Therapy Through an Attachment Lens
Attachment theory lies at the heart of my trauma practice and approach to treatment. In a nutshell, attachment theory looks to our early interactions with caregivers that have significant impact on adult coping skills and form the blueprint of our identity and how we relate to others. Fundamental to this approach is how we interact with others which is one of the reasons we work with group therapy alongside individual sessions. Our identity, emotional regulation, self-perception and our perception of others are keenly influenced in the context of supportive others. If we develop without that underlying need to feel seen and heard, part of belonging, this can have a significant impact on our ability to manage stress, hold a positive regard for our Self and others. Many find themselves in negative feedback loops and experiences as a result.
Attachment and Trauma
Many individuals who are new to therapy frame their concerns around specific issues that they have difficulty solving. This makes total sense. However, they often seek intellectualized solutions that may provide temporary relief, but don’t address underlying issues. Attachment concerns may not necessarily be perceived as classic trauma, but both relate to nervous system reactivity to perceived threat. We may not think of a partner and our communication issues as signaling “threat,” but the body does not operate and respond to cues from our environment the same way as our thinking brain. Hence, this is why a trauma therapist skilled in supporting PTSD also works with attachment concerns. How we regulate and relate are intertwined.
Affect and Attachment
Attachment is the lens through which we understand ourselves and relationships with others (something vital to couples work). It is also connected to affect regulation, i.e. how we regulate. In other words, attachment has everything to do with Self, regulating and relating. Independence is all well and good, but how we connect to others has a major impact on our overall resilience.
Indeed, secure attachment is a significant way in which we can help heal trauma. (For more information on PTSD, complex trauma, please click here). Trauma splits us from our natural abilities where we lose our inner compass. Secure attachment helps facilitate the transformational process that is inherent in all of us to better tolerate all of our experiences.
Feeling Safe is The Pathway to Connection
Much of our distress results from the paradoxical conflict we perceive between safety and connection: connection makes us feel vulnerable and safety creates distance between ourselves and others. How do we accomplish both? We do this by learning how to develop secure attachment. We are designed to have the capability to do both no matter where we fall on the attachment spectrum.
“Many symptoms revealed in therapy stem from inner “protest” resulting from separation or disconnection from secure others. Disconnect can be one of the most devastating events affecting humans. We build resilience when we can turn to another in times of distress to make sense of the traumatic.”
Attunement Trust & Connection
The following descriptions are helpful in understanding some of our behaviors and coping, but they are by no means comprehensive descriptions. In real life, much of our behavior is nuanced and lies on a continuum or is situation specific. Attachment “styles” are better understood as attachment strategies that are ways in which we respond to the distress associated with disconnection from the attachment figures in our life.
Secure Attachment. When we have consistent caregiving, we are able to approach life with greater flexibility from a place of compassion, calm and capability. Our relationship to our inner self exudes confidence and self-trust which also manifests in our relationship with others.
Avoidant Attachment. When that early caregiving experience lacks attentive presence or is neglectful, some people never gain traction regarding the skills they need to navigate relationships and deal with the inevitable conflicts that can occur among others because we are not identical and have differences. That core of trust that feeds relationships and creates confidence is often lacking. The normal process of repair holds potential for the real or imaginary threat of shame, humiliation, rejection, criticism. Lacking the capacity or knowledge of such repair, individuals tend to avoid intimacy or fail to appreciate the significance of relationships through their own acts of blame or anticipatory rejection. They expect to be rejected all the time, push people away, set impossibly high expectations and can mistake social cues. They might find everyday interactions overwhelming on account of their hypervigilance and reactivity to perceived rejection.
Ambivalent Attachment. Inconsistent caregiving resulting from volatile or distracted caregivers can impact individuals who develop anxiety, doubt and insecurity in their relationships and manifest low self-esteem and self-worth. This can result in dependency and approval seeking. They are often described as “overly needy.” Sometimes individuals with this attachment style can be preoccupied by others and find it difficult to set boundaries. Others’ boundaries can provoke panic, fear of rejection and abandonment. Guilt, excessive caretaking and various forms of controlling or manipulative behavior might be used to try to keep others close. Because these individuals often seek reassurance in their relationships, they can be trying on other individuals thereby making rejection a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fearful/Avoidant Attachment. This attachment style (known as “disorganized” in attachment theory when it applies to children) is marked by inconsistency in behavior and deep distrust of others. It often reflects caregiving that became a source of fear for the developing child. In some instances, the child’s needs were not met at all. Adults who experienced this type of caregiving, may have lacked the capacity to adapt to the interaction with caregiver in a way to get their needs met and determine a consistent pattern of behavior.
