“You’re back. It’s been a while.”
“I was scheduled to come with my husband. I told him I cancelled and came alone.”
“You got married!”
“It’s not that exciting, you know.”
“Well, I was wondering when it would happen for you.”
“Do I smell trouble already?”
“No. Everything is wonderful. Why, can’t I come to therapy alone? I give him everything else.”
“Hmm. Yeah. OK.”
“Fine. I am just…grieving.”
“You are always griving.”
“It’s not my fault I get attached to people. It’s just my nature.”
“You have choice. There would be no sense of loss without a sense of ownership.”
“Sounds like you know the feeling.”
“If I can quit drinking, you can quit anyone.”
“I know. I have done it a million times.”
Reading about attachment styles and therapy today and pondering on a few things. There are 4 main types of attachment styles: secure, anxious/preoccupied/resistant, avoidant and disorganized.
I find the Strange Situation experiment fascinating. Especially if you apply it to your adult relationships. It goes like this:
The infant is left alone with a stranger while the primary caregiver/attachment figure leaves the room. The the attachment figure returns. The infant’s behavior is observed. Three main patterns emerged from this experiment:
The securely attached infant becomes distressed by being with a stranger and being left, however when the parent returns they are able to soothe, re-establish the bond and move on exploring their environment without much fuss.
The anxious/resistant infant vacillates between being needy and angry towards the attachment figure for leaving. They have a hard time being soothed and moving on to exploring the environment independently.
The avoidant infant seems unfazed by the separation and appears equally indifferent to the parent returning. However, the emotional distress he/she is under is equal to the anxious infant except they don’t show it.
Now think about your current or last relationship.
What is your attachment style to them?
Is it different with different people?
And most importantly, how do you reestablish the attachment bond after a separation, may that be minor or seemingly insignificant? How does it effect your communication?
Research shows that people who are securely attached benefit significantly more from therapy which is interesting since, in therapy, we see more people with insecure attachment styles. That’s WHY they are in therapy to begin with!
As I keep thinking about this topic, I revisit my own childhood and am painfully awakened to the realization of a significant break in attachment to my main parental figures which explains a lot of my issues I have encountered in relationships as an adult. We often think of abuse or trauma during significant attachment periods (0-3 years) in extreme terms (like sexual, physical abuse), however as it turns out, even being sent away to your grandparents for a while may have a significant effect.
The good news is, your attachment style changes over time through secure/safe attachment figures into adulthood.
The question is…
What kind of attachment(s) are YOU choosing for yourself?
After years of being in the field of helping people and 32 years of human life experience (at least in this life), I have come to believe that there are 4 main pillars supporting the very painful, heavy load of human suffering.
I have written about failure before. We think in black and white terms of right vs wrong. Winning vs losing. We are social beings with an innate need to compare ourselves to others. Our happiness, misery, sense of self, sense of success, status, etc are relative to whom we compare ourselves to. We want to be on the “right side of things”. We want to be “winning” or associating with winners. No one wants to discover they are wrong. No one wants to come to the realization they are nothing but a loser. A quote from Gary North comes to mind “Do you really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, plans to be a loser in history?”
We learn very early on that the more we win the more power we have. The more right we are the more in control we feel. And human beings fiend on power and control. We also learn that winning and losing is up to us as individuals. As Vince Lombardi puts it “All right Mister, let me tell you what winning means … you’re willing to go longer, work harder, give more than anyone else.” But what if you work harder, longer and sacrifice more than anyone else but are STILL losing? Well, then there must be something else wrong with you.
Isn’t this what the American dream was built on? And what predominates today’s political debate?
Let me ask you. What happens to you when you realize you are wrong? Do you have a hard time admitting you are wrong? Are you willing to change your mind if you have to sacrifice your Ego and admit that you have been wrong all along? Do you often feel right yet still going insane?
I have found that the way we treat others who disagree with us determines a lot of our suffering, on a personal, small scale AND on a larger world-wide scale.
Kathryn Schultz says that our attachment to being right leads to treating others, who disagree with us, badly. She talks about what happens when others disagree with us, by listing “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:
- We think they are ignorant: they don’t have all the information and we are quick to provide it to them thinking once they have the information they will change their minds.
