Feeling felt: The critical emotional nutrient for developing a solid core self

In my last message, I described how a memory of a lesson from my mentor reminded me of the critical thing missing in white culture. Here, I dive deeper into why a culture that devalues relationships establishes insecurity and frailty in those who develop under the influence of that culture. 

You’ve probably had the experience: someone you are interacting with–maybe you know them well, or maybe not–looks you in the eye, perhaps smiles, and somehow you know this person gets you. You are in sync, and you both know it. If you pay attention, you might notice a warm feeling that flowers beneath your breastplate: oxytocin, the hormone of connection, begins to flow. You feel safe, at ease, light-hearted. All is well and the world seems interesting. 

In this moment, your limbic system–the social-emotional center of your brain, has anchored with the limbic system of the other person, sending a cascade of feel-good hormones through both of your bodies, stabilizing and brightening your moods. Your immune systems are working better now, and because this fundamental need for connection has been met–at least for now–your prefrontal cortex is lighting up: you are ready to learn, explore, play. Your brain is working in harmony, with all its parts playing together like a well-tuned orchestra. Once anchored by the experience of this authentic connection, both of you are better off than before. 

Neuroscientists call the experience feeling felt. It’s that feeling that someone really feels you–quite literally, in fact: their mirror neurons have internalized a drop of your experience, and your mirror neurons can feel it. This person is right with you, sees you and values you as you are. Not for your potential. Not because of what you have achieved, not for what you can produce, or give to the other, and not for how well you “behave” or perform. Just for you being you as you are right now

Human beings need this feeling felt experience throughout our lives, but especially in early years when our brains are still developing. When children feel felt, regularly and often, they feel secure, and from this place of security, children can learn, grow, process life experiences, notice and care about the experiences of others, and make new brain connections. Over time, as the child grows and develops, the child internalizes this sense of connection (and the security that comes with it) and can operate with increasing independence and interdependence with others. 

Our social world, organized around the attributes of white supremacy culture, is not set up—culturally or structurally—to encourage this kind of connection between human beings… including between caregivers and children. In fact, the attributes of white supremacy culture (perfectionism, sense of urgency, individualism, either/or thinking, defensiveness, paternalism, etc) add up to a way of life that undermines our relational capacities. White culture teaches control, not connection. White culture teaches power over models of human relationship, as opposed to power with modes of relating. Which means that white culture is at odds with the very thing we need to develop into secure adults with a strong inner core

White supremacy culture is not generous with emotional connection; under its influence, we mainly get attention and admiration for our achievements, for our performances, and appearances. Here, relationships are less about the authentic experience of feeling felt and more about using one another to build up a personal brand or image. In this context, relationships are valuable if they can purchase us some social currency by affirming that we are good, impressive, worthy. This shows up clearly in how we raise our children: under the influence of white supremacy, children are given attention when they “behave” according to expectation, when they can make parents feel reassured, and good about themselves. I call this “performance-based belonging.” In this context we each must earn our “right” to belong by proving our worthiness, not just once but again and again and again. 

Such performance-based belonging builds a fundamental insecurity into the core of the person who develops under the primary influence of white supremacy culture… This anemic self, the “white self,” remains hungry for the visceral, embodied, experience of feeling felt–of being seen and known, whole, accepted and valued, unconditionallyBut all the “white self” knows to do with this hunger, in the context of white culture, is to try to perform enough and become impressive enough to finally win permanent approval. Which is impossible. We can never perform our way into the unconditional belonging that the most authentic part of our human natures needs and craves. 

The self developed under the primary influence of white supremacy culture is a perpetually anemic self… who is habitually unsettled, starving for the social nutrient that white supremacy culture can never adequately provide. I call this the clamoring white self. 

In my next email, I will share a personal example with you of how performance-based belonging undermines our relationships in this context of progressive-variety white supremacy culture.