This might manifest as “push/pull” behavior in which there is a strong need for intimacy that is followed by pushing those closest away. Signs of disorganized attachment include frequent dysregulation, fear of hurt and abandonment, hypervigilance, difficulty trusting others, splitting behavior (“love you/hate you”), instability in relationships, alternating between being distant and clingy.
Group therapy is one of the best ways to develop the relational skills needed to restore or build secure attachment. Click here to learn more about some of our current groups focused on helping you develop relational health.
What attachment style best describes Your Comfort Zone and relationships?
In adulthood, romantic partners are our most important attachment figures for support, comfort and reassurance. However, not every romantic partner is a suitable attachment figure.
The process of evolving to an attachment figure depends on the availability and commitment regarding comfort, support and relief in times of need and development of a felt sense of safety. This takes active nurturing and the ability to make repair in times of disconnect. It is demonstrated by the ability to resume other non-attachment activities as a result of reliance on comforting mental images and thoughts of our romantic partners and also ability to manage threats in their absence.
(Adapted from Mikulincer & Shaver, 2004).
How do We Heal Relational Trauma?
Developing Secure Attachment
It’s wonderful to start out in life in a family that provides the nurturing and attentive environment conducive to secure attachment. That’s a head start upon which we create a relational template for our other relationships. The process of attunement presumed in that caregiving relationship helps us develop an internal sense of what to anticipate from our peer and adult relationships. That “sense” lives in our nervous system and is projected onto our later experiences.
What if we don’t get that “great” start in life?
Fortunately, perfect parenting isn’t the only path to secure attachment. In fact, “good enough” parenting in which we make mistakes, initiate ways to honor those mistakes and repair is, well, good enough. Beyond this, even if parenting is less than “good enough,” parenting isn’t the only path to secure attachment and there’s room for “catch-up.”
Most parents do the best they can and we can shift from early disruptions to learn how to build what is missing. It’s never too late.
In therapy we learn:
- How to transition (e.g. separation stress).
- To repair disconnections.
- To relax while in connection.
- Rituals around safety
- How to really set boundaries.
Post Traumatic Growth
The concept of Posttraumatic growth embraces the new meaning and positive psychological change that comes from healing. This change goes beyond dissipation of symptoms to reach new ways of integrating spiritual principles and core values in ways that promote resilience as well as personal, community and societal healing.
It is not unusual that such healing shines new light on our relationships and sense of purpose. What does this look like? It’s dramatic for some as they change their focus in life, seek new jobs or relationships. It can also bring greater meaning to current relationships.
EFIT-Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy
EFIT is a wonderful approach to healing trauma that might seem counterintuitive in that it centers on the core vulnerabilities that underly many of the coping strategies that may work in the moment, but end up over the long haul confining us to repeated negative cycles which undermine our sense of Self and our relationships with others. Many clients enter treatment having read up on attachment styles, but can’t seem to put this knowledge into new and adaptive ways of being or interacting. EFIT developed by the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy , uses attachment science to help develop secure attachment by deepening your tolerance for emotions and helping you work through them rather than around.
EFIT is Different from Conventional Talk Therapy
Many clients believe that providing information and data is essential for processing. However, many “solutions” and insights developed that way are soon forgotten after the session and not always helpful in reshaping habitual responses in the moment. EFIT may feel different from such approaches as the therapist takes into consideration non-verbal as well as verbal cues that are shared by the client, even subconsciously, and helps facilitate the client’s expression of core emotional experiences on the path to emotional balance. It is our emotional shifts that help shape our identity and new behaviors.
Click here to learn more about attachment, trauma, community healing and posttraumatic growth.