- We think they are stupid: they have all the information but somehow can’t put it together.
And when we find out that people who disagree with us have all the information and are actually smart, we resort to the most dangerous assumption of all:
- We think they are evil: and they are deliberately distorting the truth for their own malevolent purposes
My client last night asked a very poignant question about this as she was trying to decide which category her father falls into.
“Do I have to put him in one of these categories?”
” Not if your purpose is to work on your relationship with him. But yes if your purpose is to prove you are right and winning.”
And I added
“What if you are both right and both wrong?”
Some days I struggle with this too. People who know me well describe me as stubborn and opinionated. One of them once got me this card that read “Let’s save us both some time and agree that I’m always right”. My need to be right has caused me a lot of anxiety, anger, resentment and a general sense of inadequacy and impending doom that is hard to shake off. But when I get in such a state of righteousness I resort to making fun of myself. Of how I use the words steal, still and stale inappropriately and misspell steak (stake) almost 100% of the time. And reminding myself of screwing up in one major area of my life with no clue of how to make it right…And I keep this quote on my desk “Charlie Brown is the one person I identify with. C.B. is such a loser. He wasn’t even the star of his own Halloween special. “ Chris Rock.
Fear is a natural emotion, which means it comes with our DNA and is not manufactured by society. This is because we need fear to survive. Without fear we wouldn’t be able to recognize danger and prepare to fight or flight. Without fear humans would not survive as a species or evolve. Fear lives in a very primitive part of our brain, the Amygdala. The Amygdala doesn’t care who you are, rich, poor, handsome, ugly, smart, dumb, winning, losing, aware or unaware. But it’s what saves us if we are faced with a tiger or a lion. When it senses danger it releases powerful neurotransmitters that sound the alarm in your frontal cortex (which is your thinking/feeling brain) hence initiating a chemical chain reaction in the body known as the fight or flight response. Your heart starts to beat fast as it pumps more blood in your extremities, legs and arms so you can fight or run. It takes blood away from your internal organs producing a “kicked in the stomach” sensation, it slows down digestion and other unnecessary functions for immediate survival. Adrenaline is pumped through your body transforming you into Hulk who can lift a car to save a life (true story). A powerful aggressive beast we become. Or a pathetic, helpless creature who runs or hides because he realizes the enemy is more powerful. When danger dissipates, the body feels relieved, relaxed and things go back to normal. So far so good.
We are complicated animals. In everyday life we can’t always tell who or what the tiger really is. What we fear, what sends our Amygdala into overdrive sometimes is something seemingly non-threatening like traffic, the news, people who are different from us, unexpected events, illness, our own bodies or minds, our life partner, our children, our parents, loss of control, change, a drink or a drug, the object of our desire, our fantasies, and so on. Why? We have learned to associate these things/people/events with threat, physical or emotional threat. And we prepare to fight. We get all worked up. Or run and hide often in our depression or addictions. For a moment there we start to feel safer and stronger by implying various techniques like avoidance, assertiveness, playing dead, running and hiding, fighting, arguing, punishing, lying…
But the sense of safety is fleeting at best. If these people/things/events are there to stay our Amygdala is continuously in overdrive and we live in a constant state of fear. You may try to think your fear through, argue with it, bully it, numb it, hide it. But none of these things will work. The only thing that will is breathing through it. It’s that simple.
When I first came to the U.S, I was 21 and had been on a plane once. A very small one. I had no idea what to expect from a 12 hour plane ride over the Atlantic. It was very scary. Airports were scary, unknown places. I once tried to go up a downward escalator and when I had to take a bus to my terminal I think I had a small panic attack. I remember forgetting to breathe. I have no idea how I got through the experience. But I didn’t stop.
So don’t stop to face the tiger. Walk right by it. And breathe.
So much of human suffering comes from grief and loss. Especially the unspoken, unrecognized loss we grieve in the loneliness of our heart and bones. No one has to die for us to grieve. We grieve all kinds of different losses, the loss of a partner, friend, house, job, money and other material things, the loss of health, our body or mind functions, the loss of freedom and control and so on.
