Kaplan

I’m sitting diagonally from an adolescent…and of course, she doesn’t want to talk to me.

I was ready with empathy and acceptance.

I reminded myself to be curious.

I had playfulness in my back pocket.

And… shrug, eye roll, shrug. Guarded glare. Shrug, shrug, shrug.


My attempts to build a connection—shut down.

I spiral into shame mode– I’m must be a horrible therapist! She won’t talk to me…What’s wrong with me?

I took in every shoulder movement, irritated stare, and eye aversion as a personal statement about me as a therapist.

How could a seventh grade client make me feel this way? More shame.

Musician and author David Byrnes reminds us that our neurons “mirror” the neurons of others. He describes a UCLA study that found that the neurons of people mimicked the neurons of people they observed who were experiencing specific emotions and performing particular actions.

Byrnes writes, “When we see someone frown or smile, the neurons associated with those facial muscles will fire. But – here’s the significant part – the emotional neurons associated with those feelings fire as well.”

…so the stuff I felt with that teen might not have been about me. The feelings I thought were mine, though inside of me, were really what my seventh grader was feeling inside of her… with no way to express herself except through piercing looks and shrugs.

When my kiddo was shooting me those stabbing glares, I easily took it personally. I could have remembered the power of my neurons’ ability to match hers and get curious about what she might be experiencing. I’m sure I would have felt more successful, and she would have felt more felt.

While it is helpful for those of us caring for children with poor attachment and trauma experiences to be aware of what encompasses our stuff (i.e. our own unresolved emotional wounds), our children need us to understand, or at least make every reasonable attempt to understand, that our emotions may be “mirroring” theirs – what we feel as our anger, our shame, or our hopelessness may actually be theirs.

To the best that we can, then, if we can be accepting that sometimes “our” emotions are “theirs”, and release ourselves from that pain, we may be able to help our kids process these overwhelming feelings and to gradually let our care fill the holes in their yearning hearts; just as we can feel their stuff, they can feel ours, too. We could see this awesome ability as a gift that provides us power to change our children’s sense of safety, trust, and connection with their world and with us.

Neurons, do your thing!

Read the full Byrnes article here.  For the juicy part describing neurons “mirroring” one another, scroll to the paragraph beginning with “In a UCLA study…”.