#6 Finding Secure Attachment

Jonathan Borba Unsplash

A consumer wrote this. I’ll call her Joan:

How can adults who have never had safe secure attachment, meet these needs and become healthy well adjusted adults? If we are not able to see a good therapist because of being too debilitated by complex trauma to be able to work and therefore have benefits to pay for good therapy. There must be some way for us to help ourselves heal, but how??

Most government funded programs end up doing more harm than good because of how you get kicked around and never able to build it with a worker, or if you get lucky enough to be assigned to someone good, corrupt management purposely destroys your trust and attachment as soon you start to build it with a front line worker.

Eventually after enough years we are going to give up on the system because it will never help us truly heal. But what then? 

Far to many times, I have heard this experience from comments to my blog and from patients. That is one big reason for launching a training program, but this consumer deserves the best answer I can give.

Mistrust and Self Protection

The Affect Avoidance Model says that entrenched maladaptive patterns are the result of our mind’s automatic, instinctive (and even sometimes conscious) avoidance of actual or predicted pain. The pain of being betrayed is most easily prevented by a powerful resolve not to trust anyone.

Trust vs. Need

Here is where it gets complicated. Children, especially, have a powerful drive to find fulfillment of the emotional needs that will help them grow and develop. That means depending on others at the same time as avoiding trust.

The result of these conflicting needs is to seek support from others but doing so in ways that are self-protective. Unfortunately, these lead to more painful experiences. Here are some that come to mind:

  • Seeking people who are familiar in that they resemble family. Of course these tend to be people who are dysfunctional and not trustworthy themselves.
  • Seeking people who are equally dysfunctional, and therefore who will understand me and not be rejecting.
  • Approaching relationship with caution and avoiding full trust. This is the avoidance attachment style. If the other person is potentially trustworthy, they feel good when trusted. Sadly that good feeling is what makes them want to interact and it is missing. This leads to the other person reciprocating caution, which leads to feelings of disappointment and further self-negation. This kind of interaction has negative effects, not only in the social realm, but at work also, and leads to some of the work failures mentioned by Joan.
  • Another form of insecure attachment is to be anxious and clingy. Fortunately this gives many therapists positive feelings, at least at first. The problem is that, over time, the therapist’s simply being reliable does not decrease the mistrust. The patient may test even more drastically or escalate demands in the hope of finding proof that trust is safe. The result is the opposite. The therapist withdraws, either emotionally or, much more damaging, drops the patient. I’ll talk about how to have a different outcome below.
  • The patient seeks safety by looking, not for real connection and appreciation, but through “tokens” of love. Extra time, money, willingness to cross boundaries, other extraordinary gifts. The therapist may, out of their own weakness, forget that the understanding and empathy they naturally give is actually the most valuable thing they can give. They may mislead themselves into thinking that “proof” of love will cure the lack of love. It doesn’t.

Perhaps you know of more variations. I’m sure there are.

Problems With “the System”

It’s true that capitalism and many other systems of government tend to apply cost cutting preferentially to their “safety net.” Abuse and neglect are more prevalent than individual generosity. This is what we seem to live with. My personal answer is to make training as accessible as possible to the widest range of therapists. I believe that inadequate training tends to lead therapists to revert to just being “nice people,” and that is not good enough when it comes to complex trauma. That’s why I hope that making these principles easy to understand and accessible can be of benefit to therapists who have found traditional theories too complex to be easily absorbed.

The Answer: Thoughtful Risk Taking

Joan ends her letter with those words, “What then?” The only answer I know is risk, thoughtful emotional risk taking. This is very hard to do, and much harder when the inner child or instinctive mind is doing everything possible to avoid risk. The answer is to identify people who are healthy, to overcome internal barriers to taking graduated risks, and to be very careful in evaluating the results. There are plenty of trustworthy people, but they have limits. Inevitably, some, hopefully a minority, of risks will not turn out well. That is why the risk level should be increased by small steps. Even then, it is critical to be ready for failure and to avoid giving up entirely. What is happening is that we are repeatedly providing positive antidotes to predictions of hurt. We are generating experiences of risk being rewarded.

Why “Proof” Doesn’t Work:

This is why “proof” doesn’t work. Proof doesn’t require any risk. Testing is done with a readiness and expectation of failure. A positive result does not change the expectation of likely pain while a negative result reconfirms what was expected. There is no surprise, and therefore not opportunity for the juxtaposition of fear with positive surprise that are the conditions for Memory Reconsolidation and permanent change in the direction of secure attachment.

Getting Help:

Of course, as hopeful as thoughtful risk taking is, it is very hard to do. It takes a lot of mental clarity and self-honesty to overcome automatic protections. Having some kind of partner is very helpful. Even better, if both parties are familiar with what is happening, they may be able to discuss this operation intellectually, before putting it into action. Talk, here, is a way of lowering the level of danger by imagining the possibilities before trying them out. Intellect won’t bring about change, but can increase safety and make it possible to go ahead.

Leave a Comment