But what we don’t realize is that there would be no grief without attachment. In psychology attachment is defined as a bond.
“The emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver, usually a parent, not only stimulates brain growth but affects personality development and lifelong ability to form stable relationships. Neuroscientists now believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to it, and the process of forming lasting bonds is powered in part by the hormone oxytocin.”
But I’m not talking about that kind of attachment, although I believe that a similar brain process may be at work in it’s formation. What I’m referring to here is something very, very different. What Buddhism defines as
Exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something. (Exact opposite of Aversion) Because the label of “pleasant” is very relative and based upon limited information, Attachment includes an aspect of exaggeration or “projection”.
I think anyone can relate to this. I don’t need to describe it or explain it. If you’ve ever felt attached to anything or anyone you know how wonderful it feels to have them, the ecstasy, the happiness, the comfort, the sense of well-being and security. And you know how devastating it feels to lose them, the grief is crippling, you feel empty inside, all is dead and gone and there is no more beauty in the world. Because of the exaggeration innate in attachments we often feel ashamed, guilty, inadequate or weak for having them. And we often grieve in silence.
Your object of attachment determines your happiness. Or misery. If you are attached you are doomed to pain and misery because eventually everything dies and everyone leaves or changes. Don’t hold on. Recognize your attachments, tell them you love them and then let go.
I don’t mean the law of moral causation, “you get what you deserve”. Although that is somewhat implied. Karma is the “deed” or “action” that causes a whole cycle of cause and effect. I think of Karma as a pattern of repeating the same mistake over and over again. Doing the same thing over and over again although it leads to the exact same effect. If you have a victim life script going on for you “why does this always happen to me?” you may want to look at your Karma, you pattern of causality. Anyone who is addicted to something will understand this. You fall pray of the same old patterns and that determines your life story via a complicated vicious cycle of cause and effect.
If we were given a chance to live life over what would we do differently? It turns out, nothing. That is our Karma.
“My dear friend,” he says, “this trap is called life. . . . You must realize that you yourself can change nothing and that you must seek help. . . . And to live with this realization means to sacrifice something big for it. … A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something. . . . This is the law of human nature.” – The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin
But as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it “When the karma of a relationship is done, only love remains. It’s safe. Let go.”
The only way to stop Karma and get to love is to develop spirituality. I don’t mean religion. I mean the ability to get out of your head and see the big picture and realize that we are all connected. That the universe repeats itself just like we do. Karma is safe, you know the result before you start. We don’t mind bad Karma either, it’s predictable, it’s controllable. Without Karma we would feel out of control. We don’t like to try anything new and uncomfortable. It’s because we don’t realize that sometimes doing something new and different is more than just a scary experiment. Doing something new, as small and insignificant as it may seem at the moment, could be what breaks your Karmic pattern forever, what leads to a different effect which becomes the cause for something else greater than you, greater than before, greater than anyone could have ever imagined.
You are not alone. All is connected. All comes full circle.
Ultimately we can’t avoid suffering. Why would we want to? But there are four words I repeat to myself as a mantra when I am in pain, one for each pain God.
John Gottman of the University of Washington has researched thousands of couples and found that happy couples do things like show interest, being affectionate, show they care, being appreciative, show concern, are empathic, accepting towards each other, joke around and share their joy.
Emotional intimacy is key to attachment – happy couples have a sense of attachment to each other and the relationship. They feel safe with each other and are able to open up emotionally which leads to feeling connected, empathetic and feeling like they know each other well. Happy couples have a communication style that involves high disclosure. Also they are highly empathetic. It seems that empathy is the key to having an emotional connection and emotional intimacy.
Happy couples fight fairly – happy couple are not always happy, like all couples they fight and get frustrated with each other. The difference between happy couples and unhappy couples lies in their style of conflict. There are 4 types of conflictual behaviors that are corrosive for couples: escalation, invalidation, negative interpretation and withdrawal. Escalation is a communication style that feeds into the conflict and makes it more emotionally intense. Invalidation happens when a partner doesn’t acknowledge or validate the other’s experience or emotions because they are too busy wanting to be right. Negative interpretation happens when partners look for hidden motives often based on past experiences. Withdrawal leaves both parties feeling like they weren’t heard and leave the conflict unresolved. Happy couples have a respectful way of communicating which leads to feeling validated and heard.
