The Social Regulation of Emotion by James Coan
Response by Christian Early
Thank you Jim for a wonderful presentation.
What I like about the argument that you make is that it seems intuitively true and simple, but at the same time it is also incredibly profound and world changing. That is, what attracts me to attachment theory is also what attracts me to social baseline theory. I believe that we are dealing here with an honest to goodness paradigm shift. Where everyone because of training in a particular paradigm saw one thing, you started seeing something else. And, by golly, I think you are right.
It makes sense to me that the baseline is not the isolated, passive individual but the socially connected and interactive human being. Being a parent of three little boys, I can honestly say that emotion regulation is absolutely at the top of my list and I frequently tell myself that it is just a movie. I remember coming home from teaching one day only to discover that Oliver, my youngest who is 4 now, had found my laptop and had systematically picked off all the keys on the keyboard. I’m sure the first one was the most difficult, but as Aristotle reminds us, it gets easier the more you do it. In that moment, my inner needle could go one of two directions: ramp up in anger or disassociate by telling myself that it is just a movie…I find that both strategies are equally exhausting.
What you say next is crucial. The more connected we are, the less exhausting it feels to solve the problems of life. The more disconnected and isolated we are, the steeper it is going to look to climb up the hill of life just as if our backpack had suddenly gotten heavier. What you mean by “being connected” is the process of extending and distributing our sense of self such that we share our internal states with others, and we take on the internal states of those closest to us, the net effect of which is that problem solving and emotion regulation becomes less effortful. Or, said differently, life just got a whole lot easier.
Well the obvious conclusion to this, is that it is good for us to live in community. Life together takes less effort than life separately. And if that is the case, then it is no wonder that life has recently gotten harder, not easier, because we are more isolated from each other now than we have ever been before. Life in community is far more sustainable, far more bio-energetically green.
Now, several interesting things follow, I think, from this conclusion. First, it is noteworthy that in the biblical account of creation, it is after the creation of human community – male and female God created them – that God rests, and in so doing creates peace. The Bible gets this one right: it is not good for us to be alone, and in community there is a peaceful rest which Genesis understands as a gift from God.
However, as we know human community and connection can also be the source of great distress since it is friends and lovers, those who are closest to us, who can betray us, not strangers. So if what you are saying is true, and I think that it is, then what you need are intentional communities that learn to practice forgiveness and reconciliation, which is to say practice habits of repair. And as Aristotle reminds us, it gets easier the more you do it.
In other words, you need something like the social experience of navigating life together, which was shared by the early Christian churches before Christianity was enlisted into the service of having to maintain the Roman Empire. Those early Christian communities intentionally worked at overcoming the deep ethnic and socio-economic divides – Jew and Greek, citizen and not citizen, rich and poor, male and female, and so on – among them in the simple belief that in Christ those walls had been broken down. It is something like that social experience that we need now.