Happy couples are friends – happy couples treat each other with love and respect, they are “partners in crime” and truly are each other’s best friend. They each have a well-defined sense of self (contrary to codependent couples) but they practice selflessness and overcome their innate narcissism for the sake of love. Each partner is also capable of subordination and consider the other’s needs as much as they consider theirs. This also includes negotiating differences, power, roles and individual pride. They also realize that they may not change everything. There may be aspects of their partner that will simply have to tolerate. This gets complicated when certain traits in the partner do not appear until certain relationship milestone like marriage, children, moving in together, etc.
Happy couples have intentional rituals – whatever the form couple’s rituals leave them feeling closer to each other. Couple time is extremely important especially after having a child or a demanding job promotion. During highly stressful times couples need to recognize the importance of taking care of their relationship, even if at times it may feel self-indulgent. Time with each other needs to become a priority because relationships often do not maintain themselves and tend to fall apart if not properly nurtured.
Happy couples respond rather than react – every relationship goes through stressful times, often from things that have nothing to do with the relationship or things that are beyond one’s control. During highly stressful times, some people get overwhelmed with emotion and react to the situation in a highly emotional way that they often later regret. Happy couples show emotional intelligence: being able to understand one’s emotions and those of others and respond to them rather than react. Responding means doing 3 things: calming down, engaging in detoxifying self-talk and adopting a non-defensive listening and speaking stance.
Are you a happy couple? How do you solve conflict? Are you empathetic towards your partner? How does stress affect your relationship?
Codependency seems to be the theme with the clients I see recently. Being codependent means you have the tendency to behave in an overly passive or caretaking way which puts your needs last and the other person’s first. This is the opposite of selfish. It’s being completely unselfish. In a harsh, competitive world filled of self-absorbed people, this would actually be great if it wasn’t so draining and didn’t leave one feeling powerless, neglected, unimportant, resentful and unhappy. Because being codependent means you are neglecting yourself in the process of caring for others. The concept generated from alcoholism in the family system theories but it does apply to other dysfunctional families.
When we are in our mother’s womb we are connected. This is for our survival. Birth is the most traumatic, forced separation we will ever experience. So traumatic in fact we continue to search for the bond with our parents (particularly our mothers) as infants. Parents often look at their children as an extension of themselves. It turns out children also tend to look at themselves as an extension of their parents, particularly when the parents either reject them or rely too much on them. When parents are overprotective or neglectful, something radical happens to our ability to individuate and separate from our parents. We grow up to be adults who don’t have a strong sense of self and easily attach to others in a way that defines us and gives us a sense of purpose. Perpetuating the proverbial umbilical cord. Is it any wonder that as partners and as parents we become our mothers and fathers?
I have found that much of human suffering revolves around our relationships with others and the balance between independence and interdependence (or lack there of).
Here’s some characteristics of codependent people:
- Difficulty identifying what they are feeling.
- Difficulty making decisions
- Judge everything they think, say or do harshly, as never “good enough.”
- Do not ask others to meet their needs or desires.
- Look to others to provide my sense of safety
- Suppress their feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.
- Compromise their own values and integrity to avoid rejection or others’ anger.
- Very sensitive to how others are feeling and feel the same
- Extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long.
- Accept sex and/or sexual attention when they want love.
- Believe displays of emotion are a sign of weakness
Somewhere along the line, growing up, we learned we are not good enough to deserve self-care, self-respect and self-love. We don’t learn this the same way we learn to tie our shoes. It’s a subtle and often unintentional message. Did your parents really put you first? I mean, yes, they loved you. They provided for you. They gave you life but do you owe them for it? We’re so loyal to our parents. And we can’t bare the thought that they may have inadvertently created our problems now. Because we tend to internalize everything, we tend to think all that is happened is ultimately our fault. If this is you, most likely you’re a wonderful person who simply needs to learn how to truly and fully love oneself just like you love everybody else.
To start here’s a great book if you’d like to read more “Boundaries and relationships: knowing, protecting, and enjoying the self” By Charles L. Whitfield. Take the “Check my boundaries” test.
“You mean to tell me doc that the source of all my suffering is not having been hugged enough as a baby?!”
Attachment (particularly with mothers) affects future self-esteem, independence, resilience when faced with stressful situations, emotional regulation, long term relationships with family and friends, trust, intimacy, affection, hope for the future, academic success and the ability to bond with their own children.
I’m telling you, this stuff is no joke!
Oh no…NOT more theory!
Before 1950, the main thinking on child rearing was based on this quote:
“Never hug and kiss your kids, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.”(John Watson, 1928)
1937-1940: Combined efforts of psychiatrist David M. Levy and pediatrician Harry Bakwin told parents that their babies were actually starved for affection (“Primary Affect Hunger”) and if they lack human contact they may even die of “failure to thrive”.
What is one to do?? Simple. Hug your babies, but discipline you kids.
What age are your children too BIG to hug or sit on your lap? Answer carefully! My mom would say, never (although not sure that’s such a healthy thing).
In 1951 Bowlby introduced a novel way of thinking. He studied homeless children from many cultures and discovered that considerable early deprivation resulted with the following consequences in children:
– An absence of empathy,
– Inability to modulate emotion and thus were unable to give and receive affection
– Conduct disorders
– Attentional deficits.
Sounds like all the teenagers I know. Let’s blame the mothers!
Here’s why this is worth me writing about it and you reading it: When these children became parents, they passed on these traits to their children thereby creating intergenerational cycles of parents that would be unable to form close relationships—and of children who would become abusive, neglectful parents.
1960’s: Mary Ainsworth studies the mother’s attachment style and found that mothers of secure children provided a positive, reliable source of attachment so their babies received affection, were fed on demand and were attended to quickly when they started to cry.
The mothers of the anxiously attached babies showed much less ability to be sensitive or attuned to their baby’s needs, thus leaving the child with inconsistent fulfillment. Mothers of ambivalent babies were inconsistent, unpredictable, often angry and rejecting.
Here’s my take on the three types of insecure attachment.
1. Insecurely/anxiously attached children, as adults, behave in ways that perpetuated the rejection and hostility. –
“I hate you, don’t leave me” a.k.a the borderline type. He/she will most likely get addicted to opiates, and/or alcohol. They are more likely to develop process addictions like tumultuous relationships, sex and gambling. If no addiction is present, violent swings between depression and mania may be present with dramatic displays designed to get attention.
2. Ambivalent children yearn for a connection but alienate others by their clinging and neediness. They act helpless in order to elicit care, try desperately to get their mother’s attention and are chronically anxious about how mother will respond to them. –
“Don’t leave me” a.k.a the dependent type. He/she will love painkillers, tranquilizers, barbiturate, even maybe food and…is probably still living with mom or looking for a surrogate mother in their partner. If no addiction is present, then the main problem will be low-self esteem, poor boundaries, passivity in relationships, difficulty self-soothing and low tolerance for loneliness (which will lead to poor decisions).
3. Avoidant children are angry about the rejection but unable to be honest and direct because they fear this may lead to even more rejection. They’re “shut down” and avoid interactions that involve attachment needs resulting in a detached, “I don’t care” attitude. They typically act out their anger towards others in passive-aggressive ways. –
“I don’t care!” a.k.a the antisocial type. He/she doesn’t really care for drugs much (except for maybe trying anything at least once) but highly unlikely to get addicted. Crimes are a way better thrill. Also this is your typical narcissist, selfish, self-absorbed, ego-maniac.
Parents, listen up!!
Don’t tell your kids:
- Don’t be (don’t exist)
- Don’t be who you are
- Don’t be a child
- Don’t grow up
- Don’t make it in your life
- Don’t do anything!
- Don’t be important
- Don’t belong
- Don’t be close
- Don’t be well (don’t be sane!)
- Don’t think
- Don’t feel.
- Don’